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Water and Human Security in Central-South Asia

IES fellow Michael Renner speaks about the issue of access to water in south Asia
20 July 2010

Water and Human Security in Central-South Asia  - ImageThe quantity and quality of available water play a crucial role in the politics of central-south Asia, and more specifically the Indus and Amu Darya water basins. Access to clean drinking water is a major, though largely unmet, objective and poor management lies at the heart of many problems.

Many areas in the region are already experiencing physical water shortages ? recent studies estimate per capita water availability in the densely-populated Indus basin at around 1,000 cubic metres per year ? and climate change will only exacerbate this.

The region?s water challenges do not inevitably lead to armed conflict. Unalleviated, however, they threaten to undermine human security and bring different communities into dispute. Cooperative approaches have been sparse and institutional structures in the region remain fragmented. Yet cooperation will be critical for the region to meet its water challenges in the years and decades ahead.

In Afghanistan, three decades of armed conflict have displaced a large portion of the population, impeded access to farmland, and destroyed irrigation systems. The livelihoods of at least 80% of the population are agriculture-related, but poorly constructed canals translate into water losses as high as 70%.

Recurring drought and floods have led to the loss of rural livelihoods and food insecurity. These desperate conditions have triggered local conflicts and migration to cities. Water contamination has become a severe public health threat, owing to poor waste management practices and a pervasive lack of modern sanitation.

The nations sharing the Amu Darya are locked into seemingly irreconcilable sets of interests. Tajikistan and Afghanistan look to the river for hydropower as well as irrigation while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan depend heavily on the river to irrigate their cotton, rice, and wheat fields.

Upstream, Tajikistan releases reservoir water in the winter months to generate hydropower for heating, frequently causing downstream flooding and damage to infrastructure. In the summer months, it builds up its reservoirs ? at precisely the time when the irrigation needs of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are most acute. All these countries plan to increase water extraction, which may exacerbate tensions.

In Pakistan and India, extensive irrigation is also placing Indus basin water resources under heavy stress, with about 90% of the available flow utilised. Overpumping and inefficient irrigation has caused sharply declining groundwater levels and salinisation of agricultural lands. Pakistan?s per capita water availability is forecast to fall to a critically low level of just 800 cubic metres annually by 2020. Although millions of Pakistanis do not have access to safe drinking water, the government spends 47 times as much on the military budget as on water and sanitation.

Rising water demand in the region is causing trans-border issues as well as internal conflicts. Although the 1960 Indus Water Treaty offers an important dispute arbitration mechanism, India and Pakistan need to increase their collaboration on watershed stewardship.

Climate change will dramatically raise the challenges in central and south Asia?including reduced rainfall and runoff, increased heat stress, drought and desertification. Glacier melt will have serious consequences for the drinking water supplies of hundreds of millions of people, as well as for hydropower generation. Significant changes to monsoon patterns are also expected.

The governance systems for much of the region?s water are challenged by conflicting interests, mutual suspicions and a reluctance to cooperate, as well as the lack of an overarching institutional structure. One of the most pressing needs is greater efficiency in water use. Better watershed management, rainwater harvesting, urban water conservation, investments in sanitation, and more integrated planning are vitally important.

Michael Renner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C. and senior advisor to the Institute for Environmental Security in Brussels.

A full version of this report was first published in December 2009 by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre, Oslo.

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