ECC Platform Library

 

Can South Asian rivers be ‘regional public goods’?

05 June, 2019
Omair Ahmad, The Third Pole

India, boat, river

India, boat, river
© Kyran Low/Unsplash

A multi-sectoral and multilateral approach to South Asia's rivers could provide sustainable development, but it needs to include those already marginalised by a narrow development path.

South Asia, as a whole, is already facing a water crisis, and it is likely to get worse. Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are already classified as water scarce regions, and crippling drought played out in Afghanistan last year and into this year. Farming is in crisis, with springs drying up in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, which hosts 240 million people, and climate change is leading to both more floods and droughts as rainfall becomes more erratic.

What is often missed in this analysis is how development patterns are likely to exacerbate these problems. Golam Rasul, chief economist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), has looked at these challenges in a recently submitted paper to the International Journal of Water Resources Development. Sharing the draft of the paper at the sidelines of the launch of ICIMOD’s Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme report, Rasul emphasised that any long-term vision of development of the HKH region has to look at the water-food-energy nexus.

The paper lists a series of issues which are already impacting each other, and will only become more interlinked over time. These include a large and growing population of 1.7 billion, a fairly high rate of economic growth, a demand for energy and food, and rapid urbanisation – all of which will also be impacted by the effects of climate change.

An unquenchable demand for development

It is worth quoting in full the specific challenges laid out in the paper that this region faces, which drive the “development at all costs” agenda of most politicians. Quoting statistics from a variety of organisations, such as the World Bank, UNICEF, FAO and WHO, Rasul writes, “Nearly half of the world’s poor (46%) and more than one-third (35%) of the world’s under-nourished live in the region, about 400 million (23% of the total population) have no access to electricity, more than 500 million (29%) use traditional biomass for cooking, more than 200 million (12%) lack access to safe drinking water, more than 900 million (52%) do not have good sanitation services, more than 200 million (12%) face chronic food shortages, and about 300 million (17%) are undernourished.”

Despite economic growth from 2008-18 doubling per capita GDP in South Asia, an estimated 16% of the total South Asian population continues to earn less than USD 1.90 a day.

These numbers represent an enormous demand for a better future by one-fifth of the global population, and thus it is little surprise that most decisionmakers in South Asia seem to value economic growth at all costs. While Rasul understands this, his concern is that strategies to deal with these issues tend to be divided by sector and country, leading to sub-optimal results within countries, and especially between countries.

The coal crisis in India

An excellent example of this can be found in the report titled, “Energy-Water Nexus” published by the Vasudha Foundation in India in December 2018, examining the interaction between coal plants and water usage. The coal plants are ostensibly needed to provide energy for economic growth, but they use huge amounts of water. The report cites the Central Electricity Authority of India, which stated in a 2012 report that on an average Indian coal plants use eight times more water to generate a MW of power than coal plants in developed countries. Even coal plants in China use less than a third of the water that India does.

Furthermore, although the coal plants are ostensibly for the purpose of development, and raising the standard of living among the population, their impact on local water supplies means that those living near the coal stations are deprived of water, or if they receive it at all, it is polluted. This was made clear by an examination of the villages near the Chandrapur district of Maharashtra, which hosts 18% of the power plants in India’s most developed state. Added to this, water shortages have led to a critical underperformance by coal plants, with efficiency levels dropping as water availability became scarce. The current non-performing assets in India – bad loans – outstrip that of any large economy. In September 2018, about 13% of the country’s INR 1.74 trillion (USD 25.5 billion) of bad debt was for coal plants – many of which may never be built.

This is an example of what Rasul means when he writes that, “efforts in water resources development in South Asia are mostly single purpose and sectoral and without a broad regional approach.” His advice is for a broad planning approach, and he champions two types of large projects, both of which imagine the transboundary rivers of South Asia as “regional public goods” to be jointly managed. These would require transboundary rivers to be managed by energy, water, irrigation and transport departments – often isolated from each other even within countries – across multiple countries.

The first is storage dams in high Himalayan areas that can catch and hold monsoon rains. South Asia – except for Afghanistan – receives more than 60% of its rains in the four months of June to September. Most of this runs off and the countries of South Asia, unlike those of the US, China, and Egypt, have very limited storage capacity. As the monsoons are destabilised by climate change, leading to more floods and droughts, this lack of storage capacity will critically weaken the region’s ability to provide water for crops, recharge groundwater, or retain enough waters in its rivers for navigation, Rasul argues.

His second big project is for revitalising the inland waterways, pushing trade between South Asian countries, lowering transportation costs, and working to make sure there is enough water in the rivers. Both the storage dams and inland waterways can only work within a framework of multi-sectoral and multilateral support, with the countries of South Asia cooperating with each other and taking care of each other’s needs in order to pursue their own core national interests. Rasul gives an example of how the Koshi basin can be used for multiple purposes, with storage dams built in Nepal’s Saptakoshi area storing a quarter of the monsoon flow, and also helping irrigate the downstream Ganga basin in India over the whole year, while at the same time guaranteeing adequate river flow to connect Nepal, India and Bangladesh for trade and transport via inland waterway.

What Rasul ignores, however, is that both the hydropower industry (which would make storage dams) and the inland waterways project, have – so far – been anything other than multi-sectoral. Like large coal plants, hydropower projects in South Asia have routinely ignored the concerns of others, displacing millions, and creating crises for local ecosystems. Furthermore the revival of local water storage projects, based on traditional practices, have had more success than large reservoirs for small farmers who are often less able to access canal systems. The inland waterways project, though much newer, has also yet to take into account the challenges of local fisher communities. This may mean that it is not the multi-sectoral and multilateral approach that is needed to deal with the challenges that South Asia faces.

This is a key concern, because the pressure will be felt most by marginalised populations and small farmers. As Rasul notes, “cereal demand [is] projected to more than double by 2030 from 241 million tons in 2000. This will create further pressure on the limited area of arable land, which has already reduced from 0.4 ha per capita in 1960 to 0.12 ha per capita in 2013. The declining land per capita will necessitate intensifying food production, which will require more water and energy.” This is unlikely to succeed without incorporating small farmers as key stakeholders, the very people that have been sidelined by a process of large projects taken up, ostensibly to improve their well-being.

 

[This article originally appeared on www.thethirdpole.net]

ArticleClimate Diplomacy
Topic
Development
Water

Region
Asia

Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

Read more

Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

Read more

Cities

Sorry, no description found.

Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

Read more

Climate Diplomacy

To address the challenges posed by climate change, a new profile of climate diplomacy is evolving. This utilises a full range of policies, including development cooperation, conflict prevention efforts, and humanitarian assistance, in addition to more traditional measures of climate change adaptation and mitigation. Moving from a risk analysis of climate-related threats to well-timed preventive action requires a greater commitment to integrating climate change concerns into development, foreign, and security policies. Examples include strengthening diplomatic networks, building new alliances with partners, and raising awareness – not only of potentially negative climate change impacts, but also of opportunities to embark on a sustainable transformation of our societies.

Read more

Co-Benefits

Climate action entails an array of economic, social, political and environmental co-benefits. It provides an opportunity for economic growth and new jobs. Many investments can take into account climate considerations without becoming more costly. Further important co-benefits include: improved energy security, less local air and water pollution, health benefits as well as ecosystem and biodiversity protection.

Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

Read more

Development

Climate change and development are inextricably linked. Climate change endangers the development agenda and has the potential to reverse development goals. Furthermore, successful mitigation of climate change heavily depends on development choices around the world. Therefore, development strategies need to be climate-compatible to provide long-term success, and there are viable policy options that support this compatibility. Many mitigation and adaptation activities can present development opportunities to developing countries and avoid the lock-in to environmentally damaging technologies.

Early Warning & Risk Analysis

The reasons for the development and escalation of conflicts and the incidence of risks are multifaceted and complex. Simultaneously, the assessment of the specific causes in the form of risk and conflict analyses can contribute to a better understanding of these processes and make it possible to provide warning of negative developments, or ideally help prevent them. In the context of natural resource use, risks and conflicts have gained increasing attention in the past years. The debate on possible future water wars is merely one example.

Read more

Energy

The well-being of individuals, communities and nations depends on the availability of energy resources. The gap between energy supply and demand appears to be growing, making the world vulnerable to serious economic shocks. At the same time, the burning of fossil fuels causing climate change is one of the vital challenges of international environmental policy. So far, only rudimentary approaches exist for shaping climate and energy security in a sustainable way. The components of a strategy that can contribute to reducing vulnerabilities related to climate change and energy policy include a greater role for renewable energies, the improvement of energy efficiency and a stronger decentralisation of energy supply.

Read more

Environment & Migration

The economic, social and environmental consequences of climate change aggravate the breakdown of eco-system-dependent livelihoods and are likely to become dominant drivers of long-term migration. Natural disasters already cause massive shorter-term displacement and the number of temporarily displaced people is likely to further increase with climate change. For vulnerable populations in vulnerable regions, such as the Sahel zone or the Ganges delta, migration often becomes the sole survival strategy. In order to address climate-related displacement and migration successfully, knowledge of effective adaptation and an improved understanding of how environmental change affects human mobility is essential. 

Read more

Finance

Climate finance, from all sources, plays a key role in supporting and enabling adaptation and mitigation action as well as climate and energy innovation. The Paris Agreement ensured that the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility are at the core of climate finance architecture as entities entrusted with the operation of the Financial Mechanism of the UNFCCC. Increasing climate finance from all relevant public and private sources is crucial. Furthermore, much needs to be done to redirect finance flows to sustainable paths, e.g. reducing fossil fuel subsidies, introducing maritime and air transportation taxes. The conditions for green investment in developing countries should also be improved.

Forests

Forests are disappearing at an alarming rate. Competition for forest resources triggers, exacerbates, or finances numerous crises and conflicts in tropical developing countries. Illegal logging and timber trade foster instability and sometimes violent conflict by strengthening illegal and armed groups, increasing corruption and exacerbating use and claim conflicts among local communities, the state and the business sector. Forests are a vital resource to poor people but they can also become areas of conflict. Sustainable management of forest resources is therefore key to preventing violent conflict over and within forests.

Read more

Gender

Gender plays an important role as a category of conflict for many reasons. The interlinkages between gender, environment and conflicts are complex and much research is still needed. Existing insights suggest that conflicts may worsen gender inequalities that existed before the outbreak of violence. The unequal distribution of land property rights in many parts of the world serves as an example. Moreover, women (and children) are among those most affected by both violent conflict and natural disasters. At the same time, women carry much of the burden of trying to implement rehabilitation measures after crisis events.

Read more

Land & Food

Increasing water scarcity, desertification and crop failures due to extreme weather events are becoming more and more of a threat to global food production. While the world’s population continues to grow rapidly, food production is unable to keep pace. Due to the global food crisis in 2008, the number of hungry people reached the symbolic one billion threshold for the first time – corresponding to about 16 percent of world population. Food insecurity may be a consequence or cause of conflicts. Violent conflicts often lead to the destruction of agricultural infrastructure and means of production, as well as to the displacement of local communities.

Read more

Minerals & Mining

In the past, the discovery and tapping of valuable or strategic resources like valuable minerals, oil and natural gas, particularly in developing and emerging countries, has often led to large scale environmental contamination and negative development. The "resource curse" of some countries shows that the wealth from resource yields is frequently unfairly distributed; instead of serving development it advanced the formation of corrupt elites and in some cases even led to conflicts and civil wars. Measures in various sectors and at all levels are important in order to use the potential of these natural resources in a manner that is sustainable and prevents conflicts.

Read more

Private Sector

The spread of violent conflict not only affects people but also companies located in such regions. Destruction of investments and infrastructure, collapse of markets and trade partnerships, flight and expulsion of employees are phenomena of conflicts and environment-induced crises that directly affect companies in unstable regions. Almost all branches of the economy thus have a clear interest in a stable and peaceful environment for their activities. Conversely, the business sector plays an important role in the interaction of economic growth, social development and a healthy environment, all of which can advance peace and sustainable development. 

Read more

Security

Environmental issues have a significant security dimension. Access to, and overuse of, natural resources often play a key role in civil wars or other forms of internal domestic conflict. This is compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. Climate change is now widely recognised as a non-traditional, risk-multiplying threat that will have increasing security impacts. Key risks with possible implications for human and national security include water scarcity, food crises, natural disasters, and displacement. More preventive diplomacy and advocacy is needed to address the strategic implications of climate and environmental change.

Sustainable Transformation

Sustainable Transformation allows societies to profit from a growing, environmentally sustainable and socially inclusive economy – especially in emerging and developing countries. This requires a higher up-front investment, but the benefits of a sustainable transformation in the medium and long term are significant. For instance, energy cost savings and reducing the impact of price volatility offer major incentives for deploying renewable energies and promoting energy efficiency. Such benefits exist in all key sectors of the economy.

Technology & Innovation

Innovations and technologies are already readily available and affordable but their global diffusion and uptake remains a challenge. Innovation and technology are crucial to achieving ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation targets. However, research and development often do not receive appropriate public support. Developing countries can leapfrog high-carbon industrialisation phases by adopting, deploying and improving existing innovations and technologies. For this, it is essential to minimise financial, administrative and political barriers.

Water

The availability of freshwater resources in sufficient quantity and quality is essential for the preservation of human health and sound ecosystems. The use of water resources is also vital, however, for economic development: whether for agriculture, industrial production or for electricity generation. The world's freshwater resources are distributed very unevenly in terms of geography and seasons. In addition, water shortage is becoming more prevalent in several regions due to population growth, economic development, urbanisation and increasing environmental pollution. Thus, water resources can hold potential for conflicts between parties who have different interests and needs.

Read more

Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

Read more

Central America & Caribbean

Natural disasters and water scarcity are key challenges for most of Central America and the Caribbean. These challenges will become even more pronounced as the climate changes. Weak resource and disaster risk management and land disputes pose additional security challenges for large parts of the region. Several countries of Central America and the Caribbean have limited adaptive capacities as they face political instability caused by high social inequality, crime, corruption, and intra-state conflicts.

Read more

Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

Read more

Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

Read more

Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

Read more

North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

Read more

Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

Read more

South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

Read more

Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

Read more