Water, which covers two-thirds of Earth’s surface, is taken for granted all over the world, except perhaps in deserts where oases have always been important junctions on trade routes. In India it is customary to offer a glass of water to visitors regardless of economic and social status. But few comprehend that the ‘elixir of life’ has already become a scarce commodity and could soon turn out to be a challenge to international security, much more than petroleum. After all, water is critical for sustaining life on our planet and competition over it can easily lead to even conflicts.
In Asia, however, the problem of water scarcity is of crucial importance, since it is home to more than a quarter of the global population. Asia is also the location of the world’s highest mountain chain—the Himalaya, which, like all mountain ranges, is the source of many life-sustaining rivers. In the Himalaya lie the origins of as many as 10 major rivers that flow down its spurs into South, East and Central Asia, and support the lives of at least two billion people who inhabit their basins. It is not for nothing that the Himalaya have been called the ‘Water Tower of Asia’.
But the worrying part is that with a couple of exceptions all these basins are regions of water stress, the technical term for severe water shortage. This, despite the fact that the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, as these ranges are known, holds roughly 60,000 square kilometers of glaciers and snow—making it the ‘Third Pole’ of Earth. It is in this context that a study published recently by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) has called for holistic study of these mountains and the rivers originating from them for integrated governance of the basins that run on both sides of this massive mountain chain. So far, the governance issues of only some individual HKH river basins have been studied from the perspective and needs of individual countries.
The river basins with origins in the HKH have many commonalities, the foremost being that it is a geologically young and active mountain region that rose from the Tethys Sea due to the collision of the Gondwana Plate with the Asian Continental Plate, forming the Himalayan Range and the lifting of the Tibetan Plateau. This tectonic process is important in understanding the meteorology and hydrology of the HKH region and the consequent flows into the river basins with implications for both surface flows and groundwater. The region is environmentally fragile, ecologically complex and prone to diverse natural hazards due to the combination of being geologically young mountains, and bearing the impact of the intense Asian monsoon every year.
In Asia, however, the problem of water scarcity is of crucial importance, since it is home to more than a quarter of the global population
Therefore, there is a very great need to adopt an integrated approach to manage the waters that originate from the HKH region. There is also a great need for sharing of experience and knowledge and cooperation between the countries that share the HKH basins to avert the common risks of global warming and natural disasters.
The ORF report, “Governing the Water Tower of Asia—The Case for a System of Integrated Knowledge for the Hindu Kush Himalaya”, is authored by Jayanta Bandyopadhyay (an engineer and environmentalist) and Sayanangshu Modak. The report calls for the replacement of the reductionist paradigm that dominates the contemporary governance paradigm by the creation of a knowledge system that integrates interdisciplinary knowledge to generate a holistic understanding of the HKH region. It is called System of Integrated Knowledge, with an appropriate acronym, SINK, and it envisages drawing upon different disciplinary knowledge systems like the natural sciences, social sciences, and the knowledge of stakeholders including local, traditional and indigenous knowledge.
Elaborating on the concept of SINK, the report says that HKH river basins so far have been governed by the reductionist paradigms of natural science and engineering that view water flow in rivers as the transit of a specific volume of water per unit time at a given location. But rivers do not just constitute volumes of water to be diverted to meet human needs. River flows are made up of a number of elements, including the chemical composition of water and its quality, energy, biodiversity and sediments in a synergetic relationship. The integration of knowledge about the HKH river basins, therefore, must be based on the integration of meteorology, water chemistry, hydrology, sedimentology, geo-morphology, river engineering, economics and other disciplines and realms. The disciplines of meteorology and hydrology, for example, need to be integrated, to start with, to study the flow of water from the level of precipitation from the atmosphere to stream flows on the terrestrial surface. In the case of the HKH, where monsoon precipitation is dominant, such integration is all the more important to mitigate monsoon damage.
Integration at the international level is desirable, since most of the 10 Asian basins are shared between two or more countries. In fact, a new term, ‘hydro-diplomacy’, has come into existence that proffers principles for the sharing of river waters between different countries and setting up mechanisms for dispute redressal.
India, for example, has tensions with all its neighbours (Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh) over river water sharing and upstream projects. Ironically, the only river water sharing treaty that has turned out to be durable is the one on the Indus, signed with its most hostile neighbour—Pakistan. The treaty has stood the test of time for 60 years and is held out as a model for international water sharing, but of late it too has come under pressure.
The other agreement on joint management of river waters in Asia relates to the Mekong river. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) draws its authority from the Mekong Agreement of 1995 between Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam.
China and Myanmar have since become dialogue partners and since 2008 the former shares hydrological data with the other member countries during flood season. The MRC has also formulated a Basin Development Strategy (BDS) for 2021-2030. On the Central Asian side of the HKH, diversion of water from the Amu Darya, that runs through five countries, is developing into an environmental disaster with the shrinking of the Aral Sea into which it empties.
The need for an integrated approach in the HKH region becomes clear from the features of these mountains. They are a unique range that stretch more than 3,000 kilometres from Myanmar in the east to Afghanistan in the west, while the Himalayan arc proper runs about two-thirds of this length from the Indus bend round Nanga Parbat (8,125 m) in the Karakoram in the west to the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) bend around Namcha Barwa (7,756 m) in the east in Tibet. All 14 peaks in the world above 8,000 metres are in the Himalaya, which forms a formidable wall whose altitude rarely falls below 5,500 metres. This wall of mountains acts as an obstacle to atmospheric circulations and is a climate maker for vast swathes of land on both sides which have given birth to some of the world’s oldest civilisations.
Because of its height and obstruction of atmospheric circulations, HKH and the Tibetan Plateau play a crucial role in determining precipitation both north and south of the wall. It not only protects the southern aspect from the cold and dry winds from the north but helps generate high precipitation through the South Asian Summer Monsoon and the East Asian Summer Monsoon in South and Southeast Asia. For the northern side, however, the Himalaya acts as a rain shadow and as a result most of the Central Asian side is arid.
However, it is also the place where all the major rivers of South, East and Central Asia originate, including the Indus, the Ganga, China’s Yellow River and Yangtse, the Mekong, the Salween, the Irrawaddy, the Amu Darya and the Tarim. The waters of all these rivers are fed by a combination of snow and ice melt and rain. In some cases, glacial melt and snow are the major contributors while in the others, rain provides the bulk of the water. But in any case, it is the amount of precipitation that matters, be it snow or rain.
Most importantly, the basins through which these rivers flow support the populations of some of the fastest growing economies of the world. This naturally involves largescale human interventions in the form of extensive dam building for power generation and diversion of waters to enhance agricultural productivity.
The ORF report highlights the commonalities between the key governing challenges in these 10 river basins and that an exchange of information between the countries of which they are part will be useful as a repository of HKH-specific knowledge, which at the moment is scarce. “Thus, understanding the role of the basins of the 10 HKH rivers in water and food security in Asia is an important agenda for joint research and action in governance.” However, the general lack of studies is an obstacle to the formation of a comprehensive picture of the basins.
Integration at the international level is desirable, since most of the 10 Asian basins are shared between two or more countries
The report rightly points out that the perennial flow of HKH rivers is vital for water, food and energy security in large parts of Asia that support economies in excess of $4 trillion. No wonder these rivers are regarded as life-giving and at least two—the Ganga and the Yangtse—are regarded as Mother Rivers. Another important fact is that most of these rivers flow through several countries and therefore pose governing challenges in water sharing between the countries that straddle them. “Historically, the 10 river basins have been studied and governed as individual basins, leaving a gap in evaluating the total flows in the region. While each basin has its own unique characteristics in terms of meteorological, hydrological, political and ecological features, they share similar governance challenges.”
There are also the problems of high monsoon flows and disputes over access to water during post-monsoon water scarcity. Water managers of the Yangtse, Ganga and Indus rivers, for example, must address water scarcity in their delta regions, while the Yangtze and the Brahmaputra face summer monsoon high flows including extreme flood events and high rates of erosion and sedimentation. Both the Yangtze and the Ganga face growing industrial demands and river pollution.
Similarly, the Amu Darya after the breakup of the former Soviet Union now flows through several countries, giving rise to new water disputes in Central Asia. The situation there is quite similar to those faced with regard to the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra in the subcontinent after its partition in 1947. The Mekong and the Brahmaputra face conflicts that originate upstream in China. There are many such common issues which can be the basis of exchange of knowledge regarding all the HKH river basins