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Thursday May 30, 2024

Water: fault lines of the future

By Zunaira Inam Khan
June 10, 2023

The climate crisis unfolding in South Asia presents not only environmental and socio-economic challenges but also significant geopolitical implications for the region.As a region with diverse nations, complex interdependencies, and longstanding geopolitical tensions, South Asia is poised to experience heightened instability and strained relations due to the climate crisis. The converging impacts of climate change, resource scarcity, and migration are likely to exacerbate existing geopolitical fault lines and test regional cooperation in the near future.This crisis will intensify competition for dwindling resources, particularly water and energy. As rivers and glaciers shrink, tensions over shared water resources between countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh could escalate, leading to increased geopolitical rivalries and conflicts.

Similarly, the race for alternative energy sources and access to renewable technologies may fuel competition among regional powers. It will trigger population displacements and migration within and across national boundaries. This mass movement of people can strain existing social structures, exacerbate socio-economic inequalities, and potentially fuel social unrest. It may also lead to conflicts over resources, land, and jobs, amplifying existing geopolitical tensions and destabilizing fragile regions.

The water crisis between Iran and Afghanistan in 2023, exacerbated by the climate crisis, has emerged as a significant geopolitical challenge in the region. Both countries are grappling with the impacts of climate change, including droughts, reduced precipitation, and melting glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Alborz mountain ranges, leading to dwindling water supplies and escalating tensions over shared water resources. The climate crisis has intensified water scarcity in the region, affecting both Iran and Afghanistan. This scarcity has put immense pressure on rivers, including the Helmand River, which flows from Afghanistan to Iran.

Historically, both Afghanistan and Iran have relied on the Helmand River for agricultural purposes, drinking water and fishing. However, due to the impacts of climate change, including prolonged droughts and reduced precipitation, the flow of the Helmand River has decreased, intensifying water scarcity in the region.Iran has accused Afghanistan of increasing water usage and constructing dams without proper consultation, further reducing the downstream flow of the river into Iranian territory. This has strained bilateral relations, resulting in diplomatic disputes and negotiations between the two countries.

The conflict over the Helmand River underscores the challenges posed by climate change and the need for collaborative water management strategies. It highlights the importance of addressing water-related issues through regional cooperation, dialogue, and the implementation of sustainable practices to ensure equitable access to water resources and minimize conflicts. Considering Afghanistan and Iran do not have a historically thorny relationship, to the extent that India and Pakistan do, it is even more worrying how quickly bilateral relationships can fracture. This also makes the future of the Indus Waters Treaty seem precarious.

The Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960, has thus far stood as a successful example of water cooperation between India and Pakistan despite their political differences. The treaty provides a framework for the sharing of water resources, including mechanisms for dispute resolution.The Iran-Afghan water issue serves as a reminder of the importance of water agreements and the need for effective bilateral and regional cooperation in managing shared water resources. Although the treaty has been in place for several decades and has successfully managed water sharing between the two countries, evolving circumstances and growing challenges related to water resources and geopolitical dynamics can strain its provisions and lead to tensions.

While the direct correlation between the Iran-Afghan water issue and the Pakistan-India Indus Water Treaty may be limited, the interconnectedness of regional water systems and the potential for disruptions highlight the importance of cooperation and diplomacy in managing shared water resources. Following are some factors which could contribute to exacerbating tensions:Climate change is altering the hydrological patterns in the region, leading to variations in rainfall, snowmelt, and river flows. This can impact the availability and distribution of water resources, which are critical for both agricultural and domestic needs. These changes may challenge the existing water-sharing mechanisms outlined in the Indus Waters Treaty. The rising populations in both India and Pakistan are placing increased pressure on water resources.

Growing demand for water for agriculture, industry, and domestic use can strain the existing allocation mechanisms outlined in the treaty. Infrastructure projects, including dams, diversions, and water storage facilities, are being developed by both countries to meet their water and energy requirements. However, the construction and operation of such projects can affect downstream flows and impact the availability of water for the other party.The longstanding political tensions and security concerns between India and Pakistan can spill over into issues related to water. Water scarcity can be perceived as a threat to national security, leading to heightened sensitivities and potential conflicts over water resources.

The Iran-Afghan water conflict serves as a stark reminder that climate change and water crises have the potential to become fault lines of the future, with significant geopolitical and socio-economic implications. As the world faces the consequences of a changing climate, scarcity and mismanagement of water resources are increasingly becoming sources of tension and conflict.To prevent the Indus Waters Treaty from breaking down, sustained dialogue, transparency, and cooperation between India and Pakistan are crucial. Addressing climate change impacts on water resources, implementing adaptive measures, and considering the evolving water demands can help maintain the effectiveness of the treaty.Additionally, strengthening mechanisms for dispute resolution and enhancing international engagement and support can contribute to maintaining stability and cooperation over shared water resources in the region. It is essential for nations to prioritize sustainable water management, invest in adaptation measures, and engage in cooperative efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change and ensure equitable access to water resources.

The writer is a researchanalyst, and heads the Afghanistan Program at the Institute of Regional Studies.