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Troubled waters: Central and South Asia exemplify some of the planet's looming water shortages.

Do a simple Google news search for "Afghanistan" and the top hits are all about military offensives, drone strikes, and killings. Reporting on that country has been dominated by a widening spiral of violence.

Yet Afghanistan and its neighbors also contend with serious natural resource pressures. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that each year some 400,000 Afghans are seriously affected by floods, avalanches, and drought. As the United States pours enormous resources into its Afghan war--the Obama Administration requested US$73 billion for fiscal year 2010 even prior to the decision to increase the number of U.S. troops there to about 100,000--large parts of Central and South Asia are facing increasing water troubles that affect livelihoods and, if unalleviated, could undermine the region's future stability.

Two large river basins--that of the Amu Darya and the Indus--are of critical importance to millions of people in Central-South Asia, a region that encompasses Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also parts of the territories of their neighbors India, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Some 178 million people inhabit the densely populated Indus basin, and the Amu Darya basin is home to 21 million people.

Much of the region is already undergoing or approaching physical water shortages (see table). While the region is mostly arid or semi-arid, poor water and watershed management lie at the heart of many problems. Competing water use plans pose critical challenges under conditions of environmental degradation (including heavy loss of original forests), demographic pressure, and rising demand for water. Asymmetries in political and economic power, along with diverging priorities accorded to irrigation and hydropower projects, make for complex and often uneasy relations among the different countries. Climate change--in the form of glacier melt, drought and shifting precipitation patterns, rising temperatures, and changes to the monsoon cycle--will increasingly exacerbate water scarcity. And qualitative issues are as important as quantitative ones: Access to clean drinking water is a major, though largely unmet, objective.


Carrying more water than any other Central Asian river, the Amu Darya rises in the mountains of Tajikistan and forms a long stretch of Afghanistan's northern border. Downstream, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan withdraw by far the largest quantities of water. The Amu Darya river basin contributes more than half of Afghanistan's total river flow.


The livelihoods of at least 80 percent of Afghans are based on agriculture and related occupations. Given low and erratic rainfall in much of the country, spring and summer runoff from snowmelt is the lifeblood of much Afghan agriculture. The fertile plains of the Amu Darya basin account for about 40 percent of Afghanistan's irrigated lands. But poorly constructed or-maintained irrigation canals translate into water losses as high as 70 percent.

Three decades of armed conflict have displaced a large portion of the population, impeded access to farmland because of landmines, and destroyed many irrigation systems or rendered their maintenance impossible. Add recurring droughts and floods and the population's desperate coping strategies, and the net result has been a severe degradation of Afghanistan's natural environment and its water and farming infrastructure. Massive deforestation and heavy pressure on grazing lands has led to erosion and reduced flood resistance, causing large agricultural areas near the Amu Darya in Balkh and Jawzjan provinces to be submerged or damaged.
Water Resources and Usage in Central and South Asia

Country       Longterm Average  Total Renewable Water
                Precipitation   Resources per Capita *

                  (mm/year)        ([m.sup.3]/year)

                                    1990     2006

Afghanistan          350            5,135    2,492

Pakistan             500            1,994    1,400

India              1,100            2,205    1,647

Tajikistan           700            2,896    2,407

Turkmenistan         150            6,363    5,045

Uzbekistan           200            2,344    1,868

Country         Dependency       Proportion of
              Ratio [dagger]    Renewable Water
                              Resources Withdrawn
                                [double dagger]

                 percent            percent

Afghanistan         15                 36

Pakistan            76                 75

India               34                 34

Tajikistan          17                 75

Turkmenistan        97                100

Uzbekistan          77                116

* The sum of internal and external renewable water resources. It
corresponds to the maximum theoretical yearly amount of water actually
available for a country at a given moment.

[dagger] Water resources originating from outside the national
territory, relative to total water resources.

[double dagger] Water used for all purposes.

Source: FAO Aquastat, "Water resources by country/territory and by
Inhabitant, and MDG Water Indicator."


A 2008 report by Oxfam U.K. observed that "in recent years Afghanistan's overall agricultural produce has fallen by half. Over the last decade in some regions Afghanistan's livestock population has fallen by up to 60 percent, and over the last two decades the country has lost 70 percent of its forests."

Millions of Afghans are either seasonally or chronically food insecure, and these desperate conditions often trigger local-level conflicts. In an Oxfam survey in six provinces across Afghanistan, nearly half the respondents regarded land and water issues as major causes of disputes.

The loss of rural livelihoods has also triggered migration to cities. But urban water contamination amounts to a severe public health threat, owing to poor household and industrial waste management practices and the lack of modern sanitation and sewage systems. A 2003 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) assessment estimated that no more than 12 to 23 percent of the urban population had access to safe water.


Central Asian agriculture continues to be characterized by extremely inefficient water use, a legacy of Soviet times. Evaporation, siltation of canals, and leaks from pipes and other decaying water infrastructure mean that less than 40 percent of water diverted from rivers actually reaches the fields. About 20 percent of irrigation water is wasted directly in the field. Overall, the Amu Darya waters are already heavily utilized, and all countries in the region have plans to increase their water extraction. Given the pervasive lack of cooperation among them, current trends may lead to rising tensions.

More than 90 percent of Central Asia's water resources are concentrated in just two nations, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Among the Amu Darya's riparians, Tajikistan and Afghanistan look to the river for hydropower as well as irrigation. Downstream, Turkmenistan and especially Uzbekistan depend heavily on the river to irrigate their cotton, rice, and wheat fields. Although the latter have similar economic interests, their relationship is nonetheless conflictive. Tensions over shared irrigation systems near Tuyamuyun Reservoir could be further inflamed by Turkmenistan's Golden Century Lake project--an artificial lake in the Karakum desert due to be completed in 2010.

Tajikistan releases water in the winter months from several reservoirs to generate hydropower for heating purposes. But these releases frequently cause downstream flooding and damage to infrastructure. In the summer months, Tajikistan builds up its reservoirs--at precisely the time when the irrigation needs of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are most acute.


Upstream-downstream antagonisms are likely to sharpen to the extent that Tajikistan and Afghanistan succeed in boosting their hydropower capacity--which could be a major source of income for these poverty-stricken countries. With ample hydropower potential, Tajikistan could produce almost 20 times as much electricity as it currently does. With the aid of Russian and Iranian investments, the government wants to complete unfinished Soviet-era hydropower projects at Rogun and Sangtuda on the Vakhsh River (a tributary of the Amu Darya).

Uzbekistan worries about these developments, not only because of the potential direct impact on summer irrigation water flows (it has objected to the planned height of the Rogundam), but also because it stands to lose income (and leverage) from selling natural gas to Tajikistan. Tajikistan's reduced dependence on imported energy from Uzbekistan could make it even less interested in coordinating water flows.

Decades of warfare have prevented Afghanistan from developing more than about 10 percent of its considerable hydropower potential along the Amu Darya. But should greater stability in the future enable water diversion projects to be undertaken in northern Afghanistan, the region's existing water and energy conflicts could intensify. Even though Afghanistan's proposals are far less ambitious than Tajikistan's, they nonetheless have aroused opposition from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. There are no bilateral water agreements with its neighbors, and only Tajikistan has engaged in serious dialogue with Afghanistan.

Toward the southeast, Afghan plans for irrigation, fishing, and hydropower generation could eventually also trigger tensions with Pakistan over the Kabul River, an important tributary of the Indus. The two countries have an unresolved, decades-long border dispute and lack an accord governing the river's use.


Agriculture offers a livelihood for over 40 percent of Pakistan's labor force and accounts for a quarter of its GDP. Water from the Indus and its tributaries irrigates 80 percent of the country's 21.5 million hectares of farmland. The upper reaches of the Indus are almost exclusively fed by glacier melt from the Himalayan and Karakorum ranges (on the borders with China and India), as well as the Hindu Kush (on the border with Afghanistan). The remainder--a little more than 10 percent--comes from monsoon rainfall. Altogether, glacier melt accounts for 45 percent of the Indus' river flow.

Extensive irrigation in both Pakistan and India absorbs about 90 percent of the Indus basin's available water flow. Overpumping and inefficient irrigation techniques have led to sharply declining groundwater levels, loss of wetlands, and salinization of agricultural lands. Because of soaring, yet inefficient, agricultural and urban water use in Punjab, farming downstream in the southern Sindh province is becoming precarious. Sindh and Baluchistan complain that upstream provinces are taking more than their fair share of the Indus waters.

The flow of the Indus is no longer powerful enough year-round to prevent saltwater from the Arabian Sea from seeping inland. More than half a million hectares of arable land have been lost to seawater intrusion and salinization. In the future, sea-level rise will place coastal areas at increasing risk of inundation. And a combination of population growth and rising temperatures due to climate change could reduce Pakistan's per-capita water availability to a critically low level of just 800 cubic meters annually by 2020.

Highly unequal land distribution and water policies that benefit large wealthy farmers are behind growing rural poverty and migration to urban areas. According to a 2008 report, levels of hunger in Pakistan are "alarming." The government's decision to offer longterm farmland leases to foreign investors for export production threatens to intensify land and water problems.


An estimated 40-55 million Pakistanis do not have access to safe drinking water, yet the government spends 47 times as much on the military budget as on water and sanitation (and the United States is set to nearly double its military aid to Islamabad next year). According to UNESCO's World Water Development Report, only 2 percent of Pakistan's cities have wastewater treatment facilities, and in those cities less than 30 percent of wastewater receives treatment. Water pollution is the leading cause of death in Pakistan and causes 60 percent of infant mortality.

Sugarcane-based industries, tanneries, and the textile industry are the principal industrial water polluters, causing high levels of coliform, fluorites, iron, sulfur, and sulfates in drinking water. Untreated sewage from cities adds to the contamination. And in Punjab province, many people depend on contaminated irrigation water for domestic use.


For decades, Pakistan and India have had an uneasy relationship. Sovereignty over Kashmir, a key source of water for both countries, has been one of the most contentious issues. At the same time, both countries have, sometimes uneasily, lived by the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty, and relied on its dispute arbitration mechanism. Signed in 1960, the treaty divides the waters of the Indus and its tributaries. India has exclusive use of the eastern Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej rivers, while the waters of the Indus itself, as well as those of the western Jehlum and Chenab rivers, were allocated to Pakistan. India is permitted some non-consumptive uses, including "run of the river" hydropower, but the treaty barred the construction of large storage facilities such as dams or reservoirs.

After partition in 1947, Pakistan and India built duplicative and rival irrigation and hydro-power systems in the Indus basin. Both confront rapidly growing water use but are also using their resources highly inefficiently. A McKinsey report estimates that by 2030 India will have only half the water it needs under business-as-usual assumptions.

A number of contentious Indian upstream projects in Kashmir, undertaken in response to growing water needs, falling groundwater tables, and power shortages, have served as reminders that water disputes between the two neighbors are never far from the surface. They include the following:

* Baglihar hydroelectric dam. Pakistan has objected to this dam on the Chenab River since India began construction in 1999. A 2005 World Bank adjudication requires that the dam's reservoir only be filled between June 21 and August 31, with Pakistan's prior consent, and specifies minimum river flows. But in 2008 India continued to fill the dam well into September, considerably reducing the Chenab's flow and causing crop damage. A World Bank tribunal subsequently asked India to lower the height of the dam.

* Kishanganga hydroelectric dam. The proposed 103 meter-high reservoir threatens to displace some 25,000 people. A channel connected to the reservoir would divert the Neelum river from Muzaffarabad, in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, to Wullar Lake and the Jhelum river near Bandipur instead. With about two-thirds of the construction finished, the dam is expected to come onstream by 2016.

* Tulbul navigation project/Wullar barrage. India is considering reviving this project on Wullar Lake, which it first initiated in the 1980s but scrapped following objections from Pakistan. Pakistan fears that India could use Tulbul to disrupt its triple irrigation canal system (Upper Jhelum, Upper Chenab, and Lower Barri Doab).

India, in turn, is concerned about growing Chinese involvement in several major Pakistani hydropower projects, including the Neelum-Jhelum project some 70 kilometers away from Baglihar. The Neelum-Jhelum project aims to have the Neelum flow through underground tunnels to the Jhelum near Muzaffarabad.

Rising demand and reduced availability of water make it increasingly important for India and Pakistan to improve their water management and ensure that diplomacy, and greater collaboration, govern their water relations. In a sign of how water issues could become more enmeshed with conventional security concerns, Pakistani jihadist organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba have begun to blame India for Pakistan's growing water shortages. An opinion piece in India's The Hindu newspaper suggested in February 2010 that more decisive Pakistani action against extremist anti-India groups could potentially open the door to much greater cooperation.

Both countries need a broad dialogue on water and related matters that goes beyond a mere dispute settlement process and addresses their shared resource and environmental needs--perhaps in the form of a second Indus water treaty. For instance, a 2008 joint UNEP/Asian Institute of Technology report notes that the Indus Waters Treaty does not address "transboundary pollution of the water resources, which is a significant contributor to the vulnerability of the basin's freshwater resources." And of course the treaty does not address the repercussions of climate change, which was not an issue back in 1960. Yet both countries will be affected deeply since they depend heavily on snow-fed rivers that rise in the Himalayas.


Climate change will dramatically worsen the water challenges in Central and South Asia through rising temperatures and drought, more variable rainfall and glacier melt, sea-level rise, and changes to the monsoon cycle.


In Central Asia, climate impact will be felt in terms of reduced rainfall and runoff, leading to increased heat stress, drought, and desertification. A 2009 Asian Development Bank report bleakly concludes: "It is difficult to see anything other than an increase in migration in the region as climate change adds to economic, social, and political pressures." Yet no mitigation and adaptation strategies are in place.

The melting of the Hindu Kush-Karakorum-Himalaya glaciers will have serious consequences for hundreds of millions of people. The warming trend in these mountain ranges has been much stronger than the global average. As a result of rising temperatures, more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow, leading to shrinking glaciers. Two-thirds of the Himalayan glaciers are reported to be receding. Glaciers in Tajikistan have shrunk by a third in the second half of the 20th century. The Kolahoi, Indian-controlled Kashmir's biggest glacier and the principal source of water for the Jhelum River and thus for agriculture in Pakistan's Punjab province, has receded from 11 square kilometers to 8.4 square kilometers over the past three decades. The Siachen glacier, site of an Indian-Pakistani military standoff for 25 years, has reportedly shrunk to half its size. In 2009, Chinese researchers predicted that the Himalayas' glaciated area could shrink by 43 percent by 2070.

Glacier melt at first results in increased water flow in the summer months. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional knowledge development and learning center, warns: "It is not unlikely that this will appear as a positive, comforting sign, deterring and delaying required emergency initiatives." However, receding and eventually disappearing high-altitude reservoirs of snow and ice will over time reduce downstream runoff and increase its variability. As the water flow declines, it compromises hydropower generation. In the agricultural sector, the result is falling production of foodstuffs and commodities like cotton, which in turn may lead to growing poverty and social disparities, escalating rural-urban migration, and rising food prices in cities. There is also potential for conflict between up-and downstream states.


Climate change is also expected to cause significant changes to monsoon patterns and increase unpredictability. While much of South, East, and Southeast Asia may see increased intensity of these storms and greater rainfall by century's end, for most parts of Pakistan and southeastern Afghanistan a reduction in precipitation of up to 20 percent is projected. Low-lying coastal areas such as the Indus delta will likely see an increase in the number and intensity of cyclones due to warmer seas. The resulting destructive storm surges and greater salt-water intrusion could drive migration from major coastal urban centers such as Karachi. Flooding is expected to increase across the Himalayas, as well as northern Pakistan and India.


The region's pervasive water-related problems require far-sighted leadership and greater collaboration. Among the Central Asian states that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union, water governance--principally in the form of the International Fund for the Aral Sea (IFAS) and the Interstate Coordinating Water Commission that was integrated into IFAS in 1997--remains largely dysfunctional, buffeted by conflicting national interests, mutual suspicions, and authoritarian structures that have translated into reluctance to cooperate.

Over the past few years, the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has intensified its engagement in Central Asia. Its Special Programme for the Economies of Central Asia has sought to strengthen cooperation and transboundary water and energy resource management among members, which include Afghanistan. In principle, UNECE's Water Convention provides a legal framework for transboundary water cooperation, but Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are so far the only regional signatories in the region.

The Environment and Security Initiative (ENVSEC), established to promote better environmental management and capacity building as a way to reduce insecurity in southeastern Europe and Central Asia, has relevant expertise. In 2008, ENVSEC undertook a detailed assessment of the water management and quality situation in the Amu-Darya river basin, with a particular focus on the environment and security implications of projected developments. Now under review, the report is targeting opportunities to strengthen basin-wide cooperation.

The East-West Institute launched a series of Preventive Diplomacy Initiatives in April 2009, bringing officials and experts from Afghanistan, its neighbors, NATO, and the UN together for policy dialogues on regional water cooperation, agricultural development, and energy production. Sessions focused on Afghanistan's major rivers (the Amu Darya, Kabul, and Helmand). Regarding the Kabul River, it is hoped that data-sharing and technical cooperation may eventually pave the way toward a bilateral Afghan-Pakistani water resources commission and perhaps even a treaty governing the river's resources.


Central Asia's hydropower resources are the object of ongoing great power rivalries among Russia, the United States, China, and India. Within the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) that it dominates, Russia attempted to create a Central Asian hydropower consortium to govern the region's interconnected water and energy problems. However, Uzbekistan's withdrawal from the EAEC in 2008 undermined these plans. The United States, meanwhile, has sought to limit Russian influence in Central Asia and to turn the region into a supplier of electricity in South Asia, by backing the proposed 1,680-kilometer TAPI (Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) oil and gas pipeline.

Because it groups together Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and China (with India and Pakistan as observers and Afghanistan as an invited guest), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), in principle, could play an important role in addressing the water and energy challenges of Central and South Asia. But other challenges have so far received priority attention. For instance, at the October 2008 SCO summit, the issue was overshadowed by efforts to address the impacts of the world financial crisis.


While the water challenges in the region are great, there are multiple avenues for addressing them. One of the most pressing needs is for much greater efficiency in water use, including drip irrigation techniques and canals that lose less water. Afghanistan's Ministry of Energy and Water hopes to boost efficiency by 45 percent by 2015. In Pakistan, improvements in yields for rain-fed cereal crops--which are barely 10 percent of achievable yields--could help relieve overall water pressures. Their neighbors can and must similarly boost water productivity. Better watershed management, rainwater harvesting, urban water conservation, investments in improved sanitation facilities, and more integrated planning to deal with competing water needs are also vitally important.

Most of the countries of the region have little influence over global greenhouse emissions trajectories, and hence will need to focus principally on adaptation measures. It is essential to build environmental, social, economic, and political resilience, as well as improve institutional capacities to cope with growing water scarcity and climate impacts. Water cooperation across national boundaries offers important benefits, but political rivalries and inertia may not be overcome without disinterested, innovative third-party facilitation.

Climate change and its likely impact on glaciers, monsoons, and sea levels cannot be dealt with by any single nation. By and large, governments in the region are reluctant even to share relevant data, and rivalries among the bigger powers--Pakistan, India, and China--remain acute. Some of the key sources of Asia's major rivers--Kashmir and Tibet--are also the object of long-standing conflicts.

Efforts must be made toward greater collaboration on scientific studies to improve knowledge of the state of the Himalayan glaciers and other crucial matters. Such collaboration can help to improve mutual trust, which in itself is an essential condition for greater political cooperation. And such efforts cannot limit themselves to official channels only. Active engagement with civil society is critical.

For more information about issues raised in this story, visit

Michael Renner is a senior researcher and director of the Global Security Project at Worldwatch Institute. This article is derived and slightly updated from "Water Challenges in Central-South Asia," Noref Policy Brief No. 4, published by the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre in December 2009. The brief can be downloaded at
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Author:Renner, Michael
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:May 1, 2010
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