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Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia's Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan

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FEBRUARY 22, 2011


Water scarcity is often overlooked, underfunded, and undervalued within foreign policy. Yet a government's ability to provide and manage access to water is critical for ensuring political, economic, and social stability.

In Central and South Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the impacts of water scarcity are fueling dangerous tensions that will have repercussions for regional stability and U.S. foreign policy objectives. The national security implications of this looming water shortage-directly caused or aggravated by agriculture demands, hydroelectric power generation, and climate instability- will be felt all over the world.

To its credit, the Obama administration has recognized the critical role water plays in achieving our foreign policy goals and in protecting our national security interests. For the first time, the United States has elevated water-related issues in its bilateral relationships with priority countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Accordingly, the U.S. strategy and foreign assistance budgets now include significant investments allocated toward activities that promote water security through high-visibility projects, such as expanding water storage capabilities and irrigation.

However, the U.S. approach walks a fine line with respect to water issues and must be tailored to reflect the realities of water politics in Central and South Asia. While the focus of the United States is appropriately directed toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is important to recognize that our water-related activities in the region are almost exclusively confined within the borders of these two countries. We pay too little attention to the waters shared by their Indian and Central Asian neighbors-Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan. For example, in 2009 the United States provided approximately $46.8 million in assistance for water-related activities to Afghanistan and Pakistan compared with $3.7 million shared among all five Central Asian countries for these efforts.

Providing the right support can have a tremendous stabilizing influence, but providing the wrong support can spell disaster by agitating neighboring countries. By neglecting the interconnectivity of water issues between Central and South Asia, the U.S. approach could exacerbate regional tensions. Our activities should be carefully calibrated to address a broad range of needs and encourage reluctant state actors to come to the negotiating table. The United States must be cautious and recognize that, while regional stability will not be determined solely by our efforts to support water cooperation, regional stability can be strongly undermined by misguided support.

The United States has a historic opportunity to address these issues properly and intelligently. Congress has authorized $1.5 billion annually in foreign assistance to Pakistan, through the Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009, better known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill. The Obama administration still faces critical decisions on how it will spend these resources. This report will detail several aspects of a coordinated regional strategy for allocating those resources.

This report analyzes how the United States can be more strategic in delivering water-related assistance in Central and South Asia to maximize its peacekeeping and humanitarian benefits. It also makes the following four recommendations to the administration with respect to water issues in the region that capture opportunities for enhanced cooperation and coordination:

1. Provide Benchmark Data to Improve Water Management The countries in Central and South Asia, regardless of their level of development, lack publicly available access to consistent and comparable data on water supply, flow, and usage. This creates tension over the management of water by both upstream and downstream countries. Providing basic technical information to all countries is a constructive way for the United States to help create a foundation for bona fide discussion and debate over water management.

The United States should support data-related activities specific to measuring and monitoring water flow and volume for key rivers and river basins. We should also promote technical partnerships in the region to monitor glaciers, track shifts in monsoons, and model climatic changes across a range of water flow scenarios.

2. Focus on Water Demand Management

The United States can help create space for regional and bilateral negotiations on water by reducing pressure on shared water resources. Countries in the region cannot simply engineer their way out of growing water scarcity; they must begin by improving management of their existing supply. In fact, many experts agree that these countries must start shifting their focus from increasing the supply of water to decreasing their demand for it. The United States should couple its support for activities that reduce demand for water with those that increase water use efficiency. Specifically, the United States can utilize its expertise in demand management and help countries reduce the amount of water consumed by the agriculture sector and regulate groundwater withdrawals.

3. Recognize International Dimensions of Water Issues and Deliver Holistic Solutions

The impact of the United States approach to address water in Afghanistan and Pakistan can extend far beyond each country's border, as water ignores political boundaries. Moreover, regional water management can be an important type of conflict management.

U.S. assistance should encompass comprehensive activities, such as strengthening river basin dialogues and establishing communitylevel water management projects on shared watersheds.

4. Safeguard Institutions Against Shocks to Water Supply and Demand

Long-term stability requires strong institutions capable of responding to sudden shocks to critical natural resources, such as water. When weak institutions are confronted with natural disasters or human interventions that suddenly disrupt water flow, tensions can flare. With decades of experience on water sharing agreements, the United States is well-positioned to support programs that build the institutional capacity of government agencies and universities in areas such as international water law, dispute resolution, mediation, and arbitration. The United States should also invest in institutions that support developing transboundary water sharing agreements.

This report is organized into seven sections. Section 1 provides an overview of water management in Central and South Asia. Sections 2 and 3 discuss the demand for water from the agriculture and energy sectors. Section 4 describes climate change's effect on water and how this can exacerbate local and regional tensions. Section 5 highlights how, in the aggregate, the demand for a diminishing supply of water portends a significant threat to national security. Section 6 outlines the U.S. foreign policy approach to water in the region and Section 7 provides policy recommendations for improving water management in conjunction with promoting stability in the region.