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Bridging the Waters-The Case of Hydro Diplomacy in South Asia

Updated: Oct 9, 2023

The word ‘rival’ has its etymological roots in the Latin word- ‘Rivalis’ which means “relationship between two persons using the same stream of river.” River, being a transboundary resource, unlike oil, does not have a single point of access. Hence, a single nation-state cannot claim complete sovereignty over a river and its course. However, the increasing population in South Asia puts a greater burden on the existing resources, and river water is not any different.

The Hydro Diplomacy

Image Graphics by Team Geostrata

The growing economic interdependence in a multipolar world pushes the nations to use dialogue, and diplomacy as a tool of conflict resolution. Hydro Diplomacy refers to diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving issues related to shared water resources amongst riparian states.

These are states that fall under the same river flow but at different elevation levels. Through Hydro Diplomacy, nations engage in negotiations to ensure fair and equitable access to shared water resources. This can involve cooperation in water management, hydrological information exchange, and institutionalisation of dispute resolution mechanisms.

Major rivers in South Asia such as the Indus, the Brahmaputra, and the Mekong, cross multiple national boundaries leading to complex disputes over water access and its admissible usage.

The origin point of the river and sovereignty claims over its course complicate these disputes. The Tibetan Autonomous Region, also termed as ‘Water Tower of Asia,’ is the origin of all major river systems in South Asia. The region is, however under China’s control.

The Brahmaputra River, which originates in Tibet and flows through Northeast India and Bangladesh, is a major source of irrigation and hydropower generation in the region because of its heavy flow and wider catchment area. In coming years, China is planning to build a series of dams as large as the grand Three Gorges Dam on the upper reaches of Brahmaputra within its territory, which has raised concerns about the ecological impact on downstream regions.

Other than that, China has already built three run-of-the-river dams at a regular distance for hydroelectricity generation without consulting the lower riparian state. This has a greater ecological impact on the north-east states of India.

South Asia exports significant amounts of food crops that rely on these rivers for irrigation needs since ancient times. According to the World Integrated Trade Solution data, India and Bangladesh hold an 18% share in the export of raw food materials.

The Mekong River, which is shared between six countries in Southeast Asia, is a vital source of agriculture, irrigation, and hydroelectricity for Indo-China peninsula countries. The peninsula is also a substantial exporter of agricultural products, especially Vietnam, the world’s second-largest exporter of coffee.

Downstream countries have accused China of droughting out the region and causing greater environmental concerns due to its construction of hydropower dams in the upper Mekong Delta region, including the Jinghon Dam in the bordering area of Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

India has been diplomatically assertive with China on water management issues, sometimes even at the cost of confrontation that has caused unilateral actions of China, detrimental to ecology (floods and upstream pollution) of low-lying areas as China holds upper-riparian access to the river in the region.

The flood control system of these dams may create artificial floods in the North Eastern states of India against which it has no other defence other than preventive diplomacy which also falls apart, during conflict situations. During the Doklam standoff in 2017, China refused to share hydrological data of the Brahmaputra river as per the agreement of 2002 for which India pays $183,532 annually, under the pretext of a technical glitch even though China shared the same data with Bangladesh.

Institutionalizing Hydro Diplomacy through Multilateralism:

Currently, the UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (NNUIW) and the United Nations Water Conventions (UNWC) are two existing international law that has a minimum level of acceptance in the international community, deeming them the international law for international river water sharing. UNWC has 35 ratifiers while NNUIW has 38 ratifiers.

On top of this, there were also attempts to create regional conventions such as The South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI), launched by the World Bank in 2008 which categorically focused on resolving territorial water-sharing issues within the Himalayan river water systems. SAWI was closed in 2021 for its inability to create consensus among member nations of the region.

The prevalent issue within the Himalayan river water system is the wider trust deficit amongst member nations, a leadership position that India can fulfil through positive-sum diplomatic negotiations that can be institutionalised in the future, which is indeed a long process requiring manoeuvrability and tact from the Indian side, but most importantly, a shared political willingness amongst South Asian partners to see the opportunity cost for not cooperating productively, a heavyweight that Indian diplomacy should be ready to lift if it intends to be a regional power.

India has successfully negotiated treaties with Nepal over sharing the Mahakali River, and with Bangladesh for sharing the Kushiyara and the Ganga (Padma) Rivers. India and Pakistan have also managed to uphold the Indus Water Treaty (IWT).

The IWT has survived against all the odds of political and security turmoil between India and Pakistan, showcasing the potential of a successful hydro-diplomacy in the region. Recently India started a cruise ship service on the Ganga River that passes from Bangladesh towards northeast Indian states.

Consolidating all these initiatives and streamlining all these nations under a single multilateral organisation can be the first low-hanging fruit that India can fetch. The next step can be the creation of confidence-building measures that categorically focuses on river water sharing, mitigating water pollution in line with the 6th Sustainable Development Goal, and navigational use of these rivers for trade and commerce within the South Asia region.

Such steps can further towards an evolved multilateral forum that primarily focuses on cooperation in South Asian river systems, a vision that can drive the hydro-diplomacy in South Asia.

As a geographical mid-riparian state and aspirational great power, India can leverage its position to bring countries together falling on the same tributaries under the ambit of this visionary institution that can help promote cooperation and joint management of shared water resources. This could work to India's advantage and contribute to regional stability and development that is rules-based and inclusive of each participating nation.




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