For over a decade, experts have warned that while the battles of yesterday were fought over land and resources, the wars of tomorrow will be over water. Growing population pressure, the havoc caused by climate change, and total mismanagement of water systems have led to extreme water scarcity in large parts of the world.
“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water — unless we change our approach to managing this precious and vital resource,” said Ismail Serageldin, former Vice President of World Bank, in 1995.
Unfortunately, there has been no change in the attitude of governments or the larger society. Asia, specifically the Indian sub-continent with its teeming population pressure, will be among the water-crisis hotspots. River systems do not respect geographical boundaries and trans-border rivers depend on the cooperation of all countries sharing water. Treaties are only as good as the willingness of states to implement the provisions laid down by the signatories.
A study by European Commission’s Joint Research Centre points out that as the pressure on scarce water grows, it will trigger intense rivalry between countries, leading to regional instability and social unrest. Experts use the term ‘hydro-political issues’ to describe the tussle for water between nations. The study identified five rivers where the situation could flare up. The three of them are in Asia — The Ganga, Brahmaputra, and the Indus. The rivers Nile, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado are also identified as potential trigger points.
The rumblings between India and Pakistan have already begun over the Indus Waters Treaty, with New Delhi firing the first salvo and calling for the amendment of certain provisions of the 1960 agreement. Pakistan has to respond in 90 days. India will wait before taking the next step. Asking for a relook at certain clauses is one thing, but walking out of the agreement could have much larger international repercussions
With India-Pakistan ties at an all-time low since 2016, there have been calls from several people in the ruling establishment —including in the larger eco-system of the Sangh Parivar— to scrap the Indus Water agreement. However, New Delhi is unlikely to do so, considering the emphasis being laid on a rule-based international order, popularised by the Americans for China’s muscle flexing in the South China Sea as well as the larger Indo-Pacific region. As a responsible member of the international community and the host of this year’s G-20 Summit, New Delhi is unlikely to pull out of the treaty that has stood the test of time. Asking for modification is one thing but walking away from an agreement is a different kettle of fish altogether. One is not sure what New Delhi will finally do, but these are critical considerations it will take into account.
Meanwhile, New Delhi’s neighbours will be watching the situation with keen interest. India shares rivers with Bangladesh, Nepal, and China. All three countries would follow the proceedings of the Indus Water Treaty fracas to get a hint of how India aims to deal with the situation.