Governance in South Asia Part II: Provincial Co-Operation and Water Security

7 November 2017 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Internal governance structures play an integral role in ensuring food and water security within South Asia.
  • Improving internal systems of governance requires a consideration of the complicated historical, social, political and economic factors that influence a country’s ability to develop good practices of governance.
  • Effective water governance helps to balance regional water interests both today, and in the long term.
  • Enhancing governance within each South Asian country will strengthen food and water security across the region, enhance riparian security and reduce the potential for tensions within the medium- to long-term future.


Good governance plays an integral part in ensuring that countries remain water secure. Many provinces in South Asian countries are often in competition with each other for limited water resources, particularly within Pakistan and India. Within countries themselves, however, political, social and administrative systems are often not as well equipped to manage and prevent issues surrounding water. The process to strengthen governance systems within individual countries cannot be over-simplified, and it is important to recognise that there are often combinations of historical, social, political and economic factors that limit a country’s ability to improve its governance. Any effort to strengthen these systems may have a beneficial effect on ensuring water security not only within individual countries, but also within the South Asian region itself.


Water governance incorporates the political, social and administrative systems that seek to govern water management. Key attributes including transparency, responsibility, accountability, participation, and responsiveness (to the needs of the people) can contribute to good governance. Effective governance is a crucial aspect of managing and preventing issues surrounding water, including storage systems, preservation and conservation, maintaining water quality and ensuring equal water distribution.

This paper is the second of a two-part series examining whether the central and sub-state governments of South Asia recognise that their interests are best served through good governance and co-operation. This series examines what this co-operation does (or could) look like, or if these countries and provinces will risk building regional tensions in a bid to secure a greater share of the region’s water.

The major analytical focus is on India and Pakistan due to their size and power within the region, however, this paper also seeks to provide an analysis of some of the key factors influencing water security within other South Asian countries.


Population growth, rising incomes and urbanisation trends have placed significant pressure on India’s limited water supplies. India is divided into 29 states and seven union territories. Most regions in India have high population densities, particularly those areas along the banks of the Ganges River, along various other river valleys and in the southern coastal areas.

In 1956, the Inter-State Water Dispute Act was established as a legal framework to address inter-state water disputes. Under this Act, however, a new tribunal is required to be established for each new water dispute between States. Tribunals adjudicating under this Act are also not bound by a time limit. Furthermore, States have often refused to accept the non-binding decisions of tribunals and, on occasion, even the decision of courts.

India major rivers

On-Going Water Disputes

The states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha (then Orissa) are engaged in the ongoing Krishna Tribunal, which was constituted in 1973. The dispute between the states is mainly centred on the use of untapped surplus water. The approach of the Krishna Tribunal relies on the principle of equitable apportionment but, to-date, the issue remains unresolved.

Similarly, the Cauvery (or Kaveri as it is also known) water dispute between the south Indian states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has been ongoing since the late 1960s. The dispute is centred on claims from Tamil Nadu that Karnataka has not adhered to previous agreements in the 1980s. Karnataka, on the other hand, claims that water sharing of the Cauvery must be based on equity and regional balance. Both states have failed to engage in discussions about how much water they require and can spare.

Punjab and Haryana are India’s main agricultural states and they are also the main states party to the Ravi-Beas dispute. The dispute began in 1966 when Haryana was split from Punjab. Haryana claimed a large portion of the waters on the principle of equitable distribution, but Punjab refused to concede on the basis that Haryana, at least according to Punjab, is not a riparian state. The governance between many Indian states is weak and, as a result, there appears to be little consensus on how to best manage water supplies.

The Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill

One of the problems with India’s multi-tribunal dispute resolution arrangement is that tribunals can be drawn out and, often, states must wait years before a reaching a resolution to the dispute. After the tribunals have been dissolved, there is little by way of avenues for states to challenge the decision of the tribunal. Furthermore, inter-state water disputes have provided political parties with an opportunity for political mobilisation; once a party has influenced public opinion and generated an emotive response from the public, it can be difficult to persuade the public that a beneficial decision has been reached. If monsoon deficit years follow the outcome of a tribunal, realising water allocations is cause for further tension between states.

Indian Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Sushri Bharti, introduced a bill into the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) in 2017. The bill, known as the Inter-State River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill (the Bill), proposes the creation of a single standing tribunal to address water disputes between States, rather than via the multiple existing tribunals. Under the Bill, the time permitted for adjudicating the dispute is limited to a maximum of four and a half years. According to the Minister, the Bill seeks to supplement many of the drawbacks from the existing Inter-State Water Dispute Act by streamlining the adjudication of inter-state river water disputes.

The Bill proposes that India’s Central Government establish a Dispute Resolution Committee to first deal with water disputes before they are referred to the tribunal. The Bill also seeks to ensure a transparent and national data collection system for each river basin, and for the Central Government to appoint an agency to maintain the data-bank and information system. While this legislation is unlikely to solve all of the issues associated with India’s current multi-tribunal dispute resolution arrangement, it may speed up decisions by increasing efficiency, and by restricting the amount of time that parties must wait for a resolution. Any improvement to the current governance structure is likely to strengthen (albeit incrementally) riparian relations between states.

Increasing intra-state water security is likely to have flow on effects for regional water security by ensuring greater stability. In reality, however, strengthening systems of governance within the country will require support from India’s multiple states. Effective dispute resolution tribunals are not the only way to improve water governance, but in India’s case, they will enhance internal water relations within the country. Given the problems already associated with the Indian model of federalism, however, enhancing some of the key governance structures is likely to be challenging.


Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Both the availability of, and access to, freshwater seriously threatens Pakistani stability. Pakistan’s riparian relationship with India is often at the forefront of water management discussions, but the governance systems that underlie its internal water relations also play an important role in sustaining water supplies. Systemic corruption underlies much of Pakistan’s domestic politics, and the volatile country is constantly under threat from terrorism-related violence. These challenges within domestic politics undermine the country’s governance systems and ultimately, threaten its ability to ensure water security. Parts of Pakistan are already facing acute water shortage, and the situation is likely to worsen by 2025. In 2016, agriculture composed 25 per cent of Pakistan’s gross domestic product, and over 40 per cent of the Pakistani labour force was employed in the agricultural sector. Given that the country is an agrarian society, increasing water scarcity is likely to threaten the lives and livelihoods of millions of Pakistanis.

Use of the waters of the Indus Basin between Pakistan’s four provinces is governed by the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord (WAA). The WAA was implemented to govern water sharing between Pakistani provinces, and relies on the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) for implementation. Pakistan’s most densely populated province, Punjab, is allocated 47 per cent, with Sindh 42 per cent, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) eight per cent and Balochistan three per cent. The WAA was largely decided upon historical use of water, but now desperately needs updating to enable more efficient water use. Pakistan may also wish to consider implementing a water trading policy between provinces to alleviate some of the inequalities between them.

Sindh lies at the southern-most end of Pakistan and, as a result, is the last province to receive water flowing in the Indus River. As the WAA does not secure a minimum flow throughout the province, Sindh is particularly aggrieved by the agreement. Dam building and irrigation practices further upstream threaten the supply of water available to the region. Sindh people also believe that the provincial government was forced into signing the WAA at the time of its creation.


There are often discrepancies between water discharge measurements at inter-provincial distribution sites. Sindh has previously complained about incorrect measurements between the Chashma and Tausna barrages, and between the Taunsa and Guddu barrages. Balochistan has claimed that Sindh is denying the province its allocated share of water, and Sindh, Balochistan and Punjab have grievances with KP over huge water losses between Besham and Tarbela.

Punjab and Sindh have engaged in water disputes since irrigation systems were developed in the region in the 1800s. Both provinces are heavily reliant on agriculture as the basis for their economies, water for which is sourced from the Indus River. The “Punjabisation of Pakistan” is a phrase that has been used in recent years to describe Punjab’s domination of Pakistan’s state machinery. The Pakistani army is based in Punjab, it has the largest population and the province wields the most political power in the country. Such strengths have allowed Punjab to dominate other Pakistani provinces. In 1994, soon after the WAA was signed, Sindh accused Punjab of not releasing the agreed amount of water (Balochistan simultaneously accused Sindh of the same violation).

In 2001 and 2002, Pakistan experienced droughts that further added to the provincial water sharing tensions. The IRSA failed to generate consensus over water allocation between Punjab and Sindh. By 1999, after several organisational moves, the IRSA was reduced from an autonomous body for inter-provincial bargaining, to an agency for short-term operational decisions. By the time Pakistan experienced droughts at the start of the 21st century, provincial governments held little trust in IRSA’s ability to ensure that decisions were implemented.

Unlike the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, there is no dispute resolution mechanism for Pakistani provinces written into the WAA. The WAA is not designed to consider future scenarios that may affect the distribution of water between Pakistani provinces, such as climate change. The effects of climate change can be felt throughout Pakistan, particularly in the lower riparian provinces. Upper provinces like Punjab are able to manage their water interests in the face of this phenomenon by regulating the release and withdrawal of water, but this tends to cause droughts and floods in the lower riparian provinces.

An improvement in the relationship between Punjab and Sindh would help produce an environment conducive to addressing poor water governance in Pakistan. If Punjab’s power is not managed to ensure that other provinces do not feel marginalised, there is little hope for intra-state co-operation. The same can be said for the relationship between all Pakistani provinces, particularly to strengthen communication, responsibility and accountability. Greater transparency between all of Pakistan’s states is needed to enhance governance mechanisms that regulate water security. Given the many socio-political challenges that the country faces, however, it seems that it will be challenging to implement greater governance concepts throughout the country.


Bangladesh is reliant on 92 per cent of its water originating from outside its borders and, as a result, there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding Bangladeshi water security. The country uses over 90 per cent of its available water resources for agriculture, and has the lowest irrigation efficiency within South Asia. Many people within Bangladesh are forced to live on and cultivate flood-prone land, and severe over-population adds to the water problems already resulting from the natural environment.

Although much of the focus on Bangladesh surrounds the riparian relationship between India and Bangladesh, particularly issues surrounding the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement (FDI has previously published articles on this matter, available here and here), there are instances where governance within Bangladesh has not supported scarce water management. The National Water Resource Council is composed largely of government departments, however, inter-agency co-ordination within Bangladesh is weak. Many departments struggle with a lack of resources and struggle to properly implement regulations.

Assuming that it can first be convinced that assuming a role in water security would be beneficial, the private sector in Bangladesh could provide a vital function in financing measures of sustainable water management. Greater clarity surrounding the responsibilities of each institution is also needed to ensure that water management outcomes are achieved, and provide the foundation for greater co-operation between government institutions themselves and with the private sector.


Afghanistan’s main water resource is supplied by snowmelt from the Hindu Kush Mountains. Due to decades of conflict, irrigation infrastructure has been neglected despite irrigated farming making up a large portion of Afghan water consumption. Adherence to any Afghan water law is difficult due to not only neglected irrigation structures, but also land grabbing by elite warlords. A combination of these factors is a source of potential conflict. Furthermore, decades of fighting between the Afghan Government and the Taliban has had a significantly detrimental effect on the management of Afghan water resources. Many places have been scorched by military hardliners, and large-scale destruction to infrastructure (including irrigation and water pipes) has made it difficult for Afghans to even access steady water supplies, let alone improve the systems contributing to water governance.

The 2009 Water Law (WL) sets out the main framework for a decentralised management structure that guides basin development and water management. The WL sets out the natural river basin boundaries that govern water management (as opposed to imposing arbitrary boundaries on water governance issues).  Implementation of the WL was based on ensuring integrated water resource management, river basin management and decentralised decision making.

Customary laws governing Afghanistan’s water distribution are partly based on religious customs and are highly relevant to water governance. They are used to govern water usage on private land and in private systems, as well as water resource conservation. Water disputes are often settled by village elders, but these laws offer little protection to rights holders. The Afghan Government is currently in the process of converting these customary law arrangements into formal Water User Associations. Not all users, however, are able to afford paying the fees required to maintain these formal institutions.

Water governance in Afghanistan is complicated by socio-political dynamics that create difficulties for the government to implement water policy (in particular, the fight against Taliban resistance diverts a significant amount of resources that may instead have been used towards water policy). Creating greater acceptance of WL may require some amendments to the policy to integrate flexible and transparent decision-making between water-users and government, rather than enforcing a top-down policy approach that fails to consider the realities on the ground in Afghanistan.


Land-locked Nepal is one of the world’s poorest countries, though fortunately, has a higher degree of water abundance than most. Nepal’s water supply is primarily sourced during monsoon season from June to September. As a result, it experiences flooding during the monsoon season but water scarcity during the dry season. Although only 24 per cent of arable land is irrigated, over 80 per cent of the country’s population depend on subsistence agriculture for their livelihood. Crop production is low and Nepal relies heavily on food imports from India.

Nepal has operated a federal system of government for over a decade. The change from the unitary system of government was adopted to help address a variety of social, demographic and geographic problems. In 2017, however, Nepal still faces operational problems with its new system of government. In particular, there are currently eight different ministries working on water-related policy and confusion exists over what responsibilities each department is afforded.

Nepal’s National Water Plan (NWP) details a system of integrated water resources management and includes strategies for dealing with transboundary water issues. The efficacy of the NWP, however, is impaired by a number of factors, including multi-institutional conflict over the governance of water, and delays in actioning policy plans. Nepal is still adjusting to its new system of government and political participation for many of its people is unattainable due to restrictions resulting from poverty. These water governance issues inhibit the government’s ability to encourage socio-economic development. Limitations to governing water security could undermine the country’s ability to manage its water resources into the future.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is unlikely to face physical water scarcity. The country’s annual supply of water per capita is well above official recommendations (2,329 cubic metres per person, as opposed to the international threshold of 1,700 cubic metres per person). In July 2016, the Sri Lankan population was estimated to be 22.2 million. Sri Lanka only withdraws 25 per cent of its freshwater annually; again, this is far better than the 40 per cent annual withdrawal amount set by the United Nations to mark water scarcity.

Much of Sri Lanka’s water governance is centred on its long-standing irrigation practices. While Sri Lanka does have a comfortable supply of water, and a perception of abundance that arose during colonial times, the government tends not to favour water conservation policies. The country generally does not need to be concerned about facing water scarcity, however, in January 2017, it was faced with its worst drought in four decades. Torrential rains followed the drought, leaving thousands facing food insecurity as a result of crop destruction. The effects of climate change may begin to worsen Sri Lanka’s annual water supply if the government does not begin to reform its governance mechanisms in favour of greater water conservation, as well as encouraging livelihood diversification and investment in drought-resistant crops.

There are currently over 50 pieces of legislation that seek to govern the water sector. Sri Lankan water management policy, however, is characterised by overlapping responsibilities and inefficiencies. The small island state is governed as a presidential republic, and is divided into nine provinces (Central, Eastern, North Central, Northern, North Western, Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva, and Western). Some provincial governments, including the Northern and North Central provinces, have claimed that unclear boundaries between the central and provincial governments have resulted in conflicting responsibilities. Furthermore, provincial councils do not have the ability to enact their own water-related statutes. In Sri Lanka’s North Central province, the central government agency has repaired and maintained minor irrigation schemes without consulting the provincial government. If improvements are unsuccessful, however, it is the responsibility of the province to repair the structures, despite it not being consulted on the central government intervention to begin with.

Sri Lanka rivers

Many politicians have also been thought to be acting in their own political interests by seeking benefits from supporting irrigation investment, despite the inefficiencies that existed within irrigation policy. Cracks in Sri Lankan water governance undermine the country’s water security, particularly where transparency, responsibility and accountability are lacking within the water sector. If the situation were to become dire, examples of weak governance in the Sri Lankan model may potentially affect hydro relations and security within the region, primarily through an increase in migration.


Good governance is but one of many requirements needed to ensure water security (others, for example, include resource reliability and accessibility). Effective water governance helps to balance water interests both today, and in the long term. The processes involved in strengthening governance structures within the region cannot be over-simplified. Often, there are complex social, political and economic issues that involve players from government, non-government organisations, local bodies and a variety of diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds that are involved in each country’s water sector. Enhancing governance within each country will undoubtedly strengthen food and water security within the region, enhance riparian security and reduce the potential for tensions within the medium- to long-term future.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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