More than any other factor in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region (HKH), rapid and often haphazard economic development and population growth, coupled with climate change, threaten the concept of Water Security For All.
This also threatens to push the region – specifically the most needy and vulnerable among its inhabitants – into a vicious cycle of droughts and floods, of water that is unfit to drink and a range of environmental hazards, experts have said in a study.
“Good water governance, politically and culturally tailored to the local, national, and regional contexts, is needed to ensure water security in the HKH. Unequal power dynamics, centralised decision making and inadequate opportunities for local communities to influence their water-security decisions despite the presence of local institutions are among the leading causes of poor water governance in the HKH. These are all taking place under constantly changing conditions in an ecologically fragile landscape with dispersed settlements” Aditi Mukherji, Fan Zhang and Christopher Scott said.
They are the authors of the Water chapter of the HKH Assessment by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
“Decision-making must account for prevailing approaches to water governance in the region, characterized by hybrid formal-informal regimes with a prevalence of informal institutions at the local level and formal state institutions at national and regional levels. While the absence of institutions working on transboundary water resources in the region does present opportunities for HKH-wide cooperation, it is important to note that the risks of water-related conflict are high” Mukherji, a Consultant with the Colombo-based International Water Management Institute, said.
Fan Zhang of the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Sciences and Christopher Scott of the Tuscan-based University of Arizona, said more attention needs to be paid to HKH-specific conditions. Participatory and cooperative decision making, evidence-based policies, transparent programme implementation, accountability at all levels and transboundary and regional cooperation are essential to ensuring water security in the region.
According to them, the mountains of the HKH, commonly referred to as the “water towers of Asia, provide two billion people across the continent a vital lifeline – water for food, energy, and ecosystem services. The HKH mountains are the source of 10 major Asian rivers, which provide water and support food and energy production and a range of other ecosystem services in the continent. The principal sources of water in the region are precipitation, glacial melt, snow melt, runoff, river discharge, springs and groundwater.
The experts have made an urgent call to the region’s governments and societies for action.
“To counter the formidable and immediate threats to water security posed by human drivers and climate change, equitable, productive, and sustainable water use should be promoted through decentralized decision making, effective management of urban pollution, improved infrastructure planning, and enhanced regional cooperation,” they said.
Ensuring regional and local water security requires proactive HKH-wide cooperation, specifically in open data sharing among scientists and governments; conflict management via regional platforms; and investment of public- and private-sector funds for generating and exchanging knowledge, enhancing public awareness, and stimulating action,they said.
They have suggested trade-offs between upstream and downstream water uses; between rural and urban areas; and among irrigation, energy, industrial, and other sectors must be carefully managed to enhance water security.
Water security, as outlined in the HKH Assessment, is “the capacity of HKH populations to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for resilient societies and ecosystems, to ensure protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and to adapt to uncertain global change – in a regional climate of peace and political stability”.