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Scarcity in Abundance – The Structural Obstacles in Achieving Water Security in South Asia

by Benedict Chang
Until 2020, South Asia has been experiencing rapid economic development, but it is one of the regions that are most vulnerable to climate change as well. The major reason is water security issue. South Asian countries acknowledge the water scarcity is current and serious, but paradoxically, the region is not short of water supply in itself. This “scarcity in abundance” phenomenon creates a peculiar challenge for South Asian countries. Before they can proceed to tackling water scarcity, first the region needs to resolve the underlying structural obstacles that have been hindering the effectiveness of any water policy.


South Asia, a region housing nearly 1.9 billion people, is one of the fastest developing regions experiencing robust economic growth. Despite its strong economic performance, South Asia is still one of the regions which is highly susceptible to climate change. One major reason is water insecurity. In 2019, Chennai has experienced a severe drought with no rainfall for 193 days, causing reservoirs to dry up in June and affecting 500 million people. This shows that water crisis in South Asia is real, severe, and current. With rapid urbanisation, continuous population growth, and climate change, such issue is bound to get worse.

South Asian countries acknowledge the issue of water scarcity, and they have adopted various measures tackling it. For example, India has established a new ‘Ministry of Jal Shakti’ last year prioritising the provision of safe drinking water for its population. Meanwhile, Pakistan has achieved a milestone in its inaugural adoption of the National Water Policy in 2018 as it outlines a framework allowing the federal and provincial governments to address issues in managing water resources within the region. However, the major issue in the region’s water management is not the lack of effort from authorities, but the inability to put these measures together and form a joint, collective effort in achieving the ultimate goal of water security.


What is Water Security?

Under the definition given by the United Nations, water security encompasses four aspects: (i) drinking water and human well-being; (ii) economic activities and development; (iii) ecosystem; and (iv) water-related hazards and climate change. That means: (i) the population should be ensured to have access to safe, sufficient, and affordable water for drinking, sanitation, and hygiene; (ii) adequate supply of water for food and energy production as well as industrial activities; (iii) preserving the ecosystems so that they can deliver their services including the provision of freshwater; and ensuring the population is resilient to hydro-meteorological disasters such as floods and droughts.

In order to achieve these four aspects of water security, four areas shall first be maintained: good governance, adequate finance, peace and political stability, and transboundary cooperation. The successful experiences in South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand demonstrated that it is possible to make major progress in improving the quality of drinking water and sanitation while the economy remains under development as long as sufficient and appropriate investments are made. Albeit often overlooked, there is economic incentive for investing in water infrastructure as its relationship with economic growth is shown to be circular. Thus, for the well-being of its population and continuous economic performance, South Asian countries shall work together in creating and water-secured future.


Current water situation in South Asia

According to Asian Water Development Outlook 2016, South Asia is the only region found to be “hazardous” in achieving water security, with National Water Security Index Score of only 33.7, meaning that the entire region is unable to provide sustainable and reliable water supply to its population as South Asia falls below world average of 1000 cubic metre of available water supply per person per year. Even though 93% South Asians have access to improved water supply, due to the sheer amount of people living within the region, there are still some 134 million people who do not have such access. India and Pakistan are flagged by World Resources Institute to be 13th and 14th most water-stressed countries in the world with extremely high water stress. 21 Indian cities are predicted to run out of groundwater supply this year while Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources made a prediction that Pakistan may run out of water by 2025.

The major reason is overdrawing of groundwater. Groundwater provides access to water in a decentralised manner. It possesses the advantage of resilience to climate change and pollution. On the other hand, replenishment takes a long time. On average, India remains without more than 80% of its available surface and groundwater supply every year. Such minute difference between demand and supply for water makes the country particularly vulnerable to water-related disasters. World Resources Institute discovered that the East of Pakistan, North of India, and the entire Bangladesh is currently facing medium-high to extremely high annual water table decline. All major capitals within the region are facing an alarming rate of recession in water table. Other major cities like Bangalore and Karachi are considered to be ‘on the verge of imminent water crisis’ as well according to Centre for Science and Environment.

Another major issue threatening the region is water pollution. Despite being one of the most water-abundant countries in the world with 95% of its population having access to drinking water, Nepal is still considered to be a highly water-stressed country due to its problem of water contamination. Only 12-15% Nepalese has access to safe and treated drinking water.[1] In Bangladesh, a quarter of its population is being exposed to arsenic contamination of drinking water. In the Indo-Gangetic Basin which flows through Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, salinity and arsenic pollution has contaminated 60% of its underground water supply to a level that it can neither be used for drinking or irrigation.[2] From a regional point of view, most of the water sources are being contaminated. All these data points to the fact that water pollution and over-exploitation are the major factors contributing to South Asia’s water crisis.


Underlying Issues

There are many factors contributing to the current water crisis in South Asia. Lack of adequate water resources infrastructure, lack of comprehensive and integrated water planning and water management, and high water wastage, just to name a few. However, there are more deeply-rooted issues plaguing the entire region, hindering South Asian countries’ ability to form effective water management strategies.


Over-securitisation of water resources

Water security, as a form of non-traditional resource security, poses novel and enormous challenge to affected states since it is non-military issue that is capable of threatening the survival and well-being of the entire population at individual and societal levels. Thus, the referent of it is not only to the state but also directly to its people. And because such issue is transnational in nature, the scope of political dialogue should be multilateral and directing towards cooperation.

Water as a topic of geo-political issue is not uncommon in South Asia. India is the upper riparian country to most of the transboundary rivers within the region, making it the water-dominant country as it holds natural advantage over lower riparian countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan in terms of water usage. Therefore, the issue of water security for lower riparian countries is very much dependent on the actions of upper riparian countries. The ‘non-traditional security’ concept causes countries treating water resources a zero-sum issue of sovereignty and forming policies that best serve their individual national interest. Thus, this sparks tensions between upper and lower riparian countries. It is not uncommon to see accusation from lower riparian countries towards India saying that they do not have regard to its neighbours while using the river water. India on the other hand insists it is its sovereign right to use upstream river water. In order to have a water-secured future collectively, regional cooperation in South Asia is required.

However, as of late, there is little sign of cooperation between South Asian countries. There are 54 transboundary rivers flowing through India to Bangladesh, but they merely managed to come to an agreement on water-sharing on the Ganges/Padma. Between India and Pakistan, the long-standing Indus Water Treaty has successfully defused many water conflicts, but it is nothing more than that. Both treaties have little effect in depoliticising water conflicts, and because a guiding framework for coordination in managing water resources is not present, it is rather difficult to come to an agreement over the efficient use of water for the entire region under current hydro-political tension.


Bureaucratic decision-making

Another issue hindering the effectiveness of water governance in South Asia links to institutional design. There is deficiency in national water governance structure within the region. In India, water is segmented and managed by various ministries. This causes massive delay in decision-making since the general nature of water issues creates inter-sectoral conflicts and the segmented structure hinders the ability to assess the issue comprehensively. This is the same for Pakistan, albeit in different form. Pakistan manages water at a provincial level, meaning that, a comprehensive water policy is still hard to achieve seeing that the trans-provincial nature of water resources sparks similar dispute abovementioned only at an inter-provincial level. Even though there were attempts of reforming water governance, these reforms resulted in failure and created multiple authorities with overlapping responsibilities, while the centralised Indus River System Authority fails to manage the needs of all provinces.

Apart from the institutional inefficiency in water governance, the composition of these institutions is too exclusive. Although the agricultural sector consumes majority of the water resources in South Asia, it is often excluded in the water policy-making process. Without exchanging views with the major end-user of water, it is rather difficult to form an integrated water policy that meets the needs of all the water-consumers. India tried to mend the situation through the River Basin Management Bill. However, it falls into the same trap since its top-down approach offers little scope for local participation. In order to form a sound, comprehensive, and integrated policy, there needs to be an umbrella policy-making structure with all the key water-consumers represented for stakeholder engagement and bottom-up planning governing everything related to water.


Lack of understanding of South Asian hydrology

The poor water management strategy in South Asia is further contributed by the lack of thorough understanding to the issue itself. There are indeed information and data pointing to the narrative that there is water crisis in South Asia and its general causes. However, there is not enough research on the causes of such situation. Currently, most of the water assessments are usually done by research and development institutions and think-tanks. They are able to offer insights to certain aspects of water scarcity and provide suggestions, but these institutions do not have the resources to develop an integrated water management plan for a large basin, let alone the entire nation. Moreover, fragmented and piecemeal research have difficulty to identify problems precisely, such as areas of water wastage, for amendment throughout the region. Thus, governments do not actually have a thorough understanding over their national water utilisation at different places, and some even need to rely on their local governments for data for water assessment which its accuracy may be questionable.[3] Thus, this seriously hinders the ability to centralise governance on water. To improve this situation, governments should set up a commission focusing on thorough review on water management so that water governance can be built on a common and scientific understanding.



As mentioned above, South Asian countries acknowledge that they are facing an acute water crisis, and they are trying to mitigate and adapt to it by various means. However, specifically because it is acute and it is present, there is no room for trial-and-error for the region. From the lessons deduced from previous experiences, separate efforts from individual countries are inadequate in addressing the issue. Therefore, regional cooperation with adequate local participation and based on sound and common understanding of water resources serves to be a right direction in securing a water-secured future.



[1] Heider C., Martubez J., Mikino M., Arya A. (16.06.2017): Project Performance Assessment Report: Nepal – Second Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project l Financial, Private Sector, and Sustainable Development Independent Evaluation Group, World Bank, [25.04.2020]

[2] Suneja V. (18.07.2018): 5 Ways to Fix South Asia’s Water Crisis l Sustainable Development Goals, Urban, Monitoring, Accountability and Governance, WaterAid, [27.04.2020]

[3] Sleet P. (31.01.2019): Water Resources in Pakistan: Scarce, Polluted and Poorly Governed l Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme, Future Directions International, [21.04.2020]


Dr. Christian Hübner


Head of the Regional Programme Energy Security and Climate Change Asia-Pacific +852 28822245