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Asian water wrangles

Pollution and water scarcity threaten livelihoods in central-south Asia. But, argues Michael Renner, international efforts could help to forge a solution.

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The quantity and quality of available water play a crucial role in the politics of central-south Asia. Access to clean drinking water is a major, though largely unmet, objective and poor management lies at the heart of many problems.

Many areas are already experiencing physical water shortages – recent studies estimate per capita water availability in the densely-populated Indus basin at around 1,000 cubic metres per year – and climate change will only exacerbate this.

The region’s water challenges do not inevitably lead to armed conflict. Unalleviated, however, they threaten to undermine human security and bring different communities into dispute. Cooperative approaches have been sparse and institutional structures remain fragmented. Yet cooperation will be critical for the region to meet its water challenges in the years and decades ahead.

In Afghanistan, the livelihoods of at least 80% of the population are based on agriculture and related occupations. The fertile plains of the Amu Darya basin, account for about 40% of Afghanistan’s irrigated lands. But poorly constructed canals translate into water losses as high as 70%. And droughts and dry years since 1999 have substantially reduced cultivated areas in the south and east.

Moreover, three decades of armed conflict have displaced a large portion of the population, impeded access to farmland, and destroyed irrigation systems. Buffeted by recurring drought and floods, and the population’s desperate coping strategies, the net result has been a severe degradation of Afghanistan’s natural environment and its water and farming infrastructure. According to Oxfam UK, overall agricultural produce has fallen by half in recent years and the loss of rural livelihoods has triggered migration to cities.

Millions of Afghans are either seasonally or chronically food insecure. As well as hunger, these desperate conditions have triggered local conflicts. Water contamination has become a severe public health threat, owing to poor waste management practices and a lack of modern sanitation; a 2003 United Nations assessment concluded no more than 12 to 23% of Afghanistan’s urban population has access to safe water.

In the wider region, the nations sharing the Amu Darya are locked into seemingly irreconcilable sets of interests. Tajikistan and Afghanistan look to the Amu Darya for hydropower as well as irrigation while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan depend heavily on the river to irrigate their cotton, rice, and wheat fields.

Downstream, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have similar economic interests, yet their relationship is nonetheless conflictive. Tensions over shared irrigation systems near Tuyamuyun Reservoir could be further inflamed by Turkmenistan's plans to build an artificial lake in the Karakum desert by 2010.

Upstream, Tajikistan releases reservoir water in the winter months to generate hydropower for heating, frequently causing downstream flooding and damage to infrastructure. In the summer months, it builds up its reservoirs — at precisely the time when the irrigation needs of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are most acute.

All these countries plan to increase water extraction, which may exacerbate tensions. Tajikistani plans to complete unfinished Soviet-era hydropower projects on the Vakhsh River, for example, are worrying Uzbekistan, not only because of the potential impact on summer irrigation water flows, but also because it stands to lose income (and leverage) from selling natural gas to its neighbour.

In Pakistan and India, extensive irrigation is also placing Indus basin water resources under heavy stress, with about 90% of the available flow utilised. Overpumping and inefficient irrigation techniques have led to sharply declining groundwater levels, loss of wetlands and salinisation of agricultural lands. Future sea-level rise will place coastal areas at increasing risk of inundation and water availability will decline dramatically as a result of climate change and population growth; Pakistan’s per capita water availability is forecast to fall to a critically low level of just 800 cubic metres annually by 2020.

Already, an estimated 40 million to 55 million Pakistanis do not have access to safe drinking water, yet the government spends 47 times as much on the military budget as on water and sanitation. According to a Unesco report, only 2% of Pakistan’s cities have wastewater treatment facilities and less than 30% of wastewater receives treatment in these cities. Water pollution is the leading cause of death in Pakistan.

Rising water demand in the region is causing trans-border issues as well as internal conflicts. Pakistan has an important agreement with India, the 1960 Indus Water Treaty, which divides the waters of the Indus and its eastern tributaries. However, a number of contentious projects undertaken by India in Kashmir — including the Baglihar Hydroelecric Dam, the Kishanganga Hydroelectric project and the Tulbul Navigation project — have served as reminders that water disputes between the two neighbours are never far from the surface. It is increasingly important for India and Pakistan to improve their water management and ensure diplomacy, rather than threat of force, governs water relations.

Climate change will dramatically raise the challenges in central and south Asia. By the middle of the century, increasing temperatures and growing water stress may lead to a 30% reduction in crop yields. In central Asia, reduced rainfall and runoff will cause increased heat stress, drought and desertification and lead to increasing migration. Yet no mitigation and adaptation strategies are in place.

The melting of the Hindu Kush-Karakorum-Himalaya glaciers will also have serious consequences for hundreds of millions of people. The warming trend in these mountain ranges has been much greater than the global average and two thirds of the Himalayan glaciers are reported to be shrinking. Over time, this will reduce downstream runoff and compromise hydropower generation, decreasing production of foodstuffs and commodities like cotton. In turn, this may increase poverty and social disparities.

Significant changes to monsoon patterns are also expected. Much of south, east, and south-east Asia may see increased intensity of these storms by the century’s end, while most parts of Pakistan and south-eastern Afghanistan are expected to see a 20% reduction in rainfall. Destructive storm surges and greater salt-water intrusion in low-lying coastal areas could drive migration from urban centres such as Karachi and flooding is expected to increase across the Himalayas, as well as northern Pakistan and India.

International donor support is needed to fund infrastructure maintenance, improvements in water efficiency, and diversification toward more drought-resistant crops, in part by reprioritising existing funds. In Afghanistan, for instance, Oxfam observes that donors have spent less than US$300 million to $400 million directly on agricultural projects over the last six years – a fraction of overall assistance to the country.

The governance system for central Asia’s water that emerged in the post-Soviet era remains largely dysfunctional, limited by conflicting interests, mutual suspicions and a reluctance to cooperate. However, the UN Economic Commission for Europe has intensified its engagement in central Asia over the past few years, with a programme to strengthen cooperation among members. Its Water Convention also provides a legal framework for trans-boundary water cooperation, though Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are so far the only regional signatories. Other organisations, including the Environment and Security Initiative and the East-West Institute are also running programmes to boost regional collaboration.

As great as the challenges are, there are multiple avenues for addressing them. One of the most pressing needs is greater efficiency in water use. By 2015, Afghanistan’s Ministry of Energy and Water hopes to boost efficiency by 45%, while improvements in yields for rain-fed cereal crops in Pakistan could help relieve overall water pressures. Their neighbours can and must similarly boost water productivity. Better watershed management, rainwater harvesting, urban water conservation, investments in sanitation, and more integrated planning are vitally important.

The countries of the region have little influence over global greenhouse emissions trajectories, and hence will need to focus principally on adaptation measures. It is essential to build environmental, social, economic, and political resilience, as well as improve institutional capacities to cope with growing water scarcity and climate impacts. Water cooperation across national boundaries offers important benefits but may not be realised without disinterested, innovative third-party facilitation.

Michael Renner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC and senior advisor to the Institute for Environmental Security in Brussels.

A full version of this report was first published by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre.

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