It has become fashionable to exaggerate the risk of water wars in South Asia. It is argued that with depleting water resources, India will face tension and wars with Pakistan, China and Bangladesh.

The failure to sign the Teesta River Agreement between India and Bangladesh, the growing cacophony in Pakistan against India’s dams in Jammu and Kashmir, and speculations about China’s plans to build a dam on the Great Bend of the Brahmaputra, are projected as signposts of the coming mayhem.

Much of the chest thumping is not justified. The Teesta River Agreement can be signed any day. The average annual flow of the river is 60 BCM (billion cubic meters). Since India and Bangladesh must provide at least 12 BCM as environmental flow for protecting the river and its eco-system, the outstanding issue is how to share 48 BCM. 

Whatever formula is used, the difference between the maximum and the minimum amount of water that India has to share with Bangladesh cannot exceed 10 BCM. This is less than one percent of the 1200 BCM annual water flows from India to Bangladesh through 54 shared rivers.

As soon as politicians decide to allow reason to replace rhetoric, experts can very easily finalise a sustainable and collaborative arrangement. More important than allocation is the issue of augmentation and conservation of water resources so that poor farmers in the northern districts of West Bengal and Bangladesh alike can have access to water in the lean season.

As for the India-Pakistan water relations, there are really no outstanding issues. There was a disagreement on the Baglihar Dam about engineering details such as pondage, freeboard height, spillway gates, water intake level for dead storage and probable maximum flood level.

A neutral expert was appointed as per the Indus Water Treaty. He resolved the differences with scientific assessment of ground realities. Similarly, in case of the Kishanganga dam, the arbitration council has allowed India to build the dam but guarantee environmental flow of the river to Pakistan.
Such technical differences exist between riparian countries in Europe and indeed between the United States and Canada. They are resolved by hydrologists, sometimes with some help from lawyers, not by politicians. They do not lead to alarming war rhetoric. All rhetoric about water wars between India and Pakistan is only politics.

While it is expedient to engage in rhetoric of conflict, it would be much more productive to see how water can be used as instrument of cooperation and peace. The Blue Peace approach developed by Strategic Foresight Group in collaboration with the international community and presented to the world by the President of Switzerland in 2011 explains how water can help build peace, security and cooperation.

It must be first of recognised that India has adapted a fair and reasonable approach in its water sharing with the neighbouring countries. It is factually wrong to argue that India is the only country in the world to share 50 percent of its trans-boundary water resources, as some critics do.

Turkey allocates the Euphrates water using 50 percent formula while a large number of countries in Europe, North and Central America and Western Africa allow autonomous river basin organisations to manage 100 percent of their water resources in a collaborative manner.

The only countries in the world which are reluctant to share water on a fair basis are China, Ethiopia and Syria. Does India want to belong to this league or does India want to belong to a community of nations that respects international law?

The Blue Peace approach involves creating a trans-boundary mechanism for sustainable and collaborative management, and not merely allocation, of water resource. Such an institution then work for maximising water conservation, quality control, agriculture, energy, navigation and livelihood of the people. It can also enable political leaders to negotiate trade-offs between water and non-water sector to maximise cooperation, interdependence and security of the riparian nations.

India can make a beginning with Bangladesh. The two countries must restructure the Joint Rivers Commission to develop a holistic and integrated strategy for all 54 shared rivers, shifting away from the present emphasis on negotiating a separate agreement for every river.

An integrated cooperation programme will automatically lead to opportunities in power trade, eco-tourism, navigation, agriculture and various means of connectivity. Most important, it will enhance confidence and security between the two countries.

Similarly in the case of Pakistan, it is important to note that the Indus Water Treaty is about water allocation. It is not about water cooperation. It is necessary to build on it and create a framework of integrated water cooperation, which uses the potential of hydro-electric power for the benefit of people of Jammu and Kashmir, agricultural development of Sindh and Baluchistan, preservation of ground water resources in the Punjab provinces on both sides of the border.

The problem of deficit of trust is more serious than that of deficit of water in South Asia. The region needs canals of cooperation and reservoirs of rationality in the management of water resources.
It needs to look beyond the expediency of short term politics in the interest of long term prosperity. It needs Blue Peace.

Sundeep Waslekar is President of the Strategic Foresight Group, a think tank advising governments and institutions in four continents.