The Third Pole
The central actor in the South Asia water crisis is China, which sits on the sources of 10 major rivers that flow through 11 countries, and which supply 1.6 billion people with water. In essence, China controls the "Third Pole," that huge reservoir of fresh water locked up in the snow and ice of the Himalayas.
And Beijing is building lots of dams to collect water and generate power.
Over 600 large dams either exist or are planned in the Himalayas. In the past decade, China has built three dams on the huge Brahmaputra that has its origin in China but drains into India and Bangladesh.
While India and China together represent a third of the world's population, both countries have access to only 10 percent of the globe's water resources and no agreements on how to share that water. While tensions between Indian and Pakistan mean the Indus Water Treaty doesn't function as well as it could, nevertheless the agreement does set some commonly accepted ground rules, including binding arbitration. No such treaty exists between New Delhi and Beijing.
While relations between China and India are far better than those between India and Pakistan, under the Modi government New Delhi has grown closer to Washington and has partly bought into a U.S. containment strategy aimed at China. Indian naval ships carry out joint war games with China's two major regional rivals, Japan and the United States, and there are still disputes between China and India over their mutual border. A sharpening atmosphere of nationalism in both countries is not conducive to cooperation over anything, let alone something as critical as water.
And yet never has there been such a necessity for cooperation. Both countries need the "Third Pole's" water for agriculture, hydro-power, and to feed the growth of mega-cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing.
Stressed water supplies translate into a lack of clean water, which fuels a health crisis, especially in the sprawling cities that increasingly draw rural people driven out by climate change. Polluted water kills more people than wars, including 1.5 million children under the age of five. Reduced water supplies also go hand in hand with waterborne diseases like cholera. There is even a study that demonstrates thirsty mosquitoes bite more, thus increasing the number of vector borne diseases like zika, malaria, and dengue.
Regional Pacts Won't Cut It
South Asia is hardly alone in facing a crisis over fresh water. Virtually every continent on the globe is looking at shortages. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2030 water sources will only cover 60 percent of the world's daily requirement.
The water crisis is no longer a problem that can be solved through bilateral agreements like the IWT, but one that requires regional, indeed, global solutions. If the recent push by the Trump administration to lower mileage standards for automobiles is successful, it will add hundreds of thousands of extra tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, which, in turn, will accelerate climate change.
In short, what comes out of U.S. auto tailpipes will ultimately be felt by the huge Angsi Glacier in Tibet, the well spring of the Brahmaputra, a river that flows through China, India, and Bangladesh, emptying eventually into the Bay of Bengal.
There is no such thing as a local or regional solution to the water crisis, since the problem is global. The only really global organization that exists is the United Nations, which will need to take the initiative to create a worldwide water agreement.
Such an agreement is partly in place. The UN International Watercourses Convention came into effect in August 2014 following Vietnam's endorsement of the treaty. However, China voted against it, and India and Pakistan abstained. Only parties that signed it are bound by its conventions.
But the convention is a good place to start. "It offers legitimate and effective practices for data sharing, negotiation, and dispute resolution that could be followed in a bilateral or multilateral water sharing arrangement," according to Srinivas Chokkakula, a water issues researcher at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research.
By 2025, according to the UN, some 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water shortages, and two-thirds of the world's population could be under "water stress" conditions. There is enough fresh water for seven billion people, according to the UN, but it is unevenly distributed, polluted, wasted, or poorly managed.
If countries don't come together around the conventions which need to be greatly strengthened and it becomes a free for all with a few countries holding most of the cards, sooner or later the "water crisis" will turn into an old-fashioned war.