Trans-boundary Water Management

The region is comprised of eight countries (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives) and inhabited by 1.8 billion people (23 percent of humanity). It falls into the category of ‘high to extremely high’ water-stressed areas, along with Middle-East Asia and Northern Africa. Pakistan and Afghanistan top the list of water-stressed states in South Asia.

South Asia’s critical water-related challenges:

  • Water scarcity in South Asia might seem like an ironic and paradoxical condition as the Himalayan and the Hindu Kush mountain ranges, which divide this region from the rest of Asia, have enormous reservoirs of freshwater.
  • The imbalance between water withdrawals and water supply in South Asia during the last few decades is the cumulative outcome of a population surge, high-growth industrialization, rapid urbanization, and a lackadaisical attitude towards environmental concerns.
  • Severe scarcity of water for drinking and agricultural purposes;
  • Uneven access to water between the rich and the poor;
  • Disparity in water availability among the various states as well as among the various sub-regions within these states;
  • Over-exploitation and fast depletion of groundwater;
  • Pollution and contamination of surface water resources and the resulting high incidence of water-borne diseases and deaths;
  • Vulnerability to frequent floods and droughts;
  • overuse of water for agricultural purposes; and
  • The potentially dire impact of climate change on the volume and pattern of rainfall, river courses, and sea level

Trans-boundary Rivers in south Asia:

  • India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan share twenty major rivers among them.
  • The Indus basin (consisting of the Indus, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Jhelum and Chenab rivers) inter-links India, Pakistan and China.
  • Brahmaputra and the Ganges basins inter-link China with India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.
  • The Kosi, Gandaki, and Mahakali rivers join Nepal with India.
  • Major rivers shared between India and Bangladesh are the Brahmaputra, Ganges, and Teesta.
  • Pakistan and Afghanistan share the Kabul river basin.
  • Two of the three largest river systems of the region (viz. Indus and Brahmaputra) originate from the Tibetan plateau located in the Southwestern part of China.
  • The region’s third-largest water system, the Ganges, is also connected with the Tibetan plateau.
  • Many of the midstream tributaries of the Ganges originate there even as the main river originates from the Indian side of the Himalayas.

Various issues in transboundary river management


  • Sharing the waters of the Teesta River, For West Bengal, Teesta is equally important, considered the lifeline of half-a-dozen districts in North Bengal.
  • Bangladesh has sought an “equitable” distribution of Teesta waters from India, on the lines of the Ganga Water Treaty of 1996 (an agreement to share surface waters at the Farakka Barrage near their mutual border), but to no avail.


  • Water cooperation between Nepal and India have been agreements signed on major rivers like Kosi, Gandaki, Karnali or Mahakali, essentially for large hydroelectric and irrigation projects by building dams or barrages. No project except the Kosi barrage has been completed yet.

India–Pakistan Water Dispute

  • Both countries signed an accord called the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, which clearly determined how the region’s rivers are to be divided.
  • In this treaty, control over three eastern rivers of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej was given to India, while Pakistan got the control over western rivers of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum.
  • The Indus Waters Treaty has been widely hailed as a success, having survived three post-independence wars between the two hostile neighbours.
  • In 2005, Pakistan challenged India’s 450 MW Baglihar dam project on the Chenab river before the World Bank, but lost the case in the end.
  • In 2011, both countries went head to head again at the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) over India’s 330 MW project in Kishanganga project in Jammu and Kashmir.
  • The latest dispute is over hydroelectric projects that India is building along the Chenab River. According to Pakistan, these projects violate the treaty and will impact its water supply.

China- lower riparian states

  • As an upstream riparian state, China has a clear advantage in building dams and other infrastructure to reduce or divert water flow from these river systems.
  • Its dam-building and water-diversion projects are already a matter of anxiety for its downstream neighbors.
  • Beijing will build a mega dam on the the Yarlung Zangbo river close to the Line of Actual Control in Tibet.

Trans boundary River Treaty

  • India and Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, and India and Nepal have entered into bilateral treaties to create a framework for sharing the water of Transboundary Rivers.
  • The Indus Water Treaty (1960) specifies the terms of sharing the water of six transboundary rivers between India and Pakistan.
  • The Ganges Treaty (1996) between India and Bangladesh brought an end to their longstanding bilateral dispute.
  • India and Nepal signed treaties in 1954, 1959, and 1996 for water-sharing and project-development concerning the Kosi, Gandaki and Mahakali rivers respectively.
  • Interestingly, there is no formal treaty that regulates the distribution of water from the Kabul River between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Challenges of transboundary water management in South Asia

  • Geopolitical tensions caused by the absence of such consensus – The enduring tensions in India-Pakistan relations surrounding the intractable issues of Kashmir and cross-border terrorism account for the absence of a comprehensive, multilateral regional agreement on trans-boundary Rivers and aquifers in South Asia.
  • The socio-environmental impact of big dams and hydroelectric power projects has emerged.
  • Emerging risks like climate change, extreme events, landslides, forest fires and many other ecological threats pose new governance challenges.
  • The glaciers and snowlines of the Himalayas are retreating. If the current warming continues, there is a projection that the waterways of the Tibetan Plateau could first flood and then dry up gradually, turning the vast landscape into a desert
  • Also, the existing bilateral water treaties are not structured to address the emerging water management challenges in South Asia caused by climate change, demographic transition, and technological advances.
  • No South Asian country has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse (1997) which codifies customary international water law to protect, preserve, and manage transboundary water resources effectively, and encourages their equitable and reasonable utilization.
  • Bilateral treaties are not based on uniform and fair principles; nor are they mutually consistent in their operational terms.
  • As a middle riparian state, India has adopted different upstream and downstream distributive principles depending on the river and the country it is dealing with. Several provisions of these bilateral treaties vary with the accepted international legal instruments, standards, and precedents.
  • India’s insistence on pursuing a bilateral approach towards its neighbors and its deep aversion to engaging in multilateral diplomacy on South Asian issues is another important reason.
  • as an upper riparian state and a great power, China has a very little strategic incentive to enter into or push for a multilateral agreement involving its South Asian neighbors, some of whom are too small or highly dependent upon it to influence China’s long-term geopolitical interests.
  • Most upper riparian states in South Asia tend to suppress the real data on water flows during the lean summer months in order to keep the greater share of river water for themselves (in clear violation of bilateral agreements and international conventions).
  • As water is a state subject, states assume exclusive powers over water governance. The cumulative outcomes at the national level do not inspire optimism about long-term security and sustainability. This is partly attributed to the poor devolution by states and weak institutions.
  • The ambitious plans for river rejuvenation, inter-basin water transfer, inland navigation and irrigation development suffer from challenges of interstate coordination.
  • The River Boards Act of 1956 that was made to enable inter-state river water cooperation is almost defunct now.  The Act was designed to provide a dispute resolution process in the form of a tribunal.


  • South Asia can only address these changes effectively by adopting an integrated water management approach at the regional level and multilateral regional agreement. Such an agreement would also help mitigate problems of soil erosion, unsustainable agricultural practices, overexploitation of natural resources, and unfair distribution of water resources.
  • The formation of a working group of ministers belonging to all South Asian states for purposive dialogues on pertinent aspects of trans-boundary water resources and their sustainable use.
  • South Asian countries also need to create and regularly update a regional database of freshwater resources. This would assist in rational policy-making and contingency measures for tackling water scarcity.
  • All participating South Asian governments must commit themselves to providing credible and transparent data on transboundary river water flows.
  • There is a vital need for joint action on the impact of climate change factors on the Himalayan ecosystem and glacial reservoirs of freshwater in the region.
  • The civil society organizations and international bodies concerned with climate change issues, including the UN agencies, should also get involved.
  • The alarming rise in the level of pollutants in freshwater resources and the impact of such pollution on agriculture, health, and soil quality requires serious attention from South Asian policy-makers.
  • The region’s governments and civil society organizations should implement projects for sensitizing all stake-holders, including common citizens, about grave threats of water stress and climate change looming over South Asia.
  • Legal frameworks determine the norms and functional aspects of managing water resources at the local, national, regional, and global levels. Those frameworks lay down the rights and obligations of contracting parties about their share and use of water.
  • The consortia of seven Indian Institutes of Technology made a basin management plan for the Ganga — but it should have been made some 30 years ago. Now we need a different sort of retrofitting.


Tangible steps towards a regional agreement for management of transboundary water resources would prove valuable in achieving the goals of sustainable development, socio-economic justice, and human security in South Asia. Whether the South Asian states would show enough political maturity to set aside their narrow interests at least for this purpose and the well-being of the people and ecosystem of the region is, of course, unknown.