Dev Raj Dahal
Fresh water is public good which is vital for the survival of all living species. Alleviation of its scarcity will be a critical driver of security, stability and positive peace in South Asia. As it is unfairly distributed, water has become a saleable and strategic commodity to deprive others of its use and grasp concession. Drying up of enemy’s wells, attack on water supplies, flooding of rivers, ruin of hydro stations, hostage of dams and water riots continue to stay as tools of coercive diplomacy.
In Anglo-Gurkha War, for example, the British India had cut the water supply line to the Nepali warriors forcing them to submit. The later made a collective choice to unblock the water supply than yield. The Islamic State captured various dams to bargain for their warriors’ release and wield influence. Water is considered precious material for the development of agricultural and industrial sectors. Many countries use water more as a tool of cooperation based on shared community of interests. The Nile Basin Initiative fosters multi-dimensional cooperation between Egypt and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Indus River Treaty between India and Pakistan remains unperturbed by their conflicts. The Asian states, however, represent more as an arc of water insecurity and conflict while draught of Africa enabled them to forge cooperation on water resources and achieve peace.
This is highlighted in a workshop organised by Strategic Foresight Group in Kathmandu in September 2019. The South Asian region suffers from the shadow of power-based, regime interest oriented geopolitics and strategic partnerships rendering rule-based cooperation on vital areas of water resource onerous to each other. It is defying the hope of peace dividends for hungry and thirsty millions. The UN Security Council and MDGs consider water as human rights and international security issues thus promising the sustainable use of natural resources as a non-negotiable condition of life.
Promotion of foreign investment in climate adaptation and hydro power aids a transition to clean, green and renewable energy and generates productive economic activities vital to release the entrepreneurial energy of the South Asian peoples. But it demands building its storage capacity, reservoirs, dams and power plants and make economy attuned to ecological resilience. The bureaucratic inertia, leadership distrust and political deadlock, however, spoil SAARC’s ability to lead collective progress and positive peace, a peace that satisfies the basic needs and fulfils the constitutional and human rights of people.
When the problems of South Asia are interlinked, solutions also require collaborative efforts. Climate change and its effects have added uncertainty to the rain cycle. Disputes over the rights of upper and lower riparian countries and indulgence of leaders in power struggle over water stay on in every round of election. Overcoming ecological deficits demands the wisdom of peoples and impetus of government, civil society and international community (IC). The IC needs a statesman wise enough to utilise global public good and set matching governance to respond to growing awareness of people about climate change, population pressure and the rights based discourse which are exerting pressure on leaders to provide ample food, fresh drinking water and irrigation, energy, sanitation, agricultural resources, fertilizer and other essential needs.
Nepal’s Constitution promises rights to dignity, clean environment and food that includes safe drinking water as well. Nearly 80 per cent of Nepalis have access to drinking water but only 20 per cent is safe. Lack of sewage and water treatment pollutes air and surface water by human, agricultural and industrial wastes breeding water-borne diseases. The underground water of southern part of Nepal is heavily arsenic infested. Nepal’s hydropower potential is estimated 80, 000 MW but only half is measured economically feasible. About 1,000 MW is utilised so far.
Nepal imports 653MW electricity from India to meet the nation’s total demand for electricity of 1,243MW. Now conflicts are cropping up between the federal government and provinces over the sharing of natural resources. Federal government’s plan to divert Kaligandaki to Tinau river of Butwal and Bheri river to Babai multipurpose project, construction of international airport at Nijgadh cutting natural forests, excavation of Chure hills for boulders, etc. are prompting dialogues of stakeholders for optimal solution.
The South Asian region is exposed to global climate change, temperature rise, drying of fresh water, deforestation, drought, landslides, floods, ocean acidification and loss of biodiversity beyond the ability of any sovereign state to control and manage. It has an effect on the water cycle of the Indian Ocean to the Himalayas. Corporate greed for competition, profit and disruption terribly exploits nature with no care for intergenerational and ecological justice. Global warming is fast receding the Himalayan glaciers posing risk of burst of lakes while fuelling the rise of sea level, increasingly destroying the habitat of marine life, depleting oxygen, adding salinity of costal zones and fading farm lands.
To better improve its image of the bottom of regional integration and govern the region’s vital water resources, South Asian leaders need to be more innovative and inclusive in collaboration among the governments, businesses, civil society and communities at large. Water management, food security, agriculture, access to electricity, health care and environment and infrastructure connectivity, also underlined by SAARC, can help uplift living standards of the peoples. Collaboration on hydropower, renewal energy, energy efficiency and robust storage for which Nepal can be a gifted site offer opportunity to escape from geopolitical reversal of the ecological, economic and political order and govern complex interdependence.
India’s National River Linking Project embraces 16 links in the Himalayan region where Nepali rivers’ contribution to Ganges stands 46 per cent. Since water resource is the single most vital strategic commodity for Nepal, people are very sensitive to its utilisation. The Mahakali, Koshi and Gandak River Agreements between Nepal and British India and then India provide irrigation, hydropower and flood mitigation measures to both states. Civil society of both countries have proposed updating Koshi and Gandak treaties for addressing problems of affected communities facing erosion of local ecosystem, changes in the course of river, perpetual flood inundation and decline of the well-being of local communities.
The 7,000 MW Panchewshor Multipurpose Project in Mahakali river singed by Nepal and India 25 years ago has yet to start while 245 MW Naumure hydro project assured by India is in limbo. The 900 MW Upper Karnali hydroproject is also delayed due to a lack of fund for contractors. India has, however, expedited the construction of 900 MW Arun III hydro project and the operation of Nepal-India Amlekhgun-Motihari Petroleum Pipeline reducing the cost of import of diesel. Fair deal and timely execution of projects can improve India’s image as a benign neighbour.
Landlocked Nepal’s aspiration of transit, trade and connectivity across Himalayas inspired it to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative project, a project negatively judged by the USA, EU, India and Japan as debt trap diplomacy. They have offered alternatives: Indo-Pacific Strategy, Asia-Europe connectivity and neighbourhood policy for investment, markets and raw materials. The runoff of this geopolitical worry is seen in natural resource conflicts between federal, provinces and local scale inflaming emotional turmoil of local leaders who feel hard to live in peace with one another.
Unequal exchange does not put Nepal in a better strategic position for bargaining as rent-seeking culture has created inefficient projects. A strong centripetal bent of leaders with reflective insight on the areas of cooperation, competition and conflict of great powers can keep a balance in a situation of asymmetric neighbours and anarchic world and navigate deftly in time of climate uncertainty.
One positive virtue is the rise of South Asian “public” out of its civilisational roots who thinks beyond the context of states, finds the incongruity between them and societal overlap, expresses rational voices and acts as interlocutor across various cultures. Its positive image and articulation of collective interests echo universal reason and shared concerns. This public realising one biosphere has created a potent constituency for regional cooperation. Many problems of regional and global in scope exceed the capacity of competing geopolitical interests of states to resolve. It, therefore, aggregates the needs and aspirations of peoples, organises dialogues for policy inputs for the governments and exerts pressure for confidence building measures. Sensible media stress common areas among them and create informed public opinion for the necessity of regional cooperation on climate change and water resources as both know no political boundaries.
But the South Asian public lacks the power of self-determination in decision--making on a regional basis though it is affected by the decision of regional governments. This public at Track II and Track III levels is engaged in many regional initiatives highlighting the benefits of cooperation and sharing early warning about floods across the border. Cooperation among business, civil society and professionals seek multiplier effect of regional convergence and harness complementarities among the regional economics of various scales including sharing of hydro-power which can contribute to regional security and positive peace.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)
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