Addressing South Asia’s Climate-Water Security Nexus
On September 21, 2023, in parallel with Climate Week NYC, the Asia Society Policy Institute (ASPI) convened a meeting titled “South Asia & Neighbors: Understanding the Climate-Water Nexus.” This gathering brought together experts, think tank professionals, and practitioners to discuss the challenges at the intersection of climate change and water security in South Asia and neighboring regions. The roundtable served as a platform for understanding, assessing, and formulating solutions to the pressing issues affecting the region.
Climate Change and Water Insecurity
The gravity of the water insecurity situation becomes evident when we consider the worsening impact of climate change, which is undeniably the defining crisis of our time. This crisis is reshaping the hydrological landscape of South Asia in alarming and unprecedented ways. In a region already acknowledged as one of the most water-stressed in the world, a staggering 74% of the population is grappling with high water stress levels. Erratic climate patterns, such as unpredictable rainfall, prolonged droughts, and more frequent extreme weather events, are significantly disrupting water availability. This poses a threat to the region’s water security, particularly in light of its rapidly expanding population. The situation becomes even more complex as the Himalayan glaciers, vital sources for the region’s major rivers, are rapidly receding in response to rising temperatures. Scientists project that these glaciers will lose 10 to 30% of their mass by 2030, jeopardizing the stability of these life-sustaining waterways.
Additionally, South Asia has been witnessing more severe monsoons and erratic rainfall patterns as a consequence of climate change. These changes have led to devastating floods that have disrupted livelihoods and caused extensive damage to essential infrastructure, exemplified by the tragic Pakistan floods of 2022. In addition, glacial lake outburst floods, have become a recurring phenomenon in the region, most recently in Sikkim, India. UNICEF has reported that every child in South Asia bears the weight of exposure to at least one climate or environmental hazard, underscoring the severity of the situation. Neighboring regions, such as Southeast Asia, are grappling with analogous challenges. This year, they too witnessed record-breaking temperatures in several countries within the region, including Thailand and Vietnam.
As if the existing challenges were not daunting in their own right, climate change has the potential to exacerbate transboundary conflicts. Socioeconomic disparities and power imbalances among the riparian countries add to the complexity, acting as influential catalysts for hydro-political tensions over shared water resources. This situation is particularly acute in South Asia, a region that, despite its considerable potential, remains significantly fragmented and marked by persistent geopolitical instability.
Spotlight on Transboundary Water Politics in South Asia
The intersection of climate change and transboundary water politics presents a complex web of challenges and opportunities. The Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra, Indus, and Ganges Rivers, which meander through the region, serve as microcosms that illuminate the intricate dynamics of water security. This nexus not only embodies the fragility of shared water resources but also underlines the urgent need for proactive cooperation.
Consider the Yarlung Tsangpo/Brahmaputra River, a lifeline shared by India and China. These two Himalayan heavyweights, whose relationship is marked by a history of strained relations and ongoing cross-border tensions, represent the delicate dance of diplomacy involved in transboundary water management. Tensions along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) cast a perpetual shadow of uncertainty over the region, reigniting concerns about a potential water conflict.
This challenge is exacerbated by the absence of formal water-sharing agreements between India and China. Neither country has ratified significant international conventions such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Water Convention or the United Nations Watercourses Convention. Instead, their cooperative framework relies on a series of memorandums of understanding (MOUs) tailored for hydrological data exchange. Crucially, these MOUs, which are currently in the process of renewal, remain vulnerable to disruptions caused by political uncertainties. The 2017 Doklam standoff is a notable example, as China was accused of withholding critical hydrological data from India, potentially leveraging it for strategic purposes. If these allegations hold true, the incident stresses the susceptibility of collaborative mechanisms during periods of geopolitical strain. Adding to the complexity, China’s expanding portfolio of dams and hydropower projects in the Brahmaputra basin, including the ambitious “super dam,” could alter the river’s flow patterns. Such modifications could also heighten flood risks downstream.
In contrast, formal water-sharing agreements are in place in South Asia for the Indus River. The Indus and its five tributaries together form the Indus basin, spanning four countries and sustaining a significant portion of the populations and livelihoods there. India and Pakistan, the primary stakeholders in the basin, have divvied up the rights to the tributaries under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960. Remarkably, despite wars and political tensions between India and Pakistan, the IWT is largely considered a success story in transboundary water management. However, this treaty now must grapple with new challenges. A growing population, the impacts of climate change, rising demands for hydropower, and increasing irrigation requirements in both countries have intensified the strain on the Indus, necessitating a reevaluation of the treaty to align with current challenges.
Like other waterways in the region, the Ganges River encapsulates both the intricacies and the opportunities inherent in the management of shared water resources. In 1996, India and Bangladesh marked a significant milestone by signing the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty. The origins of this treaty can be traced to the early 1960s, when India commenced construction of the Farakka Barrage. While this 30-year accord outlines the minimum volume of water that India is committed to sharing with Bangladesh, specifically during the dry season from January to May, numerous unresolved issues persist. The treaty is scheduled for revision in 2026.
Unequal power dynamics have also had a significant influence on Nepal and India’s water-sharing arrangements, which affect approximately 6,000 rivers and streams. Delays in project implementation, including hydropower and irrigation initiatives, and unequal water allocation are significant points of contention. Disputes over the governance of transboundary water resources have frequently led to diplomatic conflicts between the two nations.
Presented here are the primary takeaways and insights derived from the “South Asia & Neighbors: Understanding the Climate-Water Nexus” roundtable discussion, encompassing viewpoints from significant river basins in South Asia as well as the Mekong River basin.
- Climate Change as a Water Problem: The participants collectively acknowledged climate change as a profound water-related issue with widespread repercussions. Furthermore, they stressed that the relationship between climate change, water, and energy security necessitates an approach that integrates all these sectors. Such an approach could effectively address these interlinked challenges by capitalizing on synergies across policy domains.
- Complex Challenges in River Basins: The discussion brought to the forefront the intricate nature of the challenges faced in river basins, which are influenced by a complex interplay of sociopolitical, economic, cultural, and ecological factors. It also shed light on the impact of traditional development policies that have historically associated water availability with economic well-being and require reevaluation. This mindset has led to the implementation of large-scale projects focused on water supply and hydropower within these basins. It is crucial to acknowledge the challenges that arise from both the supply side and the demand management side.
- The Transboundary Nature of Issues and Need for Regional Cooperation: A persistent theme throughout the conversations was the inevitability of regional climate cooperation, transcending political divisions. The participants focused on the significance of both interregional and intraregional collaboration to confront mutual challenges, ensure efficient resource management, and adapt to the consequences of climate change. In this context, diplomatic initiatives could play a pivotal role in facilitating the creation and renewal of formal water-sharing agreements. These agreements define the rights and obligations of all involved parties, thereby minimizing uncertainty and the risk of disputes.
- Basin-Level Assessment: The participants advocated for the river basin to be recognized as a central management unit. They flagged the necessity of establishing mechanisms at a regional scale for managing the shared resource of rivers and water. In this regard, the role of river basin organizations, like the Mekong River Commission established in 1995, is instrumental. These organizations can play a crucial role in promoting cooperation among stakeholders, bridging diverse sectors, and ensuring the equitable and sustainable utilization of water resources, thereby safeguarding the integrity of the ecosystem.
- Dam Development and Hydropower Projects: The current and future impact of rampant dam development on river ecosystems and downstream riparian nations was a key concern, specifically with respect to large-scale hydropower projects. The participants called attention to the ways in which climate change exacerbates these issues, leading to shifts in hydrological cycles and making traditional approaches to dam design and flood predictions less reliable.
- Multilateral and Private Sector Engagement: The participants recognized the crucial role of multilateral cooperation in tackling transboundary water challenges. Multilateral and regional organizations play a pivotal role in enabling the sharing of hydrological data, mediating in bilateral disputes, and offering capacity-building initiatives to enhance the governance and management of shared water resources. Additionally, these entities advocate for sustainable practices and provide vital assistance to countries as they adapt to the changing effects of climate change on water resources and on the food and energy sectors. Notably, the SDG Summit at the United Nations in September 2023 emphasized the significance of water, and its final declaration made water security a central theme, a promising development in this regard. Additionally, the private sector, along with organizations like the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, was regarded as potential collaborators in the pursuit of water sustainability. There was a particular emphasis on fostering public-private partnerships.
- Role of International Conventions: Utilizing established international legal frameworks, illustrated by the water conventions discussed here, is paramount for promoting collaboration among nations sharing water resources. These frameworks not only stimulate greater information exchange but also help protective against future conflicts, particularly in regions where transboundary water sources have become points of contention.
- Data Sharing and Information Exchange: The participants highlighted the importance of data sharing, at the national and international levels, with a specific mention of the challenges of sharing information within states. Enhancing data-sharing mechanisms was also seen as a key step toward effective regional/basin-wide cooperation. To that end, the agreement between China and the five Mekong countries to exchange real-time data on dam operations by the end of 2023 was cited as a step in the right direction.
- Media’s Role in Raising Awareness: The participants gave weight to the role of the media in raising awareness about water and climate issues, with calls to engage journalists and empower them to report on these issues effectively.
- Community Engagement and Inclusivity: Community engagement, with a particular focus on the involvement of women and youth, was acknowledged as an essential element of sustainable water management. The participants emphasized that those most affected by climate change should not be mere bystanders, but should be actively engaged in decision-making and problem-solving. Recognizing the significance of a people-centered approach to data sharing, the roundtable underscored the value of a community-centered approach, leveraging indigenous knowledge sharing as a valuable example.
As we confront the multifaceted challenges posed by the climate–water security nexus, it becomes abundantly clear that the path forward hinges on practical actions rooted in cooperation, diplomacy, and open dialogue.
From a South Asian perspective, the upcoming Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP28) offers a pivotal moment for the region’s nations to collectively demonstrate their commitment to addressing climate–water security challenges, an opportunity that, regrettably, remained unexplored during the recent 78th United Nations General Assembly session. Leveraging COP28 as a platform, South Asian countries have the potential to strengthen cooperation while spotlighting the urgent need for technical and financial support, thus garnering international backing. The region should draw lessons from neighboring regions, particularly Southeast Asia and Central Asia, while simultaneously crafting its own model in which cooperation and resilience are achievable, even in the face of political disparities and various other obstacles.
ASPI expresses gratitude to all the participating experts for their invaluable contributions. Moving ahead, ASPI reaffirms its dedication to mobilizing and engaging experts and stakeholders from South Asia as part of its continuous endeavors to shine a light on regional climate and water challenges amidst the constantly evolving domains of security and the environment.