Water warsTensions simmer between India and Bangla Desh over dwindling water sources

Published 26 October 2009

The ice and snow caps of the Himalayas are depleted by global warming; as the availability of water in Himalayan-fed river systems that support 1.3 billion people drops, experts expect the border between India and Bangladesh to be the first flashpoint of an intensifying battle across south Asia

In the spring of 2008, in their annual report to the prime minister, the U.K. intelligence services warned that in fifteen years or so countries are likely to go to war with each other over access to fresh water sources — what the services called “water wars” (see 14 march 2008 HSNW). Experts predict that the first water war is likely to erupt between India and Bangla Desh.

Here is the background. FTs James Lamont reports that on the outskirts of Kathmandu, capital of Nepal, climate researchers twiddle with computers displaying maps of the Himalayas. At the press of a button, rivers and mountain passes change color and watercourses expand to show villages swept away by simulated flood waters.

Not all the researchers at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development are pondering the devastation that would result from the bursting of high-altitude glacial lakes, though. Some are considering what awaits millions of people when the ice and snow caps of the “water towers of Asia” —  so called because of the ten big rivers originating in the peaks — are depleted by global warming. Few are willing to guess when this will happen, but their charts and photographs of retreating snowlines and glaciers have the whiff of inevitability.

Already mountain hydrologists can pinpoint where water stress will be greatest in the years to come. As the availability of water in Himalayan-fed river systems that support 1.3 billion people drops, researchers expect the border between India and Bangladesh to be the first flashpoint of an intensifying battle across south Asia.

If we don’t address this [issue], it will further aggravate political conflict,” warns Golam Rasul, senior economist at the research center. His comments came as India publicly displayed its sensitivity over upstream control of water, challenging Beijing over potential plans to build dams in Tibet on the Brahmaputra river and to finance dams in Pakistani Kashmir on the Indus river.

Lamont writes that scientists warn that the nature of the monsoon, and precipitation over the Himalayas, have already changed for the worse. Sporadic, rather than sustained, torrential rain-fall removes topsoil and fails to revitalize the land. In some parts, they say, “severe and acute” local conflicts between communities are on the rise.

The foothills of the Himalayas are one of the most intensely irrigated food-producing areas of the world. Scientists say that while glacier melt has caught the world’s attention, a receding snow cap is more threatening to the livelihoods of farmers on the plains below. The critical period for water availability is between February and June, when farmers rely particularly on melting snow for irrigation.

The water treaties agreed in the region, some not updated since the 1960s, are viewed as inadequate. Transborder dialog is halting, with contact mainly at the technical level through scientific institutions rather than governments.

The political situation is not mature enough to go into basin-wide agreements,” says Andreas Schild, director general of the Kathmandu research center. “The local population is starting to be worried. They are asking themselves: ‘Why are all these foreigners coming up to look at our glaciers?’”

Disputes over river waters have dominated relations between India and Bangladesh for decades. About 54 rivers flow into Bangladesh from India and, with an agrarian economy dependent on rivers, Dhaka has raised concerns about the amount of water that flows into its territory, particularly along the Ganges.

Schild says not enough is known about the extent of the water resources in the Himalayas. None of the scientists regrets the new focus their work is receiving. Fear over climate change, ahead of the intergovernmental summit in Copenhagen in December, is prompting broader issues about sustainability in the region to be addressed.