Editorial✍ Prelims cum Mains

Why India must get its act together on water diplomacy

Transnational water is a major foreign policy challenge:

  • Among the daunting foreign policy challenges the new government of India faces is the transnational water issues.

India’s vulnerability to transnational waters:

India has a unique riparian status:

  • Riparian countries/states of a river are those relating to or situated on the banks of a river.
  • India is the only regional country that falls in all three categories — upper, middle and lower riparian. For example, India is upper riparian for Teesta river, middle riparian for Brahmaputra river and lower riparian for Kosi river.

India has stake in all important regional river basins:

  • Such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in the region.
  • On one hand, India is potentially affected by water-related actions of upstream countries, especially China and Nepal.
  • On the other hand, India has little room for manoeuvre due to the treaty relationships it has with downstream Pakistan and Bangladesh on the Indus and the Ganges, respectively.

India is vulnerable to Chinese actions to disrupt river water flow:

  • India is most vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of trans-boundary flows because it receives — directly or via rivers that flow in through Nepal — nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory.

Water as a tool against India:

  • China and Pakistan are employing water as a tool against India.
  • Pakistan’s water war strategy is centred on invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to internationalise any disagreement with India.
  • China is creating unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy. For example, it cut-off of hydrological data to India in 2017, which not only breached bilateral accords but also caused preventable flood-related deaths in Assam.

China’s Hydel projects in India’s neighbours:

  • For example, communist-ruled Nepal’s tilt towards China can be seen from its resurrection of a scrapped deal with China to build the $2.5 billion, 1,200-megawatt (MW) Budhi-Gandaki Dam.
  • China is on a dam-building spree on India’s periphery extends from Myanmar and Tibet to PoK, where it is constructing hydel projects.

Water stress in South Asia

  • South Asia accounts for about 22% of the world’s population but must manage with barely 8.3% of the global water resources.
  • Water is becoming the new oil in this region.
  • But there is no substitute for water, unlike oil, dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy.

India’s hydro-diplomacy ineffective

  • Despite the importance of water, hydro-diplomacy has scarcely been a major instrument of Indian foreign policy.
  • India needs to make water diplomacy an important tool of its regional foreign policy so as to facilitate rules-based cooperation and conflict prevention.

Seen in the case of IWT:

  • India’s failure in hydro-diplomacy and the need to look at water as a strategic resource can be seen in the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).
  • It is still the world’s most generous water-sharing pact, and was concluded without any study on its potential long-term impact on the Indian water situation.
  • Today, deepening water woes in India’s lower Indus Basin have resulted in the fast rate of groundwater depletion (world’s second-most rapid rate) in the Punjab-Haryana-Rajasthan belt after the Arabian Peninsula.

Way ahead:

Integrated policymaking for hydro-diplomacy:

  • The new, unified water power ministry in India aims to rectify a splintered, piecemeal approach that has compounded India’s water challenges.
  • But it needs institutionalised, integrated policymaking to develop a holistic approach to come up with an effective hydro-diplomacy that advances long-term water interests.

Pressuring China to abide by water sharing norms:

  • India must build pressure on China to abide by international norms on shared water resources.

BIMSTEC water and energy grid:

  • With India increasingly prefering BIMSTEC, a forward-looking Indian diplomacy should promote multilateral cooperation on water and hydropower resources in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal growth corridor.
  • The ultimate goal should be a water and energy grid that turns BIMSTEC into Asia’s leading economic-growth zone.
  • India has already issued a new cross-border power trading regulation that allows any neighbour to export electricity to third countries via Indian transmission lines.
  • Vast untapped hydropower reserves in the region like in Bhutan:
    • Water-rich Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal sit on vast untapped hydropower reserves.
    • The flourishing Bhutan-India relationship is underpinned by close collaboration on water and clean and affordable energy.
    • Bhutan’s hydropower exports to India have been the primary driver of the small but fast growing economy.
    • From modest, environmentally friendly, run-of-river plants, Bhutan is stepping up its India collaboration with a reservoir-based, 2,585 MW project on River Sankosh — larger than any dam in India.


  • Water increasingly will be a critical factor in regional development.
  • India must get its act together on hydro-diplomacy and exert stronger leadership on trans-boundary water issues.

Image result for water diplomacy


GS Paper II: International Relations

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