Narendra Modi’s rise as the dominant force in Indian politics cannot obscure the daunting foreign policy challenges he faces, including on transnational water issues. For example, communist-ruled Nepal’s tilt towards China is apparent not only from Mandarin being made compulsory in many schools, but also from its resurrection of a scrapped deal with China to build the $2.5 billion, 1,200-megawatt (MW) Budhi-Gandaki Dam. Beijing’s dam-building frenzy on India’s periphery extends from Myanmar and Tibet to Pakistan-held Kashmir, where it is constructing the 720 MW Karot and the 1,124 MW Kohala (the largest Chinese investment under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor).
South Asia accounts for about 22% of the world’s population but must manage with barely 8.3% of the global water resources. Water is becoming the new oil in this region. But unlike oil — dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy — there is no substitute for water. India ought to make water diplomacy an important tool of its regional foreign policy so as to facilitate rules-based cooperation and conflict prevention.
India has a unique riparian status: It is the only regional country that falls in all three categories — upper, middle and lower riparian. Such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in the region. India is potentially affected by water-related actions of upstream countries, especially China and Nepal, while its own room for manoeuvre is constricted by the treaty relationships it has with downstream Pakistan and Bangladesh on the Indus and the Ganges, respectively. Indeed, no country in Asia is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of trans-boundary flows than India because it alone receives — directly or via rivers that flow in through Nepal — nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory.
Yet hydro-diplomacy has scarcely been a major instrument of Indian foreign policy. Had India looked at water as a strategic resource and emphasised hydro-diplomacy to leverage bilateral relations, it would not have signed the one-sided Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), still the world’s most generous water-sharing pact. The chief Indian negotiator, Niranjan Gulhati, admitted in his book that the IWT was concluded without any study on its potential long-term impact on the Indian water situation. Today, deepening water woes in India’s lower Indus Basin have resulted in the world’s second-most rapid rate of groundwater depletion in the Punjab-Haryana-Rajasthan belt after the Arabian Peninsula.
Meanwhile, China and Pakistan are employing water as a tool against India. Pakistan’s water war strategy is centred on invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to internationalise any perceived disagreement with India. China’s cut-off of hydrological data to India in 2017 — an action that not only breached bilateral accords but also caused preventable flood-related deaths in Assam — helped highlight how Beijing is fashioning unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy.
Only by asserting its Indus leverage can India hope to end Pakistan’s unconventional war
Modi’s new, unified water power ministry aims to rectify a splintered, piecemeal approach that has compounded India’s water challenges. But without institutionalised, integrated policymaking, it will not be easy to develop a holistic approach to a critical resource increasingly in short supply or to fashion an effective hydro-diplomacy that advances long-term water interests.
India must build pressure on China to abide by international norms on shared water resources. With Pakistan, there is no need for India to bend over backwards. Two weeks before the Pulwama massacre, India hosted a team of Indus inspectors from Pakistan, although, under the IWT’s terms, such a visit could have waited until March 2020. The Permanent Indus Commission met in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting, although its next meeting was not due until March 2019. In February, India gratuitously supplied Pakistan the design data of three tiny hydropower plants it plans to build. Pakistan, however, has indefinitely deferred Indian inspectors’ reciprocal visit.
In keeping with Modi’s preference for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or Bimstec, a forward-looking Indian diplomacy should promote multilateral cooperation on water and hydropower resources in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal growth corridor. The ultimate goal should be a water and energy grid that turns Bimstec into Asia’s leading economic-growth zone. India has already issued a new cross-border power trading regulation that allows any neighbour to export electricity to third countries via Indian transmission lines.
Water-rich Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal sit on vast untapped hydropower reserves. While Nepal still imports electricity from India, the flourishing Bhutan-India relationship is underpinned by close collaboration on water and clean and affordable energy. Bhutan’s hydropower exports to India have been the primary driver of what is one of the world’s smallest but fastest-growing economies. From modest, environmentally friendly, run-of-river plants, Bhutan is stepping up its India collaboration with a reservoir-based, 2,585 MW project on River Sankosh — larger than any dam in India.
Water increasingly will be a critical factor in regional development. India must get its act together on hydro-diplomacy and exert stronger leadership on trans-boundary water issues.
Brahma Chellaney is the author, ‘Water, Peace, and War’
The views expressed are personal
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