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Water wars and regional cooperation at INSSSL Security Salon


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Yet another intellectually inspiring Security Salon was organised by the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka (INSSSL) and held on Tuesday, 25 April at the Ministry of Defence, Colombo. INSSSL Director General Asanga Abeyagoonasekara introduced the guest speaker Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha inviting him to deliver a lecture on ‘Water Challenges and India’s Response: Domestic and Regional’. 

Dr. Uttam Kumar Sinha is a Fellow at IDSA and holds an adjunct position at the Malaviya Centre for Peace Research, Banaras Hindu University. At IDSA, he is also the Managing Editor of ‘Strategic Analysis’ published by Routledge. He is actively engaged in the Track 2 dialogue process and was India’s representative to the CSCAP Working Group on Water Resources Security. He is also the author of the book ‘Riverine Neighbourhood: Hydro-politics in South Asia’ (Pentagon Press, 2016).

Dr. Sinha’s presentation was largely grounded on how ‘water and the riverine system’ is redefining the national and regional security perspective in 21st century South Asia. He drew attention to the fact that this era is defined as a geological anthropocene period where humans have a direct impact on climate and the environment. The world being far more interconnected than before with a great emphasis on the environment and eco system where supremacy of man over nature is challenged, has made food security and water a part of national security. Water, he reiterated, was not just a central element of agricultural policies and food production but vital from an energy security perspective as well. 

Dr. Sinha, as an expert on waterways and rivers in the region, construed South Asia as a riverine neighbourhood where the stable supply of water, he said, will determine the stability of the region from a resource as well as security perspective. As the most shared resource in the world, water is also important in state relationships with rivers being a great engager in state politics. However, in the context of the proverbial rivalry between neighbours India and Pakistan, there have been suggestions of water wars or an ‘India-Pakistan flashpoint’ on water. Nevertheless, it is praiseworthy that South Asia often seen as a region that lacks mistrust sees a great deal of cooperation and has led the way in cooperating over water issues. Here, he drew attention to the ‘Indus Waters Treaty’ which is a water-distribution treaty between India and Pakistan, brokered by the World Bank in the 1960s. Hydro politics in a real political framework suggests that the preciousness of water translates into possessiveness and at times resource aggressiveness. Therefore, sharing waters, which is a limited resource, he said, is not always viable and generosity, albeit an important element of India’s engagement with its neighbours, does not extend to the sacrifice of national interest and national security. However, it is noteworthy that the Indus Waters Treaty prevails despite Pakistan’s intransigence and betting terrorism. 

Dr. Sinha also focused on India’s relationship with Bangladesh and Nepal by connecting the three countries through waterways as a source of navigation and trade for economic integration. Dynamics in South Asia being vulnerable to natural disasters, water treaties need to be looked at in a multilateral approach, especially in the context of river basins. China, he pointed out, cannot be ignored in the Hydro-political context although it has not been included in the river context. Thus, India has a memorandum of understanding with China on Brahmaputra although there’s no water agreement. Nature has made China quiet supreme in water and therefore it does not have the need to enter into agreements with South Asian countries but rather use water as a strategic tool. Politics of aspiration and sub-regional cooperation should be the driving force in the future with rivers playing a very important role, he concluded.

Members of the diplomatic community, academics, senior officers of the tri forces and a number of distinguished guests were present at the occasion.

The presentation was largely grounded on how water is redefining the national security perspective, rational behavioural patterns of water ways and its vulnerabilities. The speaker highlighted about water being essential for food production but also for energy security, such issues cannot be seen in isolation. He proceeded to insist that we only use 3% of the fresh water on Earth and of this only 1% is available in the rivers. Glaciers tend to hold less and less water as they are melting. He also mentioned India’s approach to the region is the first neighbourhood approach and water is the most shared resource in the world – more than oil. There are 260 water ways in the world, so many states share rivers apart of state politics. 

Dr. Uttam Sinha drew attention to the ‘India-Pakistan flash point on water’. He spoke about ‘The Indus Water Treaty’. The Indus Water Treaty is a water-distribution treaty between India and Pakistan, brokered by the World Bank. The hydro politics in real political framework suggests that the preciousness of water translates into possessiveness and at times resource aggressiveness. China, Turkey does not share water, India shares water for the Pakistan which enables the value of engaging. Within the treaty - dispute settlement mechanisms factored into the treaty. Dynamism in south Asia is also vulnerable to disasters. Water treaties need to be looked at in a multilateral approach not in a bilateral approach, especially in the context of river basins. China cannot be ignored in the Hydro-political context although it has not been included in the river context. India has MOU with China on Brahmaputra but no water agreement. Nature has made China quiet supreme in water and therefore it does not want to enter into agreements with South Asian countries but rather use water as a strategic tool. China and Turkey do not respect any international water treaties including the UN Treaty. There should be an institutional framework for water, especially in the Himalayan context.

A riveting discussion was followed thereafter stating that water is the most shared resource but also most wasted resource. Concepts in order to sustain water were suggested such as: Dynamisim in India, supply side management to water, quality in water-Indian Policies – Cleaning rivers. Water is a public good approach in India, not a private good. Accessibility to water needs to be extended.


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