History has often proved that the vital nature of freshwater provides a powerful incentive for cooperation
By Asma Rashid
Faced with increasing population, growing food demand and climate change, water is becoming a progressively scarce and fluctuating resource. As a result, there has been an increasing competition between countries vis-à-vis their right to water. River basins shared by more than one country cover over 45 percent of the world's land surface area. Currently, 263 trans-boundary or international river basins are being shared by two or more countries. Reservoirs of freshwater also move silently below international borders in underground aquifers. Currently, there are more than 270 known trans-boundary aquifers.
In this context, sustainable development and management of water resources are the major short- and long-term challenges. Global warming, which is changing the rainfall patterns and increasing the risk of water-related disasters like floods and droughts, is further worsening the situation. Moreover, glaciers and ice fields – the immense reservoirs of freshwater stored in the world's mountainous and polar regions – are also melting at a fast speed.
It is projected that 1.8 billion people would be living without enough water by 2025, thus competition over this precious resource could become an increasing source of tension – and even conflict – between countries. "Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict. If all the world's peoples work together, a secure and sustainable water future can be ours," opined Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations.
An international day to celebrate freshwater was recommended at the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The UN General Assembly responded by designating March 22, 1993, as the first World Water Day. Thereafter, this day is celebrated every year to focus attention on the importance of freshwater and to advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources. This year, the theme of the World Water Day is 'Shared Water – Shared Opportunities' and special focus has been placed on trans-boundary waters.
The objective emphasised is that nurturing the opportunities for cooperation in trans-boundary water management can help build mutual respect, understanding and trust between countries, as well as promote peace, security and sustainable economic growth. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) leads the activities of the World Water Day 2009, with the collaboration of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
One of the major aims of water management is to continually reconcile the competing interests of all water users – be they individuals, corporations, interest groups or sovereign entities. The management of water-related conflicts, confrontations, competitions and cooperation is, thus, part of water resource management in its broadest sense. This may range from overseeing peaceful cooperation between users of a resource to facilitating negotiation of disputes between countries. Though shared water resources may be a source of conflict, their joint management should be strengthened and facilitated to promote cooperation between the users.
The World Water Day holds great significance for Pakistan. Melting water from the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindukush glaciers contributes more than 60 to 70 percent to the flows of the Indus River System. The agrarian economy of Pakistan – with about 90 percent of the land being arid, semi-arid or hyper-arid – depends largely on this water for irrigation. The trans-boundary Indus River System has been a hotspot between India and Pakistan since the partition. In 1960, the Indus Water Treaty facilitated by the World Bank, provided the basis for dividing the waters of the Indus Basin Rivers between India and Pakistan.
The Indus Water Treaty gave three eastern rivers – Ravi, Sutlej and Beas – to India and three western rivers – Sindh, Jhelum and Chenab – to Pakistan. As an upper riparian, India is allowed specific uses of water from these rivers, but such projects should not curtail downstream flow in any manner. The generation of hydel electricity is one such use, but it is a highly circumscribed privilege: there should be no reduction of water flow to Pakistan. However, against the provisions of the treaty, India's Baghliar Dam project has badly affected water flows to the Chenab river, thus the venture has resulted in conflict and heightened tension between the two countries.
Another dimension to the issue of trans-boundary water management is that of climate change and global warming. The ever-increasing concern of glacier depletion due to global warming, resulting in decreased flows, threatens agricultural economies in particular. There is a consensus in the scientific community that the Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than glaciers in any other part of the world.
On average, the Indus River System receives up to 80 percent of its flows from snow and glacial melt. This figure is likely to increase considerably over the next two to three decades, followed by decrease in flows due to glacier depletion. The cross-boundary-induced climate changes in the Himalayas pose a serious threat especially to Pakistan; the excessive water that the upper riparian (India) is unable to store will be leashed into the country at a short notice, bringing widespread damage to its assets and agriculture.
The total number of water-related interactions between countries is titled in favour of cooperation: there have been 507 conflict-related events as opposed to 1,228 cooperative ones. This implies that violence over water is not a strategically rational, effective or economically viable option for countries. In the 20th century, only seven minor skirmishes took place between countries over shared water resources, while more than 300 treaties were signed during the same period.
The UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses was adopted on May 21, 1997, after 27 years of negotiations. It sets out the basis rights and obligations between countries relating to the management of international watercourses. International water law concerns the rights and obligations that exist, primarily between countries, for the management of trans-boundary water resources. Such legal rules and principles are dedicated to preventing conflict and promoting cooperation of shared water resources. The primary substantive rule of international law is that countries must use their international watercourses in an equitable and reasonable way, and without causing significant harm to their neighbours.
In the context of conflict-ridden Indo-Pak relations, the Indus Water Treaty has a unique standing. It has survived two wars and has functioned well so far. The treaty serves to act as a model for conflict resolution by providing the mechanism for settlement of disputes related to the sharing of waters of the Indus Basin. In the scenario of depleting water supply, major water storage projects are needed to be built and operated with regional collaboration. Regional peace, economic development and cultural preservation can all be strengthened by countries cooperating over water. "Water has the power to move millions of people – let it move us in the direction of peace," said Mikhail Gorbachev, former president of the USSR.