Poor water management, demographic growth and changing patterns of demand because of urbanization make water a potential source of conflict within and between the countries of South Asia, says a new Chatham House report, which examines attitudes to water in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

Suikhet, Gandaki, Nepal. Photo by Richard I’Anson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images.Suikhet, Gandaki, Nepal. Photo by Richard I’Anson/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images.

If water management does not improve, and with the population of South Asia projected to rise to nearly 2.5 billion by 2040, the outlook is for greater animosity over resources. There could also be more disputes over water between agriculture, cities and industry, and between countries that share rivers. 

Water is a highly politicized issue in the region, strongly related to food security and the livelihoods of the large proportion of the populations dependent on agriculture. Trans-boundary water issues are increasingly dealt with in the domain of national security.

Attitudes to Water in South Asia, based on interviews with almost 500 policy-makers across the five countries, argues that there are no magic solutions to better water management, but that, at present, there are numerous excuses for failure. Lack of coordination between ministries, lack of investment and lack of community engagement all help explain poor water management.

Water needs to be prioritized within countries if worst-case scenarios are not to unfold. This will require a focus on reducing demand - at present 90% of water is used in agriculture. Better understanding the links between food, energy and water will be imperative. It will require tackling the reasons for failure one by one. 

It will also require a shift in attitude: at present it is easier to blame upstream communities or countries for lack of access to water than to repair leaking pipes. This reinforces the view of water as a source of tension.

Tension between the countries of South Asia is rising as population growth reduces water availability per person. Current debates are zero-sum. In the case of India and Pakistan, concerns over water access accentuate political tension. For Nepal and Bangladesh actions taken in India over water are a primary source of tension. Similarly, Afghans hold Pakistan and other neighbours responsible for their inability to store water.

Finding ways in which water can become a source of mutual benefit - rather than a zero-sum resource - will also require sustained dialogues. These will not explore water as an abstract resource. Rather they will look at opportunities to share best practice on issues such as fisheries, navigation, sanitation or even tourism so that shared rivers can be a source of revenue, not tension.  

If current trends persist, local grievances over water availability and quality will spread and intensify. Unless water governance is improved with far greater coordination and implementation of relevant policies in agriculture, energy and environment, localized conflicts over water usage are as likely as trans-boundary disputes to undermine stability.