Center for Strategic Decision Research


Water in Global Security

Mr. Satish Chandra
Deputy National Security Advisor of India


Like any other scarce resource, water affects global security. Its impact on regional and global security in a scarcity situation arises essentially from three factors: (a) It is the basis of life-no living organism can survive without it; (b) There is no substitute for it in the multiplicity of its uses: domestic, agricultural, industrial, etc.; (c) Passing often through more than one state, its control and utilization can become a matter of dispute. 

Accordingly, a water-stressed environment is likely to see increasing competition for this resource both within and among states. The potential for conflict it generates is aggravated by the fact that, unlike other scarce resources, whose locations are clear and stable within one or another state, the location of water bodies is often dynamic and involves more than one state. In such situations, there can be more than one interpretation of the extent to which and the manner in which each involved riparian can utilize water. 


While most of us are aware that the days of water plenitude are over-after all, it is our generation that made the transition from free water to water pricing, from hosing the driveway to mopping it, and, most painful of all, from sinfully wasteful showers to bucket baths-we are perhaps not fully conscious of the severity of the water-scarcity situation that confronts us. The following data should help to place the situation in the proper perspective: 

  • Global fresh-water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995-more than twice the population growth rate.
  • Since 1950, the per capita global renewable fresh-water supply has fallen by 58% while the world population has increased from 2.5 billion to 6 billion.
  • A CIA study projects that by 2015 over three billion people-about 40% of the world's population at that time-will live in countries that are defined as water stressed, i.e., have less than 1,700 cubic meters of water per capita per year. As per capita water availability falls below this number and particularly if it falls below 1,000 cubic meters (defined as the water scarcity level), it will be difficult or impossible for the countries involved to mobilize enough water to satisfy the food, industrial, and domestic needs of their citizens. 
  • It is estimated that today more than two billion people are affected by water shortages in over 40 countries. According to data culled from "Water Resources 1991-92," as many as 18 countries faced severe water scarcity at that time with per capita availability of 1,000 cubic meters or less. That number of countries is projected to increase to 33 by 2025, most of them in Africa and the Middle East. 
  • By 2025, water scarcity could cause annual global losses of 350 million tons of grain-slightly more than the entire U.S. grain crop-and grain prices could skyrocket.
  • In parts of the western U.S., China, India, Egypt, western Asia, and North Africa, water supplies will be threatened as groundwater is pumped faster than aquifers can recharge. In parts of China water tables are already falling five feet a year, and in parts of India between three and ten feet.
  • India will face serious fresh-water shortages. With 16% of the world's population, it has only 4% of global water resources. Its per capita fresh-water availability dropped from a comfortable 5,177 cubic meters in 1951 to 1,869 cubic meters in 2001. By 2025, it will be 1,341 cubic meters and, by 2050, 1,140 cubic meters.

It is against the backdrop of the foregoing that the 2000 UNEP report warns that the global water shortage represents a full-scale emergency. 

In addition, many of the above projections on impending global water shortages were made without taking into account the impact of global warming. The latter is bound to distort global weather patterns, which in turn will produce new stresses and strains on water availability. Some areas that are not water stressed today could become so under the impact of global warming, which could lead to additional tensions. 


Differences over water at the local, national, and regional levels are as old as history given the fact that water, in the words of a former Israeli prime minister, is "life itself." In fact, the first water war was fought some 4,500 years ago between two Mesopotamian city-states-Lagash and Umma-in southern Iraq. Since then, while there have been no outright water wars between nation-states, use of and sharing of water have been a matter of much discord between states. In a seminal study undertaken by Professor Aaron T. Wolf, Shira B. Yoffe, and Mark Giordana on water-related exchanges between nations in the period 1948-2000, it was found that out of a total of 1,831 events, 507, or 27%, were conflictive in nature. Although the bulk of these exchanges did not go beyond verbal antagonism, in as many as 37 cases they resulted in some form of military action. It is submitted that as more and more countries and people become water stressed, the potential for conflict will increase. As per Peter Gleick's estimates, over 30 countries received more than one-third of their surface water from across national borders. It is indeed this grim situation that led U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to warn on the occasion of World Water Day in March 2002 that "fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict." In a similar vein, at the inauguration of the International Year of Fresh Water in 2003, Mr. Annan said: "Water is likely to become a growing source of tension and fierce competition between nations if present trends continue, but it can also be a catalyst for cooperation." 

Water scarcity in internationalized basins constitutes an explosive mix that can well lead to the eruption of conflict. The transboundary movement of water in such basins raises thorny and complicated questions of water rights, allocation, management, control, etc, which in a scarcity situation can lead to major differences and even conflicts. The rightful share of each riparian's catchment area and the water contributed by it, its manner of utilization-whether optimal or sub-optimal-the country's needs on the basis of its population and historic patterns of utilization, etc., are all open to interpretation. 

In Africa alone, more than 80 rivers and lakes are shared by two or more countries. All countries in sub-Saharan Africa share at least one river basin or lake. Guinea is the upstream riparian of 14 shared rivers, and Mozambique is the downstream riparian of 8 shared rivers. The Nile is shared by 10 countries; Congo and Niger by 9; Zambezi by 8; Volta by 6; and Orange, Okavango, Senegal, and Limpopo by 4 countries each. Few of these rivers and lakes are governed by agreements regulating their use or protecting the needs of all the riparian states. Consequently, the riparians excluded from those treaties do not recognize them and downstream/upstream tensions dominate a number of basins.

The foregoing has been mentioned merely to underline the potential for conflict among states across which water flows naturally in an environment of increasing scarcity. It is estimated that there are currently between 260 and 300 transboundary water basins, approximately one-third of which involve more than 2 countries and 19 of which involve 5 or more sovereign states. The Danube has 18 riparian states. Five basins-the Congo, Niger, Nile, Rhine, and Zambezi-are shared by between 9 and 11 countries. 

In its 2003 report, "Water for People, Water for Life," UNESCO identified as many as 21 basins with the potential for conflict in the next 5 to 10 years, notably Aral, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Han, Incomati, Jordan, Kunene, Kura-Araks, Lake Chad, La Plata, Lempa, Limpopo, Mekong, Nile, Ob [Ertis], Okavango, Orange, Salween, Senegal, Tigris-Euphrates, Tumen, and Zambezi. These basins have been so identified on the basis of the following criteria:

  • They fall across more than one country and often across several. 
  • In one or more countries in each of these basins, unilateral developmental activities are being planned by one or more countries in the absence of cooperative agreements. 
  • Some of the basin states have adversarial relationships over other issues. 

As you can see, the potential for water wars is considerable and on the increase. 


The situation is aggravated by the fact that current international law does not provide clear-cut positions on how to manage, share, and utilize the waters in international basins. The 1997 U.N. Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Use of International Watercourses is yet to take effect since it has been signed by only a handful of countries; it is controversial, and over 80 countries did not vote for it. 

The 1966 Helsinki Rules alone provide some guidelines on sharing waters in international basins. These guidelines embody principles such as equitable utilization, prevention of significant harm to other states, and the obligation to notify and inform other nations of activities being undertaken. Each of these principles is hedged by extensive qualifiers, which leave the guidelines open to multiple interpretations. For instance, "equitable utilization" does not mean equal use; rather, it implies that many factors such as population, geography, and availability of alternative resources can be considered in determining allocation of water rights. 

International law, therefore, does not provide all the answers and will not be able to handle the stress and strain of current and future problems. It is evident that the possibility of serious conflicts erupting between states because of increasing water scarcity in international basins is real. We need to take note of this fact and devise methodologies to avert it. 


Given the fact that mankind is condemned to live in a water-stressed world, we must rigorously conserve water and ensure its optimum utilization. Water conservation should be extended to all aspects of its utilization through such practices as water harvesting, recycling, and reuse of wastewater, as well as through water-thrifty appliances. Attention must be focused particularly on agriculture, which accounts for nearly 70% of water use worldwide. In this context, more efficient irrigation systems must be devised, entailing a more extensive use of drip irrigation and sprinklers. Cropping patterns may need to be altered; indeed, some water-stressed countries that presently export food grains may well decide to curtail their production levels and become importers from countries better endowed with water resources. Shifting away from grain production would be particularly helpful in reducing water stress since it takes about 1,000 tons of water to produce half a ton of rice or one ton of other cereals. 

Groundwater depletion should be averted by ensuring that water use is proportionate to the recharge level. Both conservation and an increase in water productivity should be encouraged by the introduction of judicious price mechanisms. Indeed there is good reason to consider the establishment of an international fund to promote water conservation designed both to prevent water abuse and encourage more effective utilization. The fund should be aimed at developing technologies for carrying out these activities and should be made available to countries facing water stress situations. 

Even more important as a means of avoiding conflict, riparians involved with international basins should enter into cooperative arrangements for integrated basin management. This would not only address the issue of water allocation but also help ensure optimal basin development. Accordingly, issues such as flood control, hydropower generation, and water transport would be addressed, though apart from the issues of sharing water for industrial, domestic, and agricultural use. Since there are no hard and fast rules for the just allocation of waters among riparians, it is only through a process of give and take that states involved in an international basin can reach mutually beneficial arrangements concerning their respective water rights as well as an understanding regarding the control, allocation, and utilization of the available waters. Such a cooperative approach would lead to a "win-win" situation for all concerned. One riparian might benefit more than another on water allocation, but the sum total of each riparian's benefits would far outweigh what each could hope to derive through a unilateral approach. 


As I pointed out earlier, India is on the verge of becoming a water-stressed country. It is therefore instructive to examine how it has acted, particularly since it shares many of its river systems with neighbors. It is with much satisfaction that I tell you that India has evolved a cooperative bilateral relationship with all its neighbors on the utilization of river waters. The nature of this cooperative relationship varies from neighbor to neighbor. With Pakistan, the rights and obligations of each of the two countries on the three eastern and three western rivers, which naturally flow through India to Pakistan and form part of the Indus Basin, have been defined. As per these rights and obligations, India enjoys unrestricted use of the three eastern rivers and Pakistan enjoys the bulk of the flows of the three western rivers, with India having some defined rights for domestic, non-consumptive, and agricultural use of these waters as well as for generation of hydroelectric power. With Bangladesh, it has entailed a sharing of dry season scarcity in the Ganges downstream of Farakka and with Nepal and Bhutan, it has entailed extensive assistance for irrigation and hydro-electric projects. All the arrangements entered into by India were considered not merely in the context of mutual and equitable benefit but in a wider frame and with the hope that they would promote friendly ties. Accordingly, there has been more "give" than "take" on the part of India in these cooperative bilateral arrangements. 

Cooperative Efforts with Pakistan

The water sharing arrangement between India and Pakistan as mentioned above under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 while seemingly equitable is heavily weighted in favor of Pakistan as the eastern rivers carry only 32.8 MAF of water while the western rivers carry more than four times this quantity (135.6 MAF). The icing on the cake as far as Pakistan is concerned is that apart from the generous settlement made by India, the latter also paid over 62 million British pounds to Pakistan for construction of replacement works in the Indus Basin. While it is quite clear that the many concessions made by India were predicated on the hope that the treaty would pave the way for better ties between the two countries, these expectations have been belied and, even more regrettably, Pakistan has sought to misuse many of the treaty provisions to slow down or block several ongoing upstream developmental projects, notably the Tulbul Navigational Project, the Baglihar Hydroelectric Project, and the Kishan Ganga Hydroelectric Project. 

Cooperative Efforts with Bangladesh

Regarding Bangladesh, India entered into a 30-year treaty with that country in 1996 regarding the sharing of the Ganges waters at Farakka.  While recognizing the need for a "solution to the long-term problem of augmenting the Ganges flows," it puts in place allocations for each country during the dry season pending this solution. The treaty states that when flows are 70,000 cusecs or less, water will be shared equally between the two countries. When flows are between 70,000 and 75,000 cusecs, Bangladesh will receive 35,000 cusecs and India the balance. When the flow is 75,000 cusecs or more, India will receive 40,000 cusecs with the balance for Bangladesh. These allocations are subject to the condition that India and Bangladesh are both guaranteed to receive 35,000 cusecs of water in three 10-day alternating periods between March 11 and May 10. 

As the foregoing shows, the agreement involves some sacrifice on India's part, since it does not meet India's requirement of a minimum of 40,000 cusecs of water, which is essential for the flushing of the port of Calcutta. India nevertheless agreed to the treaty, keeping in mind the broader objective of forging friendly ties with Bangladesh. India's gesture is all the more notable given the fact that while my country is on the verge of being water stressed, Bangladesh is rich in water, with a per capita availability of 19,600 cubic meters-over 10 times India's per capita water availability. 

Cooperative Efforts with Nepal

Over the years, India has assisted Nepal with several important irrigation projects, the most notable of which are the Kosi and Gandak projects as well as several hydroelectric projects, including Trisuli and Devighat. As a result of this assistance, about 300,000 hectares of land in Nepal have been brought under irrigation and a hydroelectric power-generating capacity created. With the signing of the Mahakali Treaty between India and Nepal, the two countries are now poised to undertake the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project, which is designed to generate 5,600 MW of power and irrigate 130,000 hectares of land in Nepal and 220,000 hectares of land in India. Under the treaty, both countries are committed to sharing water and electricity from the projects involving the Mahakali River as well as the costs on the basis of benefits received. It is significant that the treaty provides that the water requirements of Nepal "shall be given prime consideration in the utilization of the waters of the Mahakali River." 

Cooperative Efforts with Bhutan

India has been assisting Bhutan mainly on generating hydroelectric power. Our most significant project to date in that country is the 336-MW Chukha Hydroelectric Project, which went on-stream in 1988. Seventy percent of the energy generated by this project is exported to India. Yet another important project is the 60-MW Kurichhu Hydroelectric Project, which was completed in 2002. Nearly 50% of the Bhutanese government's revenue comes from the sale of energy to India, contributing to the enhancement of Bhutan's per capita GDP from around U.S. $230 to $640. India is also currently assisting Bhutan in the 1,020-MW Tala Project, which will be completed by 2005. Once this project is completed, the revenues generated through electricity export to India will result in a doubling of Bhutan's per capita GDP to a level of about $1,200 to $1,300. 

India also has bilateral cooperative arrangements with Bhutan regarding the exchange of data concerning flooding and flood forecasting, as well as similar arrangements with Bangladesh, China, and Pakistan. 

Internal Water-Use Efforts

In addition to its bilateral cooperative efforts with its neighbors, India has developed a National Perspective Plan designed to interlink its rivers for transferring water from surplus to deficit basins. This exercise was begun with a view to enhancing the country's irrigation potential, mitigating floods and droughts, and reducing regional imbalances in the availability of water. The plan will be put into effect only after consulting not only all of our own states but also concerned neighbors. It is expected to cost Rs. 5,60,000 crores (U.S. $120 billion), irrigate 150 million hectares, produce 35,000 MW of power, save Rs. 5,000 crores ($1.06 billion) in annual flood losses, increase food grain production by 70 million tons, and provide employment to a million people annually for the next 10 years. 


I would like to conclude by reiterating that water scarcity is a time bomb posing a serious threat to global security. Defusing the bomb will demand the efficient management of available water resources, which includes the call for an end to water abuse and the readiness to cooperate in order to ensure water's optimal utilization and management. 


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