South Asian nations face a water crisis which poses a threat to agriculture and industries. Given its increasing influence, is India willing to become a provider of water security in the region?
On May 23, 2013, while speaking at the foundation stone-laying ceremony for the Indian National Defence University, Gurugram, the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh exuded confidence that India was well-positioned and willing “to become a net provider of security” in its immediate region and beyond. In 2015, the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA), New Delhi, came out with an assessment report titled, India as a Security Provider. The report highlights India’s growing military capabilities and its proactive responses to the human and non-human threats to the littoral nations of the Indian Ocean, which corroborates the country’s image and positioning as a benign power and net security provider in the region. But the question here is: Is India also willing to play the role of net security provider when it comes to ensuring water security in the region? The above-mentioned IDSA report points out, “While traditional security threats limit India’s role; cooperation on non-traditional threats opens up a new opportunity for India to play a regional role.” Thus, it is a geostrategic imperative for India to focus on non-traditional security threats in the region emerging from sectors such as water and energy.
Today all the nations of South Asia face a water crisis in one form or another due to a range of factors — population growth, urbanisation, inefficient use, bad management and lack of governance, among others. The unfolding water crises pose a serious threat to sustainable development, agriculture and industries, poverty reduction and the ecosystem. Climate change has exacerbated the brewing water crises like never before. The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has termed climate change as “the most systematic threat to humankind.”
Water is a common resource and managing and governing it has always been a challenge at any scale, be it local or regional. A participatory robust institutional architecture for water governance is needed to manage and govern resources in a systematic and efficient way. Many of the important water bodies in South Asia are transboundary and thus their basins spread in more than one country. Integrated basin management would not be a reality without regional cooperation at the South Asian level.
Most of the water treaties in South Asia are bilateral in nature, which form the core of the South Asian political ecology of governance. Be it upper or lower riparian, nations in the region are apparently not content with the existing treaties. For example, India, an upper riparian nation, does not seem to be happy with the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, a lower riparian nation in this case. Between Bangladesh, a low riparian nation and India, the Teesta river issue still remains unresolved, with Dhaka asking for an increase in water share. People in Nepal, an upper riparian nation, think water treaties with India produces environmental injustices to the riverine people of Koshi river. Along with this kind of political ecology of the region, the issue of sovereignty in South Asia is a very sensitive topic. South Asia represents a typical case of the Westphalian concept of sovereignty, where each nation has exclusive sovereignty over its territory and the natural resources, including water. No nation would like to be seen as compromising its sovereignty. However in reality, in the face of globalisation and trade integration, each nation is bargaining its sovereignty with the other nations and regional and international actors. These two factors — the existing South Asian political ecology and the power politics played out in the name of sovereignty — both hinder and open up opportunities for regional cooperation at the same time. Some may think that regional cooperation compromises on the sovereignty of a State. However, the notion of sovereignty can be broadened to accommodate and facilitate the idea of cooperation, which is not about imposing suzerainty of one nation on another.
India has been quite active in the region in terms of coming to the rescue of its neighbours when they are in trouble. A case in point is when Maldives faced a water crisis in December 2014, India launched Operation NEER to immediately provide Maldives with it. The people and the Government of Maldives were appreciative of India’s quick response and help. Having said that, one must be mindful that those were more of a response to a crisis that emerged and similar exercises could be useful to tackle future contingencies of that sort. However, water woes coupled with the effects of climate change have resulted in a distinct set of challenges that call for India’s proactive role in the South Asian region. What is required today is a continuous regional cooperation in providing water security, which is at present marred by the absence of an institutional architecture for water governance in South Asia.
India should play a lead role in institutionalising regional cooperation by establishing a robust architecture. It has already set an example with the launch of South Asian Satellite in 2017, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his tweet termed as a “symbol of South Asian cooperation” and “a journey to build the most advanced frontier” of regional cooperation and partnership. With India looking for a larger regional role, it cannot afford to be a security consumer. It has to metamorphose itself into a credible security provider. Benjamin Kienzle, a faculty member of Defence Studies at King’s College London, elucidates, “A security provider has a stronger interest in the immediate security of a third party, rather than in direct security gains for itself…the action of a security provider easily lead to a win-win situation…A security consumer, on the other hand, is primarily interested in its own security and is largely indistinct towards the security needs of third parties…In general, security consumers create easily win-lose situations…” Notwithstanding, he makes it clear that a security provider in no way compromises its own security interests.
Domestically India has made some progress to improve water governance. The then Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (now Ministry of Jal Shakti) constituted a committee led by Mihir Shah to suggest institutional reforms for water governance to deal with the water challenges that India faces in the 21st century. In July 2016, the Committee came out with a report titled, A 21st Century Institutional Architecture for India’s Water Reforms. The report makes a number of critical suggestions to strengthen the governance of India’s water resources. One of them is about its shape and structure. The report underlines that “polycentric governance regimes characterised by a distribution of power but effective coordination structures perform better.” Considering water as one of the sectors most vulnerable to climate change, the report stressed that the ability to respond to it is strengthened by polycentric governance regimes.
The existing political ecology of South Asia makes the space of water resources a geopolitically contested zone. Governance is needed to protect the environment, to save the ecology and to manage water resources in an integrated and holistic manner. Polycentrism is inherent in South Asia and by default distribution of power is effected by the very nature of South Asian sovereignty. What is missing essentially is the effective coordination to realise and unlock water governance potential in the region. Effective coordination can be established only through a well-structured institutional architecture involving all the actors and stakeholders. With the emergence of non-State environmental actors and groups in the region, the role of governments has receded in water governance and self-organised governance networks have found prominence.
In their article “Reflections on Actor-Network Theory, Governance Networks, and Strategic Outcomes”, Ludmilla Meyer Montenegro and Sergio Bulgacov caution that, “self-organised governance networks can impede (policy) implementation…or they can enhance the efficiency of policy implementation…Thus, it is important to determine how these networks are formed, who forms them and how they function, since they have such direct impacts on governance. The more we know about networks, the better we understand governance dynamics and its relationships with the Government, informal mechanisms, and private actors.”
India should painstakingly study the governance networks that exist today in South Asia for conceptualising a regional institutional architecture for water governance in the region, to not repeat another SAARC which is failing under its burden.
(Writer: Sandeep Kumar dubey ; Courtesy: The Pioneer)