Water Woes and Wars

Water Woes and Wars
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When a natural resource turns into a deadly dispute

THE FLARE-UP in Karnataka over the sharing of water from the Cauvery river has the markings of an annual ritual. Every year, during the scarce season, release of water to Tamil Nadu—the lower riparian state—leads to a confrontation in the state’s border districts. Viewed thus, this seems to be no more than a squabble over resources.

Except that all states in peninsular India are involved in some water-sharing dispute or the other with their neighbours. There are similar fights elsewhere in the country; Punjab and Haryana have been in a running battle for water since the two states were separated 50 years ago.

What is being witnessed in India is tame by global standards. Water, viewed dispassionately, is a deadly resource. If one looks at the map of the world and pinpoints disputes and wars, it is not surprising that some of the worst affected ‘hot spots’ are also water-scarce regions and those where river systems have to be shared by a number of countries. The best example perhaps is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Cast away the political and religious conflict, and the fight is largely over water: Gaza Strip has a total of 0.06 cubic km per year of water availability, and Israel, 1.67 cubic km per year. By these standards, India is in the lap of luxury with 1,897 cubic km per year. Bear in mind that India has an incomparably larger population to support, though.

One reason for the failure to prevent these conflicts is the absence of effective institutional mechanisms to handle the sharing of this scarce resource. This is an important factor in preventing wars solely on its account. India and Pakistan have fought four wars, but not one over water. In spite of the claims of India allegedly cheating it of its share of river waters, Pakistan has always—even during war—received its share of water from rivers originating in India. The Indus Water Treaty of 1960 has ensured peace on this frontier.

But these two estranged neighbours are an exception. Countries like China refuse to be ‘tied down’ to any such cooperative arrangement. The result is a Hobbesian free-for-all in rivers the Middle Kingdom shares with its neighbours, the Brahmaputra and the Mekong. The future of the areas adjoining these rivers—and in other such systems across the world—is bleak. They are at high risk of being caught between deluge and drought.