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Indian power claim doesn’t hold water

02 September 2013

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Paula Hanasz is a PhD scholar in the Resource Management and Environmental Science program at Crawford School of Public Policy. Her PhD thesis looks at ‘Cooperation, conflict, and complexity; ensuring water security, human development, and hydro-power capacity in the Hindu-Kush-Himalaya region’.

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Concerns about water wars in South Asia and India bullying its smaller neighbours over supplies simply don’t hold water, according to an expert from The Australian National University.

Paula Hanasz, a PhD scholar from the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy, said that far from being a regional ruffian, India was in fact managing water interactions with its neighbours in a way that promotes winners all around. Hanasz will present the results of her research at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm, Sweden on Wednesday.

The researcher said that fears about ‘water wars’ where bigger Asian countries will unilaterally develop shared water resources for their own benefit and ignore the water rights of smaller neighbours, are unfounded.

“The potential for water wars is increasingly discussed in South Asia,” she said.

“But the people who are making these warnings are often too simplistic in their understanding of what constitutes and contributes to water disputes. The reality of water cooperation and conflict is complex and does not manifest itself in the false dichotomy of peace and war.”

For her PhD thesis, Hanasz has been researching the intricate web of water sharing arrangements between the nations of South Asia. Many of these agreements are lead by the region’s largest country, India, raising fears that the country is throwing its weight around to secure its interests in the development of the region’s water resources.

“India wields the most power in South Asia in terms of economic and military might,” said Hanasz.

“Most rivers in eastern and north-eastern India cut across a number of countries making dispute resolution and cooperation difficult. Neighbours view India with suspicion, making it difficult to conduct discussion on common-interest issues in good faith. On top of that, there are tensions about whether trans-boundary disputes should be handled bilaterally - which is India’s preference - or internationalised.”

These issues have lead to fears that India has become a ‘hydro-hegemon’; a regional water superpower.

Hanasz said that while India certainly has power, the country has used it cautiously.

“India is a hydro-hegemon in many respects, but it doesn’t use force or the threat of force. Indeed, the power asymmetry in the region creates many interdependencies that make outright conflict in nobody’s interest.

“Moreover, conflict and cooperation coexist in every relationship. When it comes to water, it’s more meaningful to think of ‘interactions’, rather than this false idea of conflict and cooperation.

“One interesting illustration of this can be found in the interactions between India and Nepal over the last 90 years which have been marked by a number of water-related treaties, all of which were freely negotiated and signed by both parties. These treaties all bred resentment and tensions, but overall they were neutral in nature and unlikely to create a situation where outright conflict is viable.”

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