South Asia’s Water Crisis: A Problem Of Scarcity & Politicization

Water scarcity has emerged particularly as a highly contentious and critical issue within South Asia, one of the world’s most dynamic regions and home to nearly two billion people.

One of the recently released United Nations World Water Development Reports warns that by 2030, only 60% of the world’s demand for water will be met by existing resources at the current rate of use.

This will leave 40% of the world’s population without access to the water it needs.

The global demand for freshwater resources has escalated dramatically over the last few years, especially considering the rapid population growth and widespread urbanization across the globe. To exacerbate this, as climate change and resource scarcity gains further traction, societies are increasingly pressed to find sustainable, equitable, and effective solutions to access and distribute safe and clean water.

water scarcity
South and Central Asia water source. Photo by Vatsal Bhatt on Unsplash

South Asia

South Asia is home to nearly two billion people, and cities are increasingly feeling the pressure of population growth, urbanization, climate change, and resource scarcity. It is estimated that 22 of 32 Indian cities face daily water shortages.

Women and children walk miles each day in search of water in Pakistan’s financial capital, Karachi, a city where electricity and water shortages had led to protests and citywide unrest.

This, however, is not unique to Karachi, as across the border in India, government research indicates about 3/4 of people do not have access to drinking water at home, and over 70% of the country’s water is contaminated and not potable.

Politicization, Water Conflict Between Pakistan and India

For over half a century, rivalry over river resources has been a source of interstate tension between India and Pakistan.

Indus River, South and Central Asia
Indus River, South, and Central Asia. Photo by Prabhav Kashyap Godavarthy on Unsplash

As water sources run dry, this human rights and environmental issue has become politicized, as water is a major flashpoint between India and Pakistan.

Both states have a history of repeatedly accusing each other of violating the World Bank 1960s Indus Waters Treaty – which ensures shared management of the six rivers crossing between the two neighbors – and have fought three major wars in the past 70+ years.

One of the latest disputes includes India’s hydroelectric projects, which is being built along the Chenab River. Pakistan says this violates the treaty and will ultimately affect its own water supply. Tensions over water supply have undoubtedly intensified between these two countries and put the Indus Waters Treaty to its greatest test.

Many communities in the Indus Basin face water scarcity under current storage and usage patterns. According to NASA, the Indus Basin is the world’s second most over-stressed aquifer. Unlike India, Pakistan relies almost exclusively on the Indus.

This makes Pakistan one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.

Furthermore, India and Afghanistan are among the world’s most water-stressed countries. Waiting for hours or going days without water supply is the new normal, in many of these South Asian cities.

Addressing the Water Crisis

water scarcity
Hunza Valley, Hunza, Pakistan. Photo by Mehtab Farooq on Unsplash

Considering the unique geographic advantage of South Asia’s many major river basins, including: the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra, to name a few; water security and scarcity do not immediately appear to be a source of such political debate.

Despite shared concerns over this threat, neighboring countries have found it difficult to collectively curate effective agreements over water resource management within international river basins.

National governments and regional policy makers must address the politicization of water resource management in order to best bring South Asia’s water challenges to the forefront of what needs to be a strategic and effecting vision in order to make a measurable impact for its citizens and environment.

Lily Adami

Content Editor Associate

Having a silly and hard-working personality, Lily loves getting to know people and is passionate about human rights around the world. She is enthusiastic about other cultures, history, and international affairs. Lily has a deep appreciation for traveling, her favorite places include: Amsterdam, Amalfi Coast, and South Africa.

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