Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Parched Tiger: Trans-Boundary Water Resources And Uneven Development In Contemporary India

Via Taylor & Francis Online, a detailed look at the already divisive politics of South Asia’s trans-boundary water resources which are further complicated by the rush to construct large- and medium-scale dams in India today:

Crisis has many different meanings associated with it, both theoretically and in the particular context of India’s political economy. 1 In this paper, I want to suggest that India faces many crises at the current juncture and that these can be understood as having social, political, economic and environmental dimensions. While no single abstract theme can hope to address such complexity, I argue here that by examining the multiple ‘crises of water’, we can go some way to understanding the dimensions of India’s crises on different scales and across different parts of the country. It is argued here that in order to understand the nature of these crises, the relationship of people to water resources must be understood in terms of the political economy of what Peter Mollinga calls water control. To Mollinga, water use does not exist independently from its broader social context, but is embedded in legal, administrative, social and political structures on a variety of scales. 2 By analysing how the capture and distribution of water for a variety of purposes is embedded in and reflects prevailing social action and institutional structures, we can therefore interrogate the broader relationship that different social groups have to each other, to the environment and to the state.
The multiple crises of water examined in this paper have many causes and antecedents. They are born of failures to distribute water equitably so that the entire population does not have adequate access to water, as well as to related failures of legitimacy, not least because the implementing agencies of many large-scale projects are seen as unduly biased towards particular vested interests. Given the extent of these divisions between and within different states of India, it is also clear that the semantics of what is described as crisis and who gets to define the magnitude and terms of this crisis has tremendous significance on how water politics and policy unfold.
The place of large-scale dams in present and future water resource development is particularly controversial. As has been widely documented across a huge literature representing both votaries and opponents of this infrastructure, dams have come to symbolise both the promise and the violence of the modernist model of development that are implied in India’s hydro-geographies. 3 While the processes vary depending on the particular context, in almost all cases, there are bureaucrats, rural rich and poor, tribals, engineers, power companies, large financial institutions, multilateral agencies as well as state and national governments involved. 4 In addition, tensions between Indian states are evident in many dam projects precisely because the states that receive the greatest benefit from the dams are not always those that have to compensate the losers, leading to political disputes between and within states. 5 Further, there are ongoing divisions between the various ministries in different areas of the bureaucracy because water is not handled by a single department in India, but is instead spread across a range of portfolios.
Beyond the boundaries of the Indian public sphere, the debate on large-scale dams is perhaps best known globally because of the country’s high-profile civil society, with many of the campaigns by organisations opposed to large-scale dams framed in terms of the ‘state’ versus the ‘people’. As valuable as civil society has been in drawing attention to the issues involved in hydropower in India, examining the storage and distribution of water is far more complex in a country that is so diverse and heterogeneous than this populist depiction would allow. Indeed, civil society itself comprises very diverse groups of sometimes co-operating and sometimes conflicting interests and, as Mukul Sharma’s 2012 work describing the presence of Hindu nationalist forces in these movements reminds us, sometimes those joining anti-dam protests could be considered to be conservative or regressive in other respects. 6
The multiple crises of water in India take on further analytical complexity because almost all of North India’s major rivers and their tributaries are trans-boundary in as much as their sources are in glaciers in the Himalayas or the Tibetan Plateau; they then cross national borders, from China, Nepal or India, before flowing to the plains, often again crossing national borders, including into Pakistan or Bangladesh. Of all the consequences of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent, the division of South Asia’s water resources is among those that, at least initially, received comparatively little scholarly treatment. That trans-boundary water resources have been an important component of the tumultuous history of post-colonial South Asia is gaining greater recognition as with every passing year, more dams are proposed for different parts of the Himalayas, bringing with them a range of political controversies between and within the countries of the region.
The first part of the paper gives an overview of some of the key features of the crises of water. Here, it is argued that the continuation of high levels of poverty in rural India, even 65 years after Independence, is related to class configurations of agrarian structures and the failure of development policy to challenge these in any substantive manner. While there is no doubt that some durable solutions can and must be crafted on the local scale, within the bureaucracy, the older technocratic concerns of the Nehru era still prevail, predominantly focused on augmenting supply by increasing the capacity for storage in dams and reservoirs and through increasing the canal system to facilitate inter-basin transfers. 7 As the second part of the paper argues, this necessitates a consideration of the potential role of large-scale dams and the complications that arise from harnessing the waters of the Indian Himalayas.
Given that these plans will impact upon India’s neighbours both upstream and downstream, the next part of the paper is an attempt to examine the regional scale, by which I mean the role of water in the broader context of South Asia. In discussing the transfer of water within and between basins, this section of the paper asserts that there is now a case to be made that, historically, while large-scale dam building showcased the Indian state’s attitude towards the ‘disposable’ people within its own borders, future development may increasingly proceed in ways that marginalise many millions of people outside India as well.
Clearly then, there is a need to think critically about the kinds of openings possible for alternative political spaces of water resource management. While much has been written about the relationships between the governments of the region and the various water-sharing treaties that have been enacted at different times, there has been little analysis devoted to alternative institutional arrangements that might enhance the effectiveness of regional co-operation. The ongoing political fragmentation of the Indian subcontinent presents significant obstacles to the formation of such institutions. However, this article argues that a nascent, transparent regionalism could contribute to a more just and equitable distribution of these water resources.

Contextualising the Challenges

The crises of water in India are manifold and their ecological, socio-economic and political impacts range across a variety of interconnected scales. While there are great differences between different parts of India in relation to the dynamics of water control, foremost among the commonalities are distributional issues, in that the control and usage of water has class, caste and gendered dimensions. These mean that particular ways of using water are privileged and primarily for the benefit of only a small fraction of the people. Clearly, then, an important notion here is that part of the crisis can also be understood as stemming from India’s uneven development. There are also well-documented connections between water use and availability and indices of well-being and poverty. 8 Access to water varies enormously within cities, neighbourhoods, villages and households and the everyday politics of water in both urban and rural areas impose great time and physical burdens upon women in particular. 9
On the all-India scale, the multiple crises of water are derived from declining water availability per capita coupled with the growing demands of the consumerist economy, the continuing low efficiency of irrigation, technological obsolescence and poor regulatory mechanisms. Of the twenty major basins, fourteen are classified as water stressed, meaning that per capita availability is less than 2,000 cubic metres per year. Three-quarters of India’s total population lives in these water-stressed regions. 10 In other words, even in the broadest categorisations, it is evident that a great proportion of the population lives in areas where water availability is already a significant problem. Agriculture absorbs 90 percent of the total usage of water and remains the most significant factor in food security and rural livelihoods throughout India. While surface and ground-water irrigation have increased enormously in the period since the Green Revolution began in the 1960s and 1970s, two-thirds of the population continues to depend upon rain-fed agriculture as a direct or indirect source of livelihood. 11 The significance of this is evident from the fact that the central and eastern parts of India and the mountainous regions, where there is a predominance of monsoon-variable, rain-fed agriculture, are also the parts of the country which continue to have the largest concentrations of chronic poverty. 12
While ground-water extraction has undoubtedly been important for the intensification of agriculture, particularly in the heavily-populated western and central areas of the Gangetic belt, which are poorly served by canal irrigation, a considerable demise in both quality and quantity of the ground-water resource is now evident. Populist policies that subsidise electricity to farmers for agricultural purposes have led to vast increases in energy requirements, and subsequently contributed to a growing local market in water-selling, as well as the ‘bleeding’ of the electricity industry. 13 The growth in the ground-water economy has thus generated a range of ecological, social and political issues, with the salination of aquifers and arsenic and chromium pollution existing side by side with food insecurity. The widespread lowering of the water-table and increasing salinity and water-quality problems mean that parts of Northwest India now have amongst the worst levels of ground-water over-extraction of anywhere in the world. 14 There can be little doubt that water is central to the agricultural base on which India’s population continues to rely, and also that this base looks ever more tenuous.
The pressures on water resources will undoubtedly increase in the future. Studies that have made projections about India’s long-term water usage are usually based on relatively conservative assumptions about changes in a range of variables, including population growth and urbanisation. These, typically, suggest a shift in the average diet towards a greater consumption of non-grain crops and animal products, which will increase demand for feed grain. They also suggest a shift away from the current scenario where water is dominated by agriculture towards greater usage for residential and industrial sectors. 15 In addition to the rise in water for consumptive uses, a projected peak demand power deficit is providing a major impetus for the development of hydropower. 16
How are these issues to be addressed and what does the failure to do so tell us about the crises that confront India currently? There is a widespread belief in civil society that part of the answer must necessarily lie with greater community participation in watershed governance and rainwater harvesting. However, co-management schemes around water, such as participatory irrigation management (PIM), have been criticised as being overly bureaucratic and essentially a top-down solution that prescribes participation in fairly restrictive terms. 17 While the rainwater harvesting movement has enjoyed considerable success, this is largely as a consequence of initiatives by civil society, rather than through the foresight of the state. Perhaps, this is not surprising given the lack of emphasis afforded to these initiatives in the overall policy priorities of the Government of India. Indeed, when we examine the initiatives put forward in various recent policy documents, it is clear that the major emphasis continues to be on the expansion of medium- and large-scale dams.

The Future of Water Resources: What Role for Large-Scale Dams?

The projections around the future of large-scale dams in India need to consider the range of positive and negative outcomes that these engender. The proponents of large-scale dams point to their contribution to agricultural and industrial growth in the post-colonial period, which have certainly benefited some groups. Dams are often advocated on the basis that they can transfer surface water to areas of greatest demand at times when it is most needed, and also that they can offer protection from floods. While acknowledging the potential negative downstream impacts on both ecosystems and livelihoods, advocates believe that much can be achieved through mitigation measures. 18 For their opponents, by contrast, these projects primarily benefit only a small fraction of those living in the region and should more properly be seen as a new form of enclosure. 19 Exact numbers displaced are difficult to come by, although it has been estimated that between 16 and 38 million people have been dislocated by large-scale dams in India alone, 20 a large majority of them being Dalits and Adivasis. The lack of official documentation of how displacement affects the life-chances of these people reflects the continuation of what Claude Alvares two decades ago referred to as the ‘logic of triage’, where the Indian state, in assessing the costs and benefits of these large dams, all too often regarded certain people as disposable and not worthy of being counted. 21
There is considerable disagreement about the role of civil society in influencing how hydropower is proceeding in India. Perhaps the most vocal figure in both academia and in the security community is the prolific Brahma Chellaney, whose analysis of the race to dam the Himalayas has garnered global acclaim. 22 While much of his work is focused on India’s relationship with China and an understandable concern over Chinese attempts to harness water resources emanating from Tibet, Chellaney also has a great deal to say about the complexities of the projects being implemented in India. This is particularly interesting given that he is an influential member of India’s security community and thus could be said to reflect some of the prevailing sentiments held by those in positions of influence. 23 In much of his writing, Chellaney laments that civil society has so much influence on how water resources are managed, thereby hampering India’s progress in large-scale hydropower development relative to what China has been able to achieve. 24
However, it is noteworthy that this condemnation of grass-roots protests is rarely accompanied by any consideration of why civil society groups mobilise against the construction of certain dams. Thus, one will struggle to find any mention in Chellaney’s voluminous writings 25 of the widely documented issues affecting the hydropower industry in India such as the lack of transparent and rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Social Impact Assessment (SIA) processes, nor much else about the issues that frequently provoke complaints from civil society. By contrast, a common theme in other assessments of large-scale hydro projects in India is that EIA and SIA documents are rarely transparent or publically available, 26 and even where they exist, the level of genuine public participation is low and guidelines established by the World Commission on Dams or donor agencies are frequently ignored. 27 In seeking to discredit India’s ‘raucous democracy’, as he calls it, it seems clear that Chellaney elides the reasons why these projects generate so much opposition.
While the significant omissions in Chellaney’s work serve as a telling indicator of how uncomfortable many hawkish commentators are with the role of civil society in India, it is also the case that this work greatly overstates its influence and effect. Certainly, there are many instances where projects have been abandoned in part because of protests, with the Lower Subansiri project being only the latest example. 28 However, other observers argue that India’s water management system is still highly centralised and it is difficult for civil society to exert much influence on these proceedings. Indeed, in the current neo-liberal milieu, the country’s vibrant public sphere contests water resources policies in an environment where the state increasingly appears to be led by corporate and elite concerns. Just as with many other aspects of development in India at the moment, whether it is land acquisition for Special Economic Zones or bauxite mining, large-scale hydro projects are now frequently associated with zones where dissent is effectively marginalised. Clearly, in a period characterised by what Samaddar calls the ‘securitisation of governance’, India is, at best, a semi-authoritarian democracy and the way water resources planning is carried out reflects this. 29
For its part, the National Water Development Agency has suggested that the most significant way that India can achieve increased agricultural production is through large-scale inter-basin water transfer, which will transfer water from water surplus areas to water deficit ones. 30 While the idea of river linking has been popular in some quarters since before Independence, President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s 2002 speech galvanised the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of the time to push ahead with the plan and a Supreme Court directive instructed that river linking should be implemented by 2016. 31 Involving thirty inter-river links, 36 large-scale dams, 94 tunnels, and 10,876 kilometres of canals, the Indian River Linking Project (IRLP) envisages the transfer of 334 billion cubic metres of water from ‘water surplus’ to ‘water deficit’ regions. 32
This is not, however, a view uniformly shared by all parts of the government. The successor United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government initially appeared to have cooled on the idea of river linking and, subsequently, has been treading carefully. Certainly, this was due in part to significant civil society mobilisation against the plan. However, the evident displeasure of many of the state governments that are in states deemed as water surplus is surely just as important in an era of coalition politics. When the then Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, declared in late 2009 that river linking on the scale previously spoken about was a recipe for a ‘human-ecological-economic disaster’, 33 it seemed likely that the Government of India might retreat from long-term plans for joining Himalayan and Peninsular rivers to ‘drought-proof’ the country. However, the January 2012 request by the Supreme Court for the costs associated with river linking to be studied, and the relative burden that might fall on the Centre, suggests that there is far from consensus on whether India’s ambitious plans for Himalayan and Peninsular rivers should be shelved indefinitely. While plans for river linking are contentious both within government and in the broader society, it is also evident that the high modernist preoccupations of some sections of the Government of India mean that the future will almost definitely involve further attempts at large-scale inter-basin water transfers.
The tensions inherent in such transfers are all the more significant because the greatest potential for hydropower to harness the immense potential energy from the descent of the Himalayan rivers includes some of India’s most troubled frontier regions. The Northeast of India, for example, is the region of the country likely to have the greatest hydropower development in the future, with Arunachal Pradesh alone having 132 projects allocated by the state government, which will have an installed capacity of more than 40,000 MW. 34 However, debate in the Northeast has all too often been stifled and state governments have shown their coercive teeth by preventing any effective opposition. At the 1,500 MW Tipaimukh dam site in Manipur, for example, consultation with the public, and indigenous groups in particular, has been largely absent. In July 2008, the Manipur state government authorised the militarisation of the Mon Bahadur road, which is the main service road for the dam, with both national and state government forces stationed every seven kilometres along the 99-kilometre road. 35 Not only have these developments further widened the culture of distrust that has continued in much of Manipur and elsewhere in the Northeast since the enactment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in 1958, 36 they have also been the catalyst for what activists in the region view as arbitrary arrests.
There are also inter-state conflicts emerging from attempts to harness the waters of the Northeast, just as there have been in the past in other parts of India. Tensions are especially evident between Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, although the fact that both states have Congress-led governments has to an extent papered over these divisions. The Lower Subansiri project is an example of such a rivalry, 37 although many of the dams planned in Arunachal Pradesh have stirred similar ill-feeling in Assam, such as the Ranganadi Hydroelectric Project. 38
An example of how controversial hydro projects in the Northeast have become is the recently delayed 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project in Arunachal Pradesh. This project was originally scheduled to be completed in 2014 by the National Hydroelectric Power Company (NHPC). However, both an Expert Committee and the Assam Assembly House Committee have recently submitted reports rejecting the current site and arguing that the dam should not continue without a comprehensive downstream impact assessment study. These reports suggest that Lower Subansiri would have significant impacts on flora and fauna, including many endemic species, as well as enormous livelihood implications. The delaying of this project also gives some indication of the strength of civil society vis-à-vis the expansion of large-scale dams, with the local group, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS), in particular being a significant force. Again, there are a combination of factors at play here because the KMSS has been able to build upon its previous involvement in land and forest campaigns to garner local support, and because its general secretary, Akhil Gogoi, a right to information (RTI) activist and a prominent member of the Anna Hazare national populist anti-corruption movement, has been effective in tapping into the zeitgeist of the broader anti-corruption movement. 39 While Gogoi has been labelled a terrorist by the police in Assam, it is the destabilisation caused by the many dams planned and under construction in the Northeast, rather than the activities of organisations such as the KMSS or the similarly-inclined student and youth organisation, Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad, that is likely to lead to a greater public receptiveness towards existing insurgent groups amongst disenfranchised people in these two states.
Arguably, as dam building in the Indian Himalayas continues, future large-scale hydro development will increase tensions across borders, perhaps to a greater extent than projects such as the Farakka Barrage (West Bengal), Mahakali Irrigation Project (Nepal) or Wullar Barrage (Jammu and Kashmir) did in the past. To understand the extent and the implications of these challenges, we must, therefore, turn to the regional scale and examine what the multiple crises of water in India will mean for other parts of South Asia.

Trans-Boundary Water Resources and Crisis

The larger context for India’s actions is the rush by all of the nations of the Hindu-Kush Himalayas to construct dams for power, irrigation and flood control. In outlining these attempts in China, South Asia and Southeast Asia, Kenneth Pomeranz has argued that they collectively constitute the most significant modification of the natural environment in human history. 40 Certainly, whether one agrees or not with the intent of these plans, there can be no denying that the scale of the endeavour is breathtaking in its ambition. In the case of India, attempts extend to harnessing the many rivers that it shares, either as the upstream or downstream riparian, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. Earlier attempts to co-operate over these resources have had a troubled history, not least in the political backlash and feelings of enmity engendered in these latter countries that have frequently accompanied any negotiated settlement with India. 41 In the Eastern and Central Himalayas, a range of issues continue to capture the public imagination in Nepal and Bangladesh and serve as a conduit for complaints over the perceived failings of their own governments, as well as distrust of India’s intentions. Tipaimukh in Northeast India and West Seti in Nepal are among the most contested hydro projects today. 42
In the case of the Indus basin to the west, the political climate in Pakistan has become even more antagonistic due to India’s efforts to undertake more projects on the upper reaches of the eastern rivers of the basin. Pakistan has an economy that is almost entirely dependent upon agriculture, particularly the water-hungry textile, sugar and wheat industries, and is prone to worsening power shortages. Both of these features are enabled by an extensive canal system, but it is India that is in control of the Indus headwaters. Thus, Pakistan’s economic fragility is coupled with a state that is dominated by reasonably small vested interests, lacks legitimacy amongst a growing proportion of the population, and is a soft state in as much as it lacks the capacity to deliver services and infrastructure. 43 To some commentators, there is an increasing sense that water has always been a largely unacknowledged, but important, component of the ongoing disputes over Kashmir. Wirsing and Jassparo argued in 2006 that the question of who gets to use the region’s water resources at different periods each year has significant impacts upon the regional politics of Kashmir, even if other, more obvious, tensions have detracted from its significance in the public domain. 44
The touchstone for much of the discussion of water-sharing between Pakistan and India is the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). There is a widely-held view in much of the literature that the operation of the IWT, which divided the rivers of the Indus basin in 1960, and gave India the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) and Pakistan the western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and the Indus itself), has been a significant example of bilateral co-operation during a period when India and Pakistan were involved in a series of conflicts. 45 While Chellaney has even gone so far as to suggest that the IWT is the ‘world’s most generous water-sharing pact’ and that ‘this treaty’s munificence is unsurpassed in scale in the annals of international water treaties’, 46 other scholars have argued that Pakistan’s initial scope of action was constrained by historical contingencies. 47 The boundaries drawn up at Partition left Pakistan, as the lower riparian, in a vulnerable position, since the irrigation canal supplies in Punjab, Pakistan’s most fertile area, had their source in Indian territory. In recognition of the fact that India was the upper riparian country for the western rivers which were allocated to Pakistan, there are restrictions placed on its capacity to modify the flow of these rivers, so that Pakistan’s lower riparian rights are not impeded. One of these provisions is that India is able to build storage facilities on rivers that flow into Pakistan only if these are of limited capacity. In recent years, this provision has been consistently tested by India as it has sought to expand projects in the upper reaches of the western rivers. India has argued that this is part of a broader project to decrease the marginalisation and underdevelopment of the troubled Jammu and Kashmir province. In that sense, the calm of earlier periods was deceptive because it was premised on India not constructing projects on the headwaters.
While there has been an array of contentious projects over time, including the Salal Dam and the Baglihar Hydel Power Project, both on the Chenab, and the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project on the Jhelum, the most currently contentious is India’s 330 MW Kishanganga hydropower project on the Kishanganga river. But downstream on the same river, Pakistan is constructing the 969 MW Neelum-Jhelum Hydroelectric Project, and it is thought that Kishanganga will interfere with the Neelum-Jhelum by diverting water on a scale that is greater than is allowed under the IWT. The contentious part of the Kishanganga project is the 21-kilometre diversion tunnel that will divert water into the Wullar lake. Some analysts argue that the completion of the project would reduce Pakistan’s water supply by 8–9 percent, with critics arguing that this will have significant impacts upon Azad Kashmir. 48
Many people view the decision to continue the construction of the Baglihar barrage as marking a significant point in the changing relations between India and Pakistan as mediated by the IWT. The barrage, on which construction began in 1999, was originally scheduled to be finished in 2007.
However, Pakistan officials claimed that the barrage was in violation of the IWT. Pakistan asked the World Bank to appoint a neutral arbiter to mediate on the legality of Baglihar after the Bank was unable to broker a solution satisfactory to both parties despite repeated meetings. Ultimately, the neutral arbiter, Raymond Lafitte, decided that India should be allowed to proceed with its construction. 49 While there are many who doubt the interpretation of the neutral expert, 50 perhaps, the more significant issue is that for some Pakistanis, it has effectively delegitimised the IWT; there is moreover an unfortunate suggestion that the World Bank can no longer be trusted to act on behalf of both parties.
An indication of the way that these debates are proceeding can be judged by a 2010 article by John Briscoe in which he describes the ongoing processes associated with the Indus basin as a ‘looming train wreck’. 51 Briscoe, who for ten years was Senior Water Advisor for the World Bank in South Asia, laments the fact that his former employer has retreated from its previous role as an active, neutral mediator between India and Pakistan and alleges that it now sides consistently with India. He goes further to suggest that the legitimate concerns of Pakistan over its worsening water situation, and India’s potential role in this, are never aired in the Indian media. Indeed, Briscoe asserts that the Ministry of External Affairs in India essentially instructs the media in the editorial line it is to take on international water-sharing disputes.
Certainly, as Ramaswamy Iyer pointed out in 2011 in a riposte to Briscoe published a month later, there is contention over Briscoe’s assertion that the storage facilities proposed by India are in breach of the IWT. 52 However, the proliferation in Pakistan of demonstrations, and protests on social media sites and in newspaper articles, can leave little doubt that Kishanganga has indeed become a symbol of disenchantment with the IWT and the World Bank’s role as the third signatory to the Treaty. More militant voices are taking up the issue, most notably Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Jamaat-u-Dawa, the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, who has used the theme of India’s water projects to foment militant nationalism amongst his followers. 53 This, of course, does not in itself suggest that such views should be given credence within India if they are based on spurious or fallacious grounds.
However, after reviewing almost two hundred newspaper articles concerning Kishanganga that have appeared in Indian and Pakistani English-language media over the past two years, I would argue that Briscoe’s interpretation of the role of the Indian media is essentially correct. While there are some exceptions, it is true that the Indian media rarely acknowledge that Pakistan is a country almost entirely dependent upon one river system, the Indus and its tributaries, for its agriculture and potentially for much of its power. Indeed, there is a significant contrast between the Indian and the international media, which have increasingly taken up the issue, with articles appearing in the National Geographic, The Economist, The New York Times and The Guardian. 54
Perhaps, most influentially, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report in early 2011 that argued that while a single Indian planned project would not necessarily be significant, the cumulative impact of all of the planned projects would be potentially damaging to Pakistan. 55
Undoubtedly, there are problems with the United States’ assertions that there is a crisis of environmental security, and the focus on ‘water wars’ is seen amongst those who study trans-boundary water resources, either in South Asia or elsewhere, as largely unsubstantiated. 56 Nevertheless, there are significant issues raised in the Senate report that deserve attention in India and elsewhere. India’s growing use of the shared waters and Pakistan’s increasing demand for water for agriculture should be seen as legitimate concerns for human security and the well-being of several hundred million people in the Indus basin. In discussing the impacts of global warming, there is an explicit recognition in this report of the emerging consensus that the Himalayas are likely to be adversely affected by climate change earlier and more severely than other similar mountain regions. Given that in the northern part of South Asia, 80 percent of the dry season flow to major rivers is glacier fed, this is of considerable significance to thinking through possible future scenarios. While in the short term, climate change is likely to lead to greater discharge into perennial rivers, it will also mean greater occurrences of glacial outbursts, flash floods and sedimentation of dams. Lieven is among those commentators who argue that the recurrence of devastating floods, as seen particularly in 2010 and then again in 2011 and 2012, carries with it the potential to destabilise society to a far greater extent than the threat of Islamic militancy. 57
A factor that has the potential to further complicate these matters is Chinese expansion into the hydropower industry in countries such as Nepal and Pakistan. While still at an early stage and very much a work in progress, given the size, expertise and access to capital of the Chinese hydropower sector, this is potentially a significant development for the hydro-politics of South Asia in the future. Chinese companies are beginning to invest in Pakistan, including in the Neelum-Jhelum project, and this support may alter the balance between India and Pakistan on the Indus. Similarly, in February 2012, the China Three Gorges Corporation (CTGC) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the government of Nepal for the development of the 750 MW West Seti project. 58 Situated in the far western part of the country, West Seti has been rescheduled ten times over sixteen years. During this time, the Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, the Australian company which had won the tender to build the dam, had tried and failed to obtain the money needed to complete the project. In 2012, the CTGC agreed to facilitate a soft loan with the Chinese EXIM bank for US$1.6 billion. The dam is now scheduled to begin construction in 2016 with a projected completion date of 2020. 59
Nevertheless, it would be premature to suggest that Chinese intervention is likely to definitively alter the socio-political complexities of water projects within or between the countries of the region. Indeed, the West Seti deal has subsequently been caught up in political debate in Nepal, with accusations that the government has signed the MoU for the project without an appropriate tendering process. Maoist MPs now argue that previous agreements to sell electricity to India were anti-national and pro-India, while Nepali Congress MPs argue that the Maoists were favouring Chinese companies in ways that lacked transparency and due process. 60 Similarly, while Pakistan is growing closer to China and is actively seeking its support in implementing these projects, its continuing dependence upon the United States means that it is engaged in a delicate balancing act. While the exact configurations of regional water politics are clearly still evolving, these tensions certainly suggest that China must feature strongly in future deliberations over how water resources are to be managed.

Towards an Alternative Regionalism

The proliferation of large-scale hydropower projects increases the necessity for regional bodies that can adequately mediate between competing claims. There is a considerable divergence of opinion over the effectiveness of current institutional arrangements for the management of each of the major trans-boundary regions. There are river commissions in each of the major basins, including the Indus Basin Commission (Pakistan–India), the Mahakali Commission (India–Nepal) and the Joint Rivers Commission (Bangladesh–India); they have a mandate to incorporate the views of each country and have been operating for many years. Neda Zawahri is representative of those commentators who feel that these institutions are in the main effective. 61
By contrast, much of the commentary dismisses the importance of these bodies and argues that the relationships between the basin countries are dictated by India’s overwhelming economic and political dominance. Further, in the case of Bangladesh and Pakistan, it is claimed that India’s status as the upper riparian strengthens its advantage. In the case of Nepal, many within that country claim that its small population and dependence upon India for transit trade means there is little potential to substantially challenge India’s point of view.
There is an emerging literature that seeks to overcome these historic difficulties. Crow and Singh, for example, argue for establishing a regional organisation that they call the Himalayan Authority for Water Services and Environmental Co-operation. 62 To them, it is only through such a body that genuine regional co-operation might be possible. The World Bank and a number of donor countries have attempted to foster momentum for such a regional organisation through the South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI). This includes sponsorship of the ‘Abu Dhabi Dialogues’ (ADDs), which bring together Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Pakistan to promote dialogue. The ADDs have been convened on five occasions and they also feature small grant projects for non-government organisations (NGOs). 63
Given the opaque nature of many of the bureaucracies in the region, a key component of a regional body for co-ordinating the Himalayan rivers must be that it goes well beyond Track I (government to government) diplomacy to create space for networks of civil society and people’s movements from across the region. It must also be acknowledged that civil society itself has its own limitations in different parts of South Asia. Too often, NGOs in the region are preoccupied with donor-related developmentalism, rather than advocacy, 64 or are constrained in the extent to which they can express dissent. Part of the difficulty in realising the potential of these networks is the politically-fragmented nature of the subcontinent, which means that it is very difficult for pan-South Asian networks to regularly meet and forthrightly take up issues associated with trans-boundary water resources.
Certainly, there are signs of alliances forming between civil society groups drawn from across the region, but these are fairly nascent and, as yet, their influence on broader policy debates is hard to discern. The South Asian Solidarity on Rivers and Peoples (SARP) is an example of attempts by regional networks of civil society organisations to forge a common position. SARP arose out of the Sagarmatha Declaration adopted in Kathmandu in 2002 after an international consultation process organised by the Water and Energy Users’ Federation–Nepal (WAFED) in co-operation with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and Peoples (SANDRP) and many other national and international groups and movements. Similarly, several prominent think-tanks, such as the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, have attempted to promote regional networks of organisations such as Imagine New South Asia (INSA) which, among other things, is looking at various issues surrounding regional co-operation over trans-boundary water resources. 65 Further attempts at strengthening civil society networks took place at the South Asia Social Forum in Dhaka in 2011, most notably by a coalition led by the Dhaka-based Angikar Bangladesh. Resolutions were passed at this forum that urged greater transparency from all government and private sector-led large-scale hydro developments in the region. If such initiatives were to be incorporated into regional institutions, then it is conceivable that water resource development might proceed in a way that is more equitable, transparent and sustainable than that which currently prevails.


In the post-Independence period, the pronouncement of a crisis in India has often preceded changes to structures of the economy and polity. There is nothing natural about crises; they arise from particular social forms and certain kinds of resource use. So, too, with the multiple crises of water in India, which are the consequences of a raft of interrelated dynamics on a variety of scales. These ongoing crises reflect the continuing and, arguably, outdated thinking of high modernism that has characterised India’s technocratic project of development. It also reminds us of the continuing legacy of the unresolved ‘agrarian question’ and thus the perpetuation of marginality amongst the land-poor scheduled castes and Adivasis. The continuation of the structural biases in the polity consistently favours privileged groups while failing to provide for the basic needs of its poorest citizens. Thus, while there are institutions that can support the interests of local citizens, the nexus between state and capital in contemporary India is strengthening; water resource ‘development’ is thus often accompanied by coercive state intervention to dispossess local citizens, in the process brutally enforcing spatial patterns of injustice that discriminate against various groups living in peripheral parts of the country.

These multiple crises, of which water remains such a potent symbol, remind us that despite the seemingly endless opportunities that the advocates of neo-liberal governance and development claim, India remains a troubled and divided country. Further, and as this article has argued, to assess the real extent of the crises of water in India, we must turn our attention to the regional scale and examine how the quest for harnessing hydropower from the Himalayas is exacerbating tensions within and outside the country. This crisis is concerned with how India manages its peripheral regions and its relationships with its neighbours. Therefore, beyond the real and growing need for energy that preoccupies many policy-makers and commentators, there are other issues that deserve attention, not least the disregard for mega-biodiversity hotspots in the Eastern Himalayas, the continued oppression of marginal groups within India’s borders, and what is viewed elsewhere in South Asia as the arrogance of a regional hegemon in disregarding the potential impacts of its projects on lower riparian communities.
As one of the least integrated regions in the world, co-operation between all of South Asia’s states for the benefit of the region’s citizens is less likely than continual division and enmity, despite the fact that such co-operation is essential if the multiple crises of water are to be overcome to any significant degree. As argued in this article, multi-scalar civil society networks could play an active and important role in overcoming this impasse and re-framing the debates about water resource management, but, at present, such networks are weak, underdeveloped and unable to exert significant influence on state policy and inter-state relations.

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