A vital pivot

As the global water crisis persists and scales, affecting economies and diplomacy, the need for transnational collaborations aimed at sustainable solutions has become far more pertinent

A vital pivot

Sustainable Development Goal-6 aims to achieve water and sanitation for all by 2030. Parallelly, it aims to build a sustainable water structure. However, as things stand today, water scarcity prevails across the globe.

According to a World Bank report, about 4 billion people in the world suffer from water shortage for at least one month a year. It is believed that due to climate change, this crisis will intensify in the coming days. This is bound to create serious obstacles in socio-economic development.

The Sixth Assessment Report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change also shows that climate change has caused a one-degree Celsius rise in temperatures above normal. This is disrupting the water cycle. As a result, the frequency of droughts, floods and cyclones is increasing. Agricultural scientists have demonstrated that corn, wheat, rice and soybean yields decrease by 3-7 per cent for a one degree Celsius increase in average temperature. Naturally, the food supply is under pressure. Water-related problems affect nearly 40 per cent of the world's population. This number is expected to increase dramatically in the coming times.

Water crisis in India

Water crisis in India is in quite a worrisome state. About 151 villages in Maharashtra are facing water shortage. As the water level in the reservoirs and dams decrease, the amount of groundwater withdrawal tends to get high, and that has resulted in quite a fall in the level of 'ground water table'. More than 500 villages in 14 districts of Gujarat depend on tankers for water. Half of Jharkhand, including the capital Ranchi, is affected by drought. Groundwater in Rajasthan has decreased by 62.70 per cent. Post-Covid-19, water crisis has intensified in the rural areas of the state. Even in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh the situation is bad. Chennai, too, was once in the headlines for its water crisis. Restaurants, businesses and schools had to be temporarily closed for a few days. Residents had to buy water from municipal or private tankers at exorbitant rates. This water crisis has created a severe agricultural crisis in Karnataka. Karnataka government has declared that there is drinking water shortage in 3,122 areas. This year, in the beginning of March itself, people's lives were disrupted due to water crisis in Bangalore city.

Water and economy

In Bengali, there is a popular saying or reference that loosely translates to, ‘as cheap as (price of) water...’, but in reality, water is neither cheap, nor easily available. Economic growth cannot be thought of without water. Just as efficient use of water accelerates economic growth, water pollution and wastage have a strong negative impact on economy. India's current water crisis is slowing down the country's economic development. About 50 per cent of freshwater is used in agriculture. Agricultural production is decreasing due to water scarcity, resulting in decreasing farmers' income. Animal husbandry and fish farming are not possible without water. About 50 per cent population of the country are involved in agriculture and allied sectors. Their reduced income due to lack of water has an impact throughout the economy. Subsequently, effective demand is decreasing in the 'industry and services' sector. In addition, water shortages in textile, leather, food and beverage industries increase production costs while the volume of production decreases.

Waste produced by human consumption pollutes water. It causes depletion of water resources. If we add to the GDP the debt burden on the economy due to water pollution, the GDP growth rate will appear to be much lower.

Moreover, water scarcity can reduce the rate of economic growth in the long run as well. Lack of water affects public health, disrupting the supply of labour in various sectors of the economy. Poor public health undermines the food security of the economy. It impacts the agricultural sector by widening the supply-demand gap. Furthermore, when there is a drought due to lack of water, food prices skyrocket. If this situation persists for a long time, it pushes the overall economy towards recession.

Studies have shown that large investments in water conservation are helping economic growth in hot and dry tropical countries. Investments are learnt to have reduced the incidence of malnutrition and child mortality. Clearly, efficient use of water resources is essential for any country to sustain its growing population and stimulate its economy.

Water and diplomacy

According to United Nations estimate, India's water demand will reach to about 1.5 trillion cubic meters in 2030, from 740 billion cubic meters in 2010. India's water crisis is largely responsible for India's water disputes with neighbouring countries.

'Water' is a matter of political contestation among South Asian countries. Water scarcity in these countries have resulted in agricultural production problems; analogous with it are the increasing demand for electricity and water for rapid industrialisation. In such situations, bilateral water-sharing agreements are essential to stabilise water levels.

The Indus Water Treaty was signed between India and Pakistan in 1960, mediated by the World Bank. According to the treaty, India had access to the water of the three rivers in the east – Beas, Ravi and Sutlej, while Pakistan was given access to the three rivers in the west – Chandrabhaga, Indus and Jhelum. There had been no problem with this agreement for more than six decades. However, the Kisenganga and Ratle projects in India-administered Jammu and Kashmir have recently been the subject of intense controversy. Pakistan believes the two projects will disrupt the normal flow of its rivers. Pakistan alleges that India is violating the Indus Treaty by constructing projects like Kisenganga and Ratle. Pakistan first demanded that the World Bank appoint an ‘impartial expert’ to settle the dispute, and later in 2016 approached the court of arbitration over the matter.

On the other hand, China is another perpetual irritant for India. Incidentally, the source of two rivers, Brahmaputra and Indus, is in Tibet. China has now started building dams there with an objective to 'transfer water from south to north'. The water will be taken from Tibet and used for agricultural and industrial purposes in the arid regions of northern China. This will reduce the volume of water in rivers in India. The construction of the Chinese Dam at the source of the Brahmaputra is likely to have a severe impact on India's north eastern region and Bangladesh. Due to this project, India, a country in the lower basin, has to depend on Beijing's concession for water. This is a cause of great concern for national interest and security.

On the eastern front, about 54 rivers share water between India and Bangladesh. The rivers all flow through India into Bangladesh. If India blocks the water by damming it, both the agriculture and industry of Bangladesh will suffer greatly. According to international rules, India is obliged to supply water to neighbouring countries. After multiple deliberations, the two countries signed an agreement on the water of the Ganga river in 1996. The term of this agreement will end in 2026 but, currently, there is no problem with that. At the moment, India-Bangladesh diplomatic relations are complicated on the Teesta water-sharing issue. The draft agreement on this was drawn up more than a decade ago. However, due to the objections raised on the basis of India's internal politics, especially West Bengal, the agreement could not be signed even today. The state demands that Teesta basin districts get adequate water during the dry season first. This drawdown means that India's water will be slightly increased during the dry season to provide additional irrigation water to the Teesta basin districts of West Bengal. But this proposal is almost impossible for Bangladesh to accept. If India gets more than half of the water and Bangladesh's share falls below 50 per cent, the agriculture of Bangladesh will be severely damaged, especially during the dry season i.e. from October to May. Since the Teesta River mainly flows through the rice producing areas of Bangladesh, if there is a shortage of water, the food supply of Bangladesh will be strained. It is clear that the diplomatic relations between the two countries are also determined around economic factors. In other words, just as the economy revolves around water, so does diplomacy.

World Water Day was celebrated on March 22 with the slogan 'Water for Peace'. This slogan will be effective only if the neighbouring countries ease out the mutual fight over sharing of water resources and embark on a journey of brotherhood.

Views expressed are personal

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