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Water Crisis Battles Reaching Our Doorsteps: A Worry for the Future

If we fail to resolve these domestic water-sharing issues, they will not only strain and drain us internally but also exacerbate transboundary water disputes
water crisis battles reaching our doorsteps  a worry for the future

Water scarcity is no longer a distant threat; it has reached our doorsteps, manifesting in local disputes that foreshadow potentially severe future conflicts.


If we fail to resolve these domestic water-sharing issues, they will not only strain and drain us internally but also exacerbate transboundary water disputes as global water stress intensifies due to population growth and climate change. It is already telling upon our international relations with neighbours and the risks of conflict over resources are escalating. Water, as we all know is an essential resource for life, and has historically been a source of contention among nations, ethnic groups, and communities. Its scarcity has led to regional disputes, military conflicts, and even ethnic violence. Today, as global water stress intensifies, these conflicts are becoming more frequent and severe.


The Recent Crisis in Delhi


In June, Delhi experienced an intense heatwave that dramatically increased water consumption, leading to a severe water shortage. In response, the Delhi government went to the Supreme Court appealing for Haryana to allow water to travel between Punjab and Delhi through Haryana canals, which Haryana refused to follow. Delhi’s Water Minister Atishi resorted to a hunger strike, demanding the release of water from the neighbouring state of Haryana. Atishi’s health deteriorated, requiring her hospitalisation after four days of hunger strike. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which governs Delhi, asserts that the city is entitled to its rightful share of water from Haryana and conflict between neighbouring states continues.


The Southern Conflict: Tamil Nadu vs. Karnataka


In South India, the sharing of the Kaveri River’s waters has been a longstanding source of contention between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. This conflict dates to agreements made in 1892 and 1924 between the Madras Presidency and the Kingdom of Mysore. Despite a tribunal’s resolution of a lengthy legal battle over the Cauvery River a decade ago, the two states now face a similar dispute over the Pennaiyar River. The Pennaiyar River originates in Karnataka, flows through Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and eventually reaches the Bay of Bengal. Tamil Nadu’s industry relies heavily on this river, with over 2,000 acres of agricultural land in Krishnagiri alone being impacted by water scarcity. Tamil Nadu keeps highlighting the critical nature of this issue.


A couple of years ago, Karnataka’s Chief Minister Siddaramaiah called for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention to resolve the ongoing Cauvery water-sharing conflict to mediate and find a solution between the two states.


The Cauvery dispute, rooted in the British era, saw a temporary resolution in 1924 when Mysore was permitted to construct a dam at Kannambadi village to store 44.8 thousand million cubic feet of water. This agreement, valid for 50 years, has since led to numerous legal battles in the Supreme Court, with no permanent resolution in sight.

These cited examples underscore the urgent need to address domestic water-sharing disputes to prevent internal strains. The water battles in Delhi and between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka highlight the critical nature of equitable resource distribution and cooperative governance.

If we fail to find sustainable solutions, these local conflicts could escalate into inter-state broader crises, threatening the stability and well-being of our development. It is imperative that we prioritize water management and inter-state cooperation and not allow the issue to linger on for future generations.

External Water Disputes are Also a Concern

Transboundary water disputes, involving water sources that cross national borders, add another layer of complexity.

The Teesta River Dispute with Bangladesh

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee recently wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, declaring it “not feasible” to share the Teesta River’s waters with Bangladesh. This stance, according to strategic experts, could derail New Delhi’s hydro-diplomacy with Dhaka. Banerjee’s letter comes at a time when India is attempting to strengthen ties with Bangladesh through the “conservation and management” of the Teesta River system and a plan to renew the Ganges Water Treaty of 1996.

Banerjee’s pre-emptive strike, immediately after the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister’s successful visit to India highlights the water dispute of the Teesta river over the years, warning that sharing water with Bangladesh would severely impact irrigation and drinking water needs in North Bengal. “Water flow in the Teesta has gone down over the years and it is estimated that, if any water is shared with Bangladesh, lakhs of people in North Bengal will get severely impacted due to inadequate availability of irrigation water,” Banerjee’s letter states.

Bangladesh has been awaiting a water-sharing pact for the Teesta since 2011 when Banerjee thwarted a deal during a visit to Dhaka by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Recently, Prime Minister Modi and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina discussed various aspects of bilateral cooperation, with river water-sharing being a central issue. Bangladesh, a lower riparian country, has long demanded a fair share of the Teesta’s waters to address water scarcity in its northwest region. With Dhaka’s patience wearing thin, China entered the scene with a $1 billion multipurpose Teesta management project proposal. Just before her India visit, Hasina mentioned in the Bangladesh parliament her consideration of the Chinese proposal, prompting India to offer the “conservation and management” of the Teesta and a review of the Ganges Treaty. Banerjee’s opposition to renewing the Ganges Treaty, which expires in 2026, complicates matters further.

The internal Centre-Bengal standoff has already influenced “anti-India” sentiments in Bangladesh. Bangladesh’s Prime Minister is also planning to visit China next month which will be closely watched for its outcomes.

The Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) with Pakistan faces its challenges. A Pakistani delegation recently visited Jammu and Kashmir to inspect two hydroelectric power projects under the IWT. This visit marks the first in over five years under the treaty’s dispute settlement mechanism. The IWT, signed in 1960 after nine years of negotiations with the World Bank as a signatory, provides a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange on the use of cross-border river waters. In 2016, Pakistan went to the World Bank for a Neutral Expert to address objections to the design features of our projects. However, it later sought adjudication through a Court of Arbitration, which India opposed. The World Bank eventually appointed both a Neutral Expert and the chair of the Court of Arbitration. India, refusing to participate in the Court of Arbitration, submitted its case to the Neutral Expert, indicating a complex legal and diplomatic fight over water resources brewing further tension between the two countries. The United Nations World Water Development Report 2024, published by UNESCO on behalf of UN-Water, highlights the exacerbation of conflicts due to water stress. It calls for increased international cooperation and transboundary agreements to manage water resources sustainably and equitably.

Alvaro Lario, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and Chair of UN-Water emphasizes that water, when managed sustainably, can be a source of peace and prosperity. However, today, 2.2 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water and 3.5 billion lack access to sanitation. The UN’s goal of ensuring universal access by 2030 is far from being achieved, with inequalities likely to rise.

Between 2002 and 2021, droughts affected more than 1.4 billion people. As of 2022, half of the world’s population experienced severe water scarcity for at least part of the year. Climate change is projected to increase the frequency and severity of these phenomena, posing acute risks to social stability.

Social Impacts of Water Scarcity

Water scarcity exacerbates social inequalities. Women and girls, often primary water collectors in rural areas, bear the brunt of water scarcity. The time-consuming task of fetching water undermines their education, economic participation, and safety, contributing to higher secondary school dropout rates among girls compared to boys. Moreover, water insecurity drives migration, further straining water resources in host areas and fuelling social tensions.

Water scarcity and disputes have also implications for food security, health, energy resources, and regional stability. As India navigates its internal water-sharing challenges and external hydro-diplomacy efforts, timely and effective solutions are imperative. Failure to address these issues could lead to heightened regional tensions, economic instability, and increased distant influence. India’s strength and acceptance globally put India presently on a high pedestal to take up these issues, and approach to resolving these disputes diplomatically in maintaining regional harmony and securing its water resources for the future.

The need for cooperative, sustainable water management practices is more urgent than ever. By fostering expert committees and taking issues at priority (and not keeping them on a back burner) it can bring much relief to the country and the region.

 The author is National Editor , Greater Kashmir