Rivers in Contention: Is There a Water War in South Asia’s Future?

  • Robert G. Wirsing (Author)

Identifiers (Article)


Rivalry over river water resources has been a constant theme in the international politics of the South Asian region ever since the British Raj ended in 1947. Indeed, hardly had independence been gained when the competing claims of India and Pakistan to the waters of the Indus river basin helped bring on the first war between them over Kashmir (1947-1949). Nearly a decade of arduous World Bank-facilitated negotiations resulted finally in the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), a landmark agreement that succeeded in resolving the question of Indus waters ownership by getting Indian and Pakistani consent to the permanent division of the six rivers of the Indus system. That formula, perhaps suitable enough for then, strikes some as an ill fit for now. After all, much has changed in the sixty-odd years that have passed since independence. The South Asian region has experienced more than a tripling of its population; and it has also undergone the massive social and economic changes that go along with industrialization and urbanization. Inevitably, these things have brought it under vastly increased pressures on water availability for agricultural and other uses. Acute fresh water scarcity now ranks among the most pressing domestic problems faced by Pakistan, and it is scarcely less pressing for large parts of India and Bangladesh as well. Exacerbated by equally acute power shortages in these countries (a development attracting attention to the region’s vast hydroelectric potential), their water resource-related disputes are already among the most nettlesome issues on their bilateral agendas. This is no less true of India-Bangladesh relations, which are bedeviled by the failure of their governments to seal water sharing agreements on any but one of the 54 rivers India and Bangladesh share in common, than it is of India-Pakistan relations. True, the near-term likelihood of war erupting in the region as a direct consequence of these disputes is slight; but that the region’s water rivalries are already fraying tempers, deepening distrust, and, in myriad ways, acting as conflict multipliers cannot be denied. Added to this, of course, is that neighboring China’s own extreme fresh water scarcity and its much-magnified interest in tapping into Tibet’s rich water resources hover threateningly over South Asian water supplies. Tibet’s water resources include the Brahmaputra river, already of unquestionably crucial importance to Bangladesh and India. With China now beginning to weigh in on the scales of South Asia’s water security, the potential for serious confrontation over water resources is heightened still further. Increased basin-wide cooperation over these resources is one possible—and, indeed, highly desirable—outcome of these developments. One highly undesirable—but perhaps no less possible—outcome, of course, is water war.


South Asia, Rivers, Water, War, Resources, Interest