In recent years, there has been a growing fear that future wars at the global level will be fought over resources. A substantial section in South Asia, especially in Pakistan, believes that the next Indo-Pak war will be fought over the Indus waters. Suddenly, one sees a mushrooming of ‘water wars’ literature during the last decade.
Undoubtedly, there have been problems and crises over water in South Asia between nation-states and within each country at State/Provincial levels. But then, most of these crises have been handled politically. There have not been perfect solutions, but attempts towards an understanding and reconciliation. There are still issues between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, (Indian) Punjab and Haryana, Sindh and (Pakistani) Punjab within India and Pakistan, and at bilateral levels between these two countries. But the negotiations on these issues have not broken down.
On the other hand, there have been success stories as well; the Ganges agreement between India and Bangladesh at the South Asian regional level, and the Mekong River Basin at the international level are great examples of cooperation at bilateral and multilateral levels. Then, where does the ‘water wars’ theory emanate from?
In the last two decades, there has been extra emphasis on ‘securitizing’ bilateral and international issues. From food to environment, every issue has been elevated to a security issue. The concept of security has become elastic and extended itself to include everything in its ambit. Unfortunately, this process has gone too far, and has started trivializing issues instead. In the near future, one is likely to hear (if they have not already) of traffic security, garbage security and so on. As a result of this process, new scholars emerged with new (and possibly damaging) literature, on water cooperation.
Second, in the regional context in South Asia, there has been a deliberate effort, to project water as a security issue. Unfortunately, this could prove to be counter-productive. For example, there are a set of actors, for whom, water is their livelihood. This includes primarily those people who are directly engaged in agriculture and agricultural activities. Then, there are another set of actors, who may also need water for their daily use, but whose livelihoods are not directly dependent on it.
For centuries, the ‘Water Actors’, mainly the farmers, have evolved an understanding and have lived with the other community, irrespective of whether they are upper or lower riparian. Despite occasional problems, they have evolved ways and means to address the water crises – be it floods or drought. Even today, if left up to them, the problem of scarcity or floods would be addressed amicably.
Unfortunately, in South Asia, over the last decade, there has emerged a new wave of ‘Non-Water Actors’ who attempt to monopolize the water debate and hijack it from those who are actually at the receiving end. Media, Security experts, certain social organizations, militant groups, and even cine-actors - have taken the water issue from the farmers, and harp on about it incessantly, regardless of the fact that they are not directly related to the issue. For example, the Tamil cine actors went on a strike demanding water from Karnataka, and certain media publications in Pakistan repeatedly publish factually incorrect stories in the front page accusing India of stealing their waters. Amidst the human calamity in Pakistan today, owing to the floods, a leading national daily, for the last one week has been trying to drum up support for the building of the Kalabagh dam, by asking people to vote for its referendum!
Such efforts receive wide publicity, thanks to the reach of print and electronic media, which then starts a process, drawing in other non-water actors into the debate. In this mayhem, the original demand and the voice of the water-actors get dissipated. In fact, they may have a better understanding on how to resolve the issue, but they tend to get steadily pushed out to a point where they no longer have a say in the matter, or if they do, they cannot be heard.
This ‘securitization of water debate’ in South Asia, especially in India and Pakistan at the national and bilateral levels, has created a lobby, who then tries to impose their solutions and perceptions as the best one for the water actors. A farmer in Larkana (in Sindh) and in Tanjore (in Tamil Nadu) districts, may have a different problem and a different solution. But then, the securitization of water debate by the media and security experts, has already taken the problem away from the original victim.
The State remains both a silent spectator and an indirect instigator. In certain cases, the State and its institutions are simply inefficient to address the issue; for example, in Pakistan, the failure of WAPDA and the IRSA, has given rise to a set of problems over water sharing, which is now being seized by the non-water actors. In other cases, the States and the provinces, deliberately allow this issue to be taken over, so that they may use this as a bargaining chip in negotiations at the bilateral level between India and Pakistan, or vis-à-vis the federal governments within India and Pakistan.
Securitizing the water debate is a dangerous trend; and unfortunately, this will continue. The State has to arrest this by taking over the debate, and allowing the water actors to be the primary negotiators of the problem.
(This is a part of a series on Indus Waters Governance; forthcoming articles will focus on issues relating to Chashma-Jhelum canal, Greater Thal controversy and Kalabagh dam)