November 10, 2014, by Katharine Adeney

South Asia’s hydrological moment with China

Written by Uttam Kumar Sinha.

The countries of South Asia face, with alarming regularity, the twin blights of drought and floods. The management of hydro resources is a critical challenge for South Asia, one that requires a different political outlook and a focus on water. This change of aspect clearly brings into attention the Himalayan and Tibetan watersheds, which have the largest accumulation of snow and glaciers outside the Poles and where for almost a quarter of the world’s population, water-related benefits and fears intersect. The mighty Asian rivers like the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Huang He, Indus, Mekong, Salween and Yangtze that originate from the Himalayan-Tibetan glaciers provide much of the drinking water and irrigation to the vast populations of China, India, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan.

South Asian countries have traditionally been defined as having historical and cultural commonalities and shared interests; and politically constructed through South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in which India, by the virtue of its size, location and economic potential, assumes a natural leadership role. But what is often ignored is that South Asia as a concept is common sense; of rationality that requires opening windows of opportunities to well being and prosperity. This will require a re-conceptualisation of South Asia in which China, as an upper riparian, plays an important role and in which India, as a lower riparian, has concerns over water uses with China; and as an upper riparian vis-à-vis Pakistan and Bangladesh, has continued responsibility of sharing waters. While China’s hydrological position is one of upper riparian advantage, India’s middle riparian position, increases its dependency on the head waters of the rivers sources such as the Brahmaputra, Indus, and Sutlej, which originate in the Tibetan plateau. Rather than being in a hydrological hiatus, the interconnected dependency, risks and vulnerabilities in the Himalaya and Tibetan plateau should be seen as a hydrological moment – convergence of sensible state politics and policies with water issues. India and China will be central to this re-conceptualisation.

From a hydrological perspective China cannot be ignored by the South Asian regional configuration. China is a water insecure nation with uneven distribution of waters within its territory, the majority of which is in the south (Tibet Autonomous Region). It is expected to face 25 per cent supply gap for projected water demand by 2030. More than anything else, the water shortage becomes an impediment to China’s goal of meeting energy production and challenges the leadership claims to self-sufficiency in food grains. China’s dams and water diversions are an important component of its political and social stability. Clearly then China’s water policies is bound to affect South Asian countries and a new regional approach would require engagement and dialogue with China.

Hydrological traction with China becomes even more critical with new scientific evidences and observations of global warming on the Himalayan and Tibetan glaciers. There are, according to studies conducted, 7000 glaciers covering 100,000 sq km in the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau. While it is hard to predict whether the glaciers will disappear altogether, it is generally concluded that many of them are shrinking fast particularly the eastern and central Himalayan glaciers. The melting season begins earlier and last longer so to speak. Various on field observation and satellite imagery studies claim a strong connection between the weakening monsoon and the retreating glaciers in the Himalaya. Glaciers and monsoons are natural lifeline of rivers. The former impacts the upper reaches where the river originates and the latter affect the downstream areas. It is during the times of weak monsoons that the glaciers become the significant provider of continuous river flow. Himalayan glaciers will play a significant part in the flow pattern of the transboundary rivers in South Asia. Worse, geohazards like glacier-lake expansion, and glacial lake outburst flood will threaten the livelihoods and wellbeing of millions downstream.

As river water levels become far less predictable through changes in glacial sources, altered precipitation patterns and deforestation, the debate over dams will intensify in South Asia particularly as China will build more and more on the Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). The question is not to be anti or pro-dam or that anti-dam is anti-development but to understand its rationality. Importantly it should not be left only to the civil engineers to determine the decision. Wider inquiry and contribution that includes new knowledge on climatology, seismological and glaciological should be brought into the decision-making along with local sensitivity and understanding.

In the light of these ongoing geophysical changes in the Himalayan and Tibetan regions, there are good reasons as to why the UN Watercourses Convention (in force since August 17, 2014) is significant for South Asia. First, given the water attention and the food-energy connection, the convention may provide the political push for states in South Asia. This surely must be taken up at the SAARC summit in Kathmandu in November this year. Second, the convention offers a good basis for further water dialogues particularly in strengthening the architecture and regimes that exists and bringing in new approaches and addressing gaps at the basin and sub-basin level. Third, the convention can synergise with other larger environmental conventions like climate change, wetland protection, desertification and biodiversity to bring a holistic understanding to the region. Fourth, issues like data sharing and emergency situation can now be looked at with fresh perspective and practicality. It must be remembered that all water agreements in the region are bilateral, even where more than two states share a particular watercourse, the UN Watercourse Convention may drive countries in the region to think on multi-basin arrangements and management making China inclusive to it.

Water is a friendly element only if one is familiar with it. South Asia and China together through sensible and practical riparian engagements can prove many west-driven fears wrong that water will be a future flashpoint.

Uttam Kumar Sinha is a Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi and holds an adjunct position at the Malaviya Centre for Peace Research, Benares Hindu University. Image credit: CC by Kiril Rusev/Flickr.

Posted in Water Security