Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Climate Change And Water Security In The Himalayan Region

As noted in the July 2013 issue of Asia Policy, a look at how climate change may impact water security in the Himalaya region:

The hydrological system of the Himalayan region, upon which some 1.5billion people depend, is under enormous stress. Expected changes in water availability could threaten the region’s agricultural economies, place pressure on rapidly growing urban areas, impose constraints on economic development, amplify and introduce public health challenges, compel governments to use scarce funds to manage disasters, and contribute to corruption, institutional breakdown, and violent conflict on different scales. Policies are needed that bring the countries in this turbulent region together to address the factors causing water stress, ensure that new sources of water stress do not emerge or grow too large, and manage the mounting social effects of this problem.

Causes of Water Stress

Water stress typically refers to a decline in the annual supply of blue water measured on a per capita, or per hectare of arable land, basis and then compared with a global average or with local and projected demand. Water stress often manifests as scarcity, drought, and flooding. Population growth contributes to this problem, but it is the product of many other forces as well, most notably climate change.2 According to the 2007 reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the mean temperature of the planet is increasing, ice sheets and mountain glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, the planet’s mid-latitudes are becoming drier, the high and low latitudes are becoming wetter, and the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, and wildfires are increasing.

By virtue of its geography, the Himalayan region is particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. The rise in mean temperature here has been higher than the global average, and this trend is expected to continue. Glacial retreat is occurring very quickly in the eastern and central Himalayas, and at high elevations this is expected to translate into a significant reduction of stream flow. At lower elevations, climate change is likely to affect the timing, location, and volume of the monsoon in significant ways. While there is much uncertainty, the evidence compiled to date describes a region at the forefront of global climate change.

Second, according to recent analysis of satellite data measuring fluctuations in gravitational force on the earth’s surface, both the South Asian subcontinent and the Tibetan Plateau, which the Himalayan, Hindu Kush, and Karakoram mountain ranges divide, are losing groundwater. While climate change might affect the replenishment of some stocks of groundwater, or lead to their contamination due to salt intrusion from rising sea levels, groundwater loss is due mainly to overuse for irrigation. This is a classic “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which the small-scale unsustainable actions of individuals aggregate into enormous collective losses. Pakistan, for example, which is a very arid country, depends on groundwater for more than 50% of its irrigation and is especially sensitive to this trend.4

Third, and further complicating matters, in recent years countries on both sides of the Himalayas have developed plans for hundreds of new dams, mainly for hydroelectric power but also as reservoirs to hedge against drought.5 All of Asia’s major rivers—including the Brahmaputra, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween, Yangzte, and Yellow—originate in these mountains, and most of them begin across the Chinese border in Tibet. They represent enormous hydroelectric power potential, but large dams invariably impose large social and environmental costs—harnessing sacred waters, displacing people, affecting river and silt flows, and destroying habitats. Some analysts are concerned that the impacts of climate change on water have not been factored sufficiently into dam design.

For example, dams may be damaged by outburst floods from glacial lakes or suffer higher than normal rates of evaporation from reservoirs due to warmer temperatures. Because they are cheap to operate, dams tend to provide a handsome rate of return for many years, but climate change could dramatically subvert this calculation. Other analysts worry that China may have a hidden agenda insofar as the region’s water resources are concerned. One well-known claim, for example, is that if China builds a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo River in Tibet, Beijing will divert this water to the planned South-North Water Diversion Project. This is water that currently flows into the Brahmaputra River and is crucial to its health, as well as to the water resources of South Asia.

Outlook for Water Security in the Himalayan Region and Opportunities for Cooperation

Climate change, unsustainable groundwater use, and plans for hundreds of new dams combine to create a deeply alarming picture of dramatic hydrological change. In the worst-case scenarios the social consequences are devastating. The six main countries of this region are already overrepresented on Maplecroft’s Natural Disasters Risk Index (Pakistan is 4th, India is 11th, China is 12th, and Afghanistan is 15th) and the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index (Afghanistan is 6th, Pakistan is 13th, and Nepal is 27th).6 Recent studies, such as the National Academy of Science’s 2012 report Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources, and Water Security, envision changes in water availability leading to population displacement, agricultural and fishing losses, disease outbreaks, and conflict that could become violent and spill over state boundaries.7 These effects are expected to be especially severe for downstream countries—i.e., all countries other than China. Some effects are already clear. For example, dams in India already affect the flow of silt into Bangladesh. This silt is critical to maintaining the Sundarbans as a forest barrier against flooding; as silting declines, flooding worsens and the human costs mount.

Of course, many effects are not certain. Variables that are hard to model, such as changing cloud cover, could have a dramatic and unforeseen effect on the region’s hydrology. Human adaptiveness and ingenuity might prove sufficiently agile so as to target and avoid worst-case outcomes. But current trends provide no basis for policy complacency. The arid areas of the region are becoming drier, mean temperature is rising faster than the global average, flooding is becoming more frequent and intense, many glaciers are shrinking, and the monsoon is changing in terms of timing, location, and intensity. Unfortunately, while water connects the fates of some one and a half billion people in the region, and in theory could unify them around a common agenda, history and politics divide them, and these divisions run deep. In the 21st century alone, for example, violent conflict has plagued Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, India, Kashmir, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

Still, the Himalayan hydrological system begs for strong regional management institutions. The great rivers that originate in Tibet and Kashmir flow into Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan Some of this flow moves farther south as the Mekong River system into Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Unfortunately, cooperation among these countries has been largely ceremonial and ineffective. There is little to build upon in this regard.

There are many ways to think about the prospects for cooperation. Considerable research has focused on the importance of a great power, or a hegemon, that is willing to lead and provide much of the funding for cooperation. In this case, the only viable contender is India, but New Delhi has tense relationships with all of India’s border countries and no particular status in Southeast Asia, has not yet found a compelling way to align national and regional interests, and faces considerable domestic challenges as the country seeks to improve the living standards of roughly 400 million people. Absent a hegemonic power, cooperation can be very difficult to establish and maintain. In this case, there is a large number of actors, some of which have very little interaction with each other. Furthermore, the benefits of cooperation, at least in the short term, are not entirely clear and may be a long time in coming. These are conditions that tend to mitigate against high levels of cooperation.

Without the familiar conditions that enable and reinforce regional cooperation, it is perhaps not surprising that existing institutions, such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), have done little in the sphere of water management. SAARC, for example, has produced a report on the region’s environmental challenges, established a few technical and management committees, and adopted the Thimphu Statement on Climate Change—modest actions with little tangible effect. It may be particularly handicapped as a consensus-based organization that avoids the many contentious areas of bilateral conflict, such as the reform of the Indus River Treaty between Pakistan and India. SAARC also cannot build on achievements in economic or security integration, which are often the first issues to mobilize regional attention and cooperation, because these have been modest.

Although moving from the status quo to effective regional cooperation may not be a quick process, there is an obvious next step that should be taken. Weather, topography, and borders have made the Himalayan region a very difficult one to study. Many questions remain about how this unique area has managed warming in the past and how exactly climate change is playing out today. Better data is critical to agenda setting and policy formulation, as well as to infrastructure design and social adaptation. In this regard, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, located in Kathmandu, currently brings together eight countries of the region to carry out research and share knowledge.8 The organization offers a platform for expanding regional hydrological science that should be carefully built up. Expanding the region’s epistemic community of scientists may generate a shared understanding of the fundamental characteristics of growing water stress and a shared commitment to finding efficient, effective, and equitable solutions. It might also encourage transparency in other areas, such as dam construction, where imperfect information and mistrust kindle tension.

The United States can support the buildup of scientific cooperation, share its experiences with regional cooperation, and use its great technical and diplomatic resources to encourage more productive political relationships. The recent National Research Council report Himalayan Glaciers: Climate Change, Water Resources and Water Security (2012) is a good example of how the U.S. scientific community can collaborate with local scientists and hence assist in understanding the region’s water stress.9

Though limited in many ways, the role of the United States might be expanded if it were to deepen its physical presence in the region. Some obvious strategies would be to encourage American students to study abroad, especially in China and India; support university-based research collaboration; and promote social enterprises that have U.S. participation and are addressing important regional issues such as the use of inefficient cook stoves, which add vast quantities of black carbon into the region’s air.

Ultimately, however, reducing water stress in the Himalayan region will depend on the foresight and commitment of key regional countries like China, India, and Pakistan. Scientific collaboration can nurture this process, but political and private sector leadership needs to be mobilized soon. The region is tracking toward a worst-case scenario of lower agricultural yields, more frequent and intense natural disasters, population displacement, public health setbacks, and conflict over access to water resources. Unfortunately, attempts at regional cooperation, such as SAARC, provide little basis for optimism. At this point, it is not clear that China, India, and Pakistan can overcome political differences that have persisted since the 1947 partition and find fair and effective solutions to their shared water challenges. Kashmir, the site of violent conflict in 1947, 1965, and 1999, would be a good problem to resolve quickly, building trust and laying the foundations for tackling larger issues. A beautiful valley with a polarized population, rapidly degrading freshwater, chronic turmoil, contested borders, and competing visions of what its future should be, perhaps Kashmir could be granted independence or redefined as an international peace park with a high level of political autonomy. Trapped by three immovable giants, however, it seems sadly destined to experience more human and ecological violence in the years ahead. Still, a conference scheduled for mid-2013 in Islamabad will bring the various parties together, and perhaps some good news will emerge from that meeting.

This entry was posted on Friday, July 26th, 2013 at 5:15 am and is filed under News.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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