By Scott Moore, Ph.D.
July 12, 2019
A few weeks ago, I returned from India, where I traveled to talk about my book, Subnational Hydropolitics: Conflict, Cooperation, and Institution-Building in Shared River Basins. Unfortunately, India is an important market for the kind of advice I try to offer on how to deal with the growing challenge of conflict over water between regions and communities. As I note in the book, India stands out for the sheer number of subnational water conflicts, with virtually every major river basin playing host to some type of long-running conflict. I was hosted by two think tanks: the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and the Observer Research Foundation in Kolkata. Thanks to them, I was able to engage with a range of researchers, civil society organizations, and policymakers, and spoke at the Central Water Commission, one of the Indian government’s primary water management authorities. I came away with three big impressions.
First, prospects for cooperation over water look a little brighter within India than they did a few years ago. Political tensions between state governments, which make up the majority of India’s river basin disputes, have ebbed in important basins like the Kauveri and Krishna. In part, the improving prospects for subnational water cooperation stem from the success of the ruling BJP party in India’s recent elections. While being part of the same party by no means guarantees cooperation when it comes to shared water resources, my research suggests that, all other things being equal, members of the same political party have more reasons to choose cooperation over conflict.
Unfortunately, this largely positive outlook is in many respects canceled out by the rise in tensions between India and Pakistan, which has bled over to shared waterways like the Indus. This shift is alarming for several reasons, not least that the Indus Water Treaty is often viewed as one of the world’s most successful international water agreements, and has survived no fewer than three full-scale wars between India and Pakistan. It may not, however, survive the current period. In February 2019, India threatened to cut off the flow of water into Pakistan, a core element of the treaty, in response to an attack by what it alleges were Pakistan-backed militants on a military outpost in Kashmir. This would be technically difficult to accomplish, but the message nonetheless got through to Islamabad. Pakistan has formally requested arbitration under the terms of the treaty, but tensions and rhetoric remain high. Given the significance that national security issues and Pakistan played in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landmark victory in the recent elections, these tensions are unlikely to dissipate any time soon.
My visit also coincided with the beginnings of what is currently India’s most severe water crisis: an acute drinking water shortage in the southern city of Chennai. Like most cities in India, Chennai depends largely on the annual monsoons to replenish its storage reservoirs. This year, though, the monsoon is coming later than usual, straining the city’s water supplies past the breaking point. Data show that the city’s reservoir levels are about one-hundredth of their normal levels. To make matters worse, Chennai’s groundwater aquifers are over-exploited, as they are in much of India, meaning that they can’t be tapped in times of drought and water scarcity. Chennai will probably get through the current crisis by a combination of relying on tanker truck water shipped in from the surrounding region and by the imminent arrival of the monsoon. But climate change means that this kind of situation is likely to become more common.
My third and final impression had to do with what I saw as a change in perception over what
to do in response to these changes. In India, as in much of the world, certain policy responses to water shortages, like increasing water prices, have historically been viewed with great skepticism. On this visit, though, several high-ranking policymakers expressed interest in my views on water pricing and how it could be responsibly applied. It’s certainly not easy. Water pricing can be highly regressive, and therefore disproportionately affect the poor. It’s also not straightforward to measure water use in agriculture, which accounts for the vast majority of India’s water use. But even so, interest in water pricing is a good sign, because it signals that India’s water managers are thinking broadly about how to encourage more sustainable use of the country’s most important resource.