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Political solutions vital to water security in Asia, say researchers at GlobalTech Workshop

Date: 25 June 2012
Venue: Nanyang Technological University (NTU)
Organised by: NTU

Associate Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head of the RSIS Centre for NTS Studies, and Mr P.K. Hangzo, Associate Research Fellow at the Centre, recently presented a lecture at the 4th Workshop of the Global Alliance of Technological Universities (GlobalTech). The workshop, held on 25 June 2012, was themed ‘Challenges and solutions for sustainable water management in urban centres’.

Assoc. Prof. Caballero-Anthony and Mr Hangzo focused on ‘Recasting the debate on transboundary rivers: Case study of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region’. They argued that while technological advances could be helpful in the management of water crises, they do not by themselves represent solutions, especially in the case of transboundary rivers, which are a major source of fresh water for many countries.

Transboundary rivers are notoriously difficult to manage as they cross political boundaries. National security considerations mean that states are often reluctant to share their waters equitably. Moreover, rising water shortages as a result of imbalances between demand and supply have resulted in growing tensions among riparian states. Transboundary rivers. could thus become the focal point of inter-state conflicts in the 21st century. Sustainably managing transboundary rivers therefore require political solutions.

The case of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region was examined in light of its significance to Asia’s water security. The area, which includes the Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan Plateau, is the source of 10 major Asian rivers, namely, Tarim, Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow.

Although the countries of the region have established bilateral and multilateral treaties such as the Indus Waters Treaty, the Ganges Treaty and the Mekong River Commission to manage these rivers, these agreements are river-centric and focus narrowly on socioeconomic-related issues such as water allocation, navigation, hydroelectric dams and fisheries.

Such cooperative frameworks will not be enough to deal with the impact of climate change. An estimated 15,000 glaciers atop the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau feed the rivers of the HKH region, and 70 per cent of them could be gone by the end of the century as a result of climate change and degradation of mountain ecosystems. Sustainably managing and saving rivers of the HKH region thus requires a rethink of water management in the region.

First, it is important to view rivers as common goods, with all riparian states being equal stakeholders irrespective of whether they are located upstream or downstream. Second, the focus of river management should be scaled up to also include entire river basins and watersheds, including glaciers and mountain ecosystems.

Finally, a new framework for cooperation that includes all countries in the HKH region should be established. Such a framework could help develop norms, enable timely information exchange, and cultivate trust among riparian states. Such an arrangement can only be achieved through enhanced political dialogue between and among the riparian states sharing a transboundary river system.

GlobalTech Alliance is a network that brings together the world’s leading technological universities including Nanyang Technological University (NTU), California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Imperial College London, ETH Zurich, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Posted on: 25/6/2012 8:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Other NTS Issues

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