Playing Politics with South Asian Water
The perception of insecurity in South Asia is today more marked than before, and water appears to be a key component of this new insecurity.
In the 1990s, water may become the key issue in the security debates in the Sub-continent for a number of reasons. First, the dam age potential of water-related calamities is on the rise. The frequency and intensity of natural disasters like flooding and drought, as well as of disasters induced by human activity such as waterlogging, salinity, pollution, and those arising from the interference with watercourses, have had a most telling effect on the region’s economies and the morale of its peoples. The material damage and loss of life is so prohibitive in social and economic terms, that environmental insecurity is now a critical concern, acquiring a degree of political urgency the regional governments can no longer ignore.
Second, the drive for industrialisation will gain greater urgency throughout the Sub-continent, and it will require a relatively inexpensive and clean source of energy. The largely untapped hydroelectric potential of the Himalayan region could create the domestic energy substitute Nepal and Bhutan need so urgently to arrest deforestation, as well as provide export energy to the entire region; India’s demand for electricity is estimated to grow more than 5,000 megawatt per annum in the coming decades.
Third, water is a critical resource in the development of agriculture and food production, neither of which has kept pace with the rate of growth in population. The region’s irrigation potential is yet to be fully realised, and food production must match demand if the governments of the region are to attain any degree of immunity from internal dislocations and external influence. And, fourth, the domestic requirement of water already exceeds domestic availability, and this will surely worsen if population continues to increase at present rates. For these and other reasons, water will assume increasing significance in the coming years.
However, the politics of water utilisation in the Sub-continent suggests a number of disturbing trends. At the regional level, water politics seems to be acquiring strategic significance. A case in Point is Rajiv Gandhi’s linking of Indian assistance to resolve Bangladesh’s flood problem With the latter’s commitment to resolve the tribal disturbances in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Such a willingness to employ water as a bargaining chip can only be disruptive to inter-State relations in the long run. Additionally, the inability to resolve contentious water issues bilaterally ‘has paved the way for their internationalisation in various world forums. This is a sad commentary on the political wisdom and diplomacy of the regional governments.
USURPED BY BUREAUCRACY
There are disturbing trends at the national level as well. First, there is the tendency to deny the importance of multilateral cooperation on water usage, and to assert the primacy of bilateral cooperation. While bilateralism has its merits, it cannot supplant the need for a regional plan for the most effective and beneficial use of the Subcontinent’s water resources. As long as the importance of multilateral cooperation is not recognised, water utilisation will remain unilateral, inefficient, inequitable and conflictual.
Second, the issue of water utilisation appears to have been effectively usurped by the concerned bureaucracies. The “bureaucratisation” of water usage has become a major hurdle. Rajiv Gandhi’s willingness to explore various dimensions of the water problem immediately after coming into power, and his subsequent change of heart, prove that the political will remains hostage to the bureaucratic will.
Third, the issue of water utilisation appears to have important motivated political use. For example, any suggestion of willful interference with the water-flow by a neighbour who appears less than benign, or blame for the failure to reach bilateral agreements placed on the intransigence of …-intentioned neighbour, can have considerable political utility for the government in power.
Hussain Mohammad Ershad’s public stance that the damage potential of the flood waters of 1988 might have been mitigated if there had been the right mix of concern and commitment in the upper riparian region appeared to strengthen his government’s credibility in the eyes of the non-secular forces within the country. The full impact of this manifested in the enhanced ability of Ershad’s government to deal as it saw fit with the opposition democratic forces arrayed against it, in the salience of the religious forces in the country, and in the reordering of the domestic balance of power. All these helped consolidate an administration that was suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. While such internal consolidation may increase a country’s negotiating strength, more significant is the extent to which water politics can influence domestic politics.
And, finally, the politics of water utilisation can also have a considerable political impact at the local level. Decisions on the selection of sites for major water-related investments, the quantum and procedure for the allocation of water and derived benefits, and so on, have in direct and indirect ways affected ethnic relations (for example, the Kaptai Dam and the Bengali-tribal relations in South-East Bangladesh), power relations (Bangladesh’s tussle with West Bengal over the Ganga waters, or with Assam over the waters of the Brahmaputra), questions of economic equity (East Punjab’s share of benefits from its own water resources), and questions of political priority (the trade-off between industrial and agricultural needs).
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
The questions that face South Asian leaders are: how to resolve the existing water disputes? How to negotiate an agreement that maximises benefits to be derived from the region’s water resources? And, how to achieve equitable distribution of benefits?
There is need for “new thinking” that transcends nationalistic constraints. Perceptions of security must be remoulded, with the focus shifting from the nation-state to the individual. “Security” should mean more than purely military concerns. The notions of unilateral security must be replaced by one of “common security” encompassing the whole region. International relations cannot continue to be seen as a zero-sum game, where gain for one is loss for the other. In South Asia, security for one community, one people must create grounds for the security of others.
“Windows of opportunity” for progress in water resources sharing are few and far in between. Changes in governments, as is happening today in South Asia, appear to provide the best opportunity for constructive engagements. The political will must establish its primacy over bureaucratic and technical obstacles. South Asia has politicians in abundance; alas, we need statesmen.
Hassan, who is from Bangladesh, is presently a research fellow with the Canadian Institute for International Peace and Security, Toronto.