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Regional distrust fuelling water conflicts in South Asia

Lack of a domestic vision for water in South Asia reinforces the zero-sum nature of international water disputes, argues Chatham House’s Gareth Price.

Disputes over water threaten to aggravate tensions between countries in South Asia. Large parts of India and Pakistan already suffer from water stress and these pressures are likely to increase in the future.

A new report from Chatham House based on interviews of over 500 policymakers and senior representatives from the media, academia and the private sector across South Asia provides a snapshot of elite attitudes towards both domestic water management and international rivers. Chatham House worked with local research institutes in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan to establish how debates about water are framed in each country, and attitudes towards other countries sharing the same rivers.

Most of the people we interviewed were downbeat about the current state of water management, and many were fearful for the future. Some of the challenges – such as pollution – are worsening because of industrialisation; others – declining per capita water availability, for instance – stem from population growth. Neither trend is easily reversible. With seasonal water availability already more variable, the human impact of climate change in the region could be momentous.

Water management is poor for a number of reasons: the lack of coordination between ministries, under-investment and poor data collection. Many interviewees felt that decision-making powers were overly centralised, and local communities were rarely involved in decision-making around river development. In India, falling groundwater levels – partly caused by the provision of free or highly subsidised electricity to farmers – was seen as a major challenge, but few had solutions given the nature of India’s democracy.

For the complete article, please see The Third Pole.