From the San Francisco Bay area to Sao Paulo to Riyadh, water shortages increasingly cloud economic forecasts. But nowhere is the risk greater than in South Asia, where India, the largest economy and most important regional power, faces crippling shortages and a lack of consensus on what to do about them. In turn, water problems threaten to drag down India’s economic growth and slow its rise to regional power. Fortunately, by adopting some common-sense reforms, India’s government can work with the United States and other powers to provide water security for the sub-continent.  

India is in the middle of a devastating drought with consequences throughout the country’s politics. Nearly a quarter of the country’s population has been affected, prompting growing despair. In Marathwada, an agricultural region east of Mumbai, journalists have recorded 320 farmer suicides so far in 2016, with many blaming insufficient monsoon rains. More recently, members of India’s Lower House, the Lok Sabha, have criticized the government for its inadequate response to the crisis, and the Supreme Court has repeatedly taken New Delhi to task for being slow to address several inter-state water disputes, including a long-running row between Punjab and Haryana over a shared river.  These disputes have complicated the government’s response to drought and water scarcity.

India’s water crisis stems from a thorny mix of geographic, economic, and political factors. India is highly dependent on a few major river systems, especially the Ganges and its tributaries, for its water supply. For farmers and urban-dwellers far from major the water sources, obtaining water can be both difficult and expensive, leading many to depend on rapidly depleting groundwater reserves or outrageously expensive tanker trucks. At the same time, water is unevenly allocated between different uses. India’s agricultural sector accounts for over 90 percent of total water draws, but less than 20 percent of the country’s GDP. This means that, even as India’s cities grow and its economy shifts to manufacturing and information technology, there’s often not enough water to go around.

The use of water as a political poker chip is particularly worrying since India’s water crisis is set to intensify.

Many developing countries face similar challenges; agriculture typically accounts for 70 percent of water use in all but highly industrialized countries. But in India, the challenges of determining who gets how much water, and for what purpose, are heightened by the fact that nearly all the country’s major waterways run across state boundaries, requiring states upstream and downstream states to agree on how much water each is permitted to use. Inter-state water sharing has always been difficult, but in an era of rapid economic change, the tensions are heightened. State politicians, who often represent parties tied to particular linguistic or ethnic groups, have begun to use water as a bargaining chip, sometimes threatening to disrupt water supplies to their neighbors. Such threats were laid bare in February 2016, when members of the Jat caste seized a canal supplying water to Delhi in order to protest economic hardship and discrimination. They threatened the capital’s water supply until the army dislodged them.

Internal disputes over water have long featured in Indian politics. During British rule, colonial leaders urged large-scale expansions of irrigation in order to increase productivity and tax revenue. The policies led to predictable conflicts over water between British-administered territories, which tended to be clustered near the coast, and the so-called princely states under native jurisdiction, which were often further inland. Mindful of this legacy, India’s post-independence leaders assigned states primary responsibility for their own irrigation and water resources management under the Constitution. The central government was left to negotiate conflicts.

For a variety of reasons, however, the system never really went into effect. During the long period of Congress Party rule, India’s leaders preferred to handle inter-state water disputes in private. Since the 1970s, the central government has been more willing to refer disputes to independent tribunals and commissions for resolution, but these efforts have been complicated by the growth of state-based political parties that appeal to specific ethnic and linguistic groups. Because India’s states are drawn primarily around linguistic lines, these parties sometimes believe that they have little to gain from cooperation with the neighbors. Instead, these parties often rally support by claiming that neighboring states are “stealing” water at their constituents’ expense.

Such claims have led to a flare-up in India’s inter-state water conflicts. Long-running disputes between southern states over rivers such as the Krishna and Kauveri have been joined by new and re-emerging conflicts in the north (despite that area’s rich endowment of water from the Himalayas). Punjab, a breadbasket state and historically one of India’s most politically and economically powerful, has invalidated a previous agreement to complete an important canal that would supply water to Haryana, its downstream neighbor. Punjab’s then Chief Minister, Captain Amarinder Singh, claimed that the state had “not a drop to share.” Haryana, for its part, supplies most of Delhi’s water, and has been blamed by the capital’s governing AAP party for recent disruptions in supply. Not surprisingly, all three states are ruled by different political parties, each of which sees political advantage in maximizing its control over water.

Women laborers carry mud to a construction site on the dried banks of river Sabarmati in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, May 21, 2011.
Amit Dave / Reuters

The use of water as a political poker chip is particularly concerning since India’s water crisis is set to intensify. India is heavily dependent on water from two sources, glaciers and snow in the Himalayas and the annual monsoon rains. Both sources are expected to become much more variable as a result of climate change. Moreover, India’s high dependence on groundwater—it accounts for about one-third of total water use compared to less than one-fifth in China—means that it has few ready alternatives to make up the difference.

Indeed, water scarcity is perhaps the most under-appreciated challenge to India’s rise as a major power. Without significant reforms to the way it uses and manages water, India’s political leaders are likely to face intensified economic pain and social unrest from poor farmers and urban-dwellers who suffer the most from inadequate and undependable water supplies. In some areas, industries may suffer, too, for lack of water to cool machinery, generate hydropower, and flush effluents downstream. Perhaps most importantly, India’s sub-national politicians appear unlikely to adopt a more cooperative spirit on their own concerning shared water resources, raising the prospect of continued discord in state and national legislatures.

Moreover, India’s domestic water rows may complicate its already-strained relations with neighboring states. In many ways, India is a model of international water cooperation: the Indus Water Treaty under which it shares several waterways with Pakistan has withstood decades of conflict between the two countries. However, other rivers shared with neighboring countries, especially the Brahmaputra, which originates in Chinese territory in Tibet, lack well-developed governance institutions. International water issues tend to have an outsized impact on India’s relations with its neighbors: construction of a dam in the Indian state of Manipur dominated a series of bilateral summits between India and Bangladesh in 2010–11, for example. If similar disagreements persist, it may be difficult for India to play the leading role in regional stability that both it and the United States envision.

Fortunately, India does possess a number of resources that it can use to its advantage in addressing water scarcity, and its government, along with friends and partners abroad, can take steps to forestall water-related challenges to India’s political and economic development. First, it can promote more efficient water use by accurately mapping its water resources and encouraging the adoption of water-saving technologies. In doing so it can draw on the world-class expertise of its research and technology sectors. Second, the government of India can make better use of its highly-capable judiciary by giving serious consideration to the recommendations of a number of experts to create a dedicated, specialized tribunal for addressing inter-state water disputes. Creating a fair, impartial, and credible forum to address such disputes is likely help reduce the political tensions that currently impede resolution of many of India’s water conflicts. Third, India can build on the success of the Indus Treaty and work with the United States, multilateral organizations, and other third parties to strengthen institutions to govern South Asia’s international transboundary rivers. In an era of climate change and rising regional tensions, these are smart investments in helping to prevent the threat that water scarcity poses, both for India’s future and that of the world at large.

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  • SCOTT MOORE served in the U.S. Department of State. He also served as a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow where he worked on water scarcity issues in India and China. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of the U.S. Government.
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