A Looming Crisis
While the U.S. is rapidly embarking on corrective measures for water security, South Asia seems almost oblivious to the looming threat.
South Asia faces a looming crisis of depleting water resources, resulting partly from mismanagement and partly from environmental degradation. The issue of water scarcity is not confined only to the South Asian region but rather plagues the entire world. The matter is so sensitive that the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a report, signed by twenty Senators across party lines, has stressed the need to better understand “where precisely water fits into American foreign policy.” On the other hand, the countries in South Asia, though alive to the threat, have not yet taken any concrete measures to avoid what experts call ‘Water Wars’ in the region.
The intricate problem of environmental degradation is endangering the natural water support system - the most fundamental aspect of human security. Water scarcity is generally defined as the non-availability of required amounts of water at the right time and right place for human and environmental use. According to various tools used - one of which is the Falkenmark indicator - South Asia currently faces a serious threat of water scarcity that can lead to no access to potable water in rural areas where more than 50% of the population lives. Less water for agriculture means shortage of food production as well as acute shortage of electricity, as there is considerable reliance in the region on hydro-based resources. Water depletion poses even greater threats to the ecosystem, of which air, water and soil are essential elements and an imbalance of any of these can damage human survival.
Furthermore, a callous human attitude is responsible for continuous environmental degradation. Higher industrial emissions of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide pollute the atmosphere, making the earth warmer and gradually damaging its ozone layer through greenhouse gas emissions. The never-ending deforestation, desertification and scarcity of water resources further contribute to environmental degradation.
We live on a planet where 99% of water resources are either saline or frozen, thus human life is dependent upon the remaining one percent of water for its survival. Tragically, even this one percent of usable water is becoming scarce. The situation is worsening in South Asia where populations are increasing and temperatures are rising. In the next few years, South Asia will constitute the most populous region on earth, with average temperatures rising to four to six degrees Celsius.
According to a recent study titled ‘Water Scarcity in South Asia’, “South Asian countries share a huge treasure of water resources, which, if they become physically scarce, may lead to conflicts in the region. For instance, India and Pakistan share the waters of the Indus basin system. India, Bangladesh and Nepal share water from the Ganga River basin. The Indus Basin, which has sustained civilizations across millennia, presents new challenges to the people and states of the region. The way these challenges are addressed will shape the economic future of the people who share the Indus waters.”
Three trends have been identified by Dr. Akmal Hussain: “first, the per capita annual water availability in the Indus Basin has declined from 5,121 cubic meters in 1962 to 1,396 cubic meters in 2011. The total annual river flow of the Indus Basin has declined from 119 million acre feet (MAF) in 1960 to 113 MAF in 1997. The rate of decline accelerated in between 1998 and 2011 with the annual flow of rivers in the Indus Basin falling to 102 MAF by 2011. In the case of Chenab, the average annual flow has declined by 12 per cent between 1960 and 2011, while in the river Jhelum it has declined by 17 per cent. The decline in river flows could quite possibly be due to the lower precipitation in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, which constitute the watershed region of these two rivers. In any case, the declining river flows and increased seasonal fluctuations in these flows create the imperative for Pakistan to improve its water management and increase water use efficiency. Collaborative efforts by India and Pakistan for afforestation and management of the watersheds could slow down the increased sedimentation of rivers, which reduces the life of dams downriver. Reforestation in the watershed could also prevent devastating flash floods downstream during heavy downpours in the