South Asia Studies

Diving in at the deep end

BY

PAULA HANASZ questions the effectiveness of Australia’s initiatives to bring water security to South Asia.

In the not too distant past, it seemed almost a truism that the wars of this century would be over water. While that fear has largely been replaced by a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of water conflict and cooperation, an interest in addressing non-traditional security threats and collective action problems remains high on the international agenda.

Transboundary water governance is one of these increasingly important issues, and South Asia seems a petri dish full of factors and conditions that could add to an explosive mix: sociopolitical instability; rapidly rising populations; increasing demand for food, energy and water; high poverty rates; ecological degradation; and, of course, vulnerability to the most pressing of contemporary international concerns, climate change.

The World Bank projects that climate change will have ‘cascading impacts’ on South Asia and envisions extreme monsoon variability, increases in mortality rates, regional crop production failing to meet food demand, leading to malnutrition and stunting for generations to come. These bleak scenarios are part of the reason for the World Bank investing heavily in climate change resilience strategies and engaging in water security and transboundary river management issues in South Asia.

Other OECD countries—chiefly, Australia, Japan, Norway, and the UK—are jumping in on the action too. The dominant theory of change is that by improving cooperation over shared water resources, the likelihood of water conflict developing will also diminish.

While ensuring water security is a little more complicated than this, of interest here is not a critique of this theory of change, but rather an exploration of the strategic national interests that Australia in particular has vested in the transboundary water governance of South Asia’s rivers.

Increasing influence

In recent years Australia has been strengthening its diplomatic, foreign aid, and trade engagement in South Asia, and a significant manifestation of this is the work on water governance issues. The focus on strengthening the political relationship is a consequence of Australia’s strategy to increase influence in the region, and the relationship with India in particular is a bulwark against China’s power in South Asia. Australia’s development aid strategy for the region supports and strengthens the political goals, while the increasing trade partnerships bring economic benefits.

Australia’s growing interest and engagement in South Asia is part of its recent focus on Asia broadly. The strategy for this is outlined in the 2012 Australia in the Asian Century white paper. Although the paper itself is problematic, Australia’s strategic intention remains to ‘build trust and cooperation, bilaterally and through existing regional mechanisms’.

This strategic intent applies equally to Australia’s increasing engagement in South Asia, and in the water governance of the region specifically. Indeed, water scarcity is identified in Australia in the Asian Century as a growing challenge for Asia generally, and India in particular. Australia is thus aiming to bring the region back from the brink of water insecurity.

This ambitious goal is primarily pursued through diplomacy, foreign aid and trade relations. On the soft diplomacy front, Australia has recently introduced a scholarship available only to citizens of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan to study water resource management in Australia at Masters level.

Development aid

In terms of foreign aid, Australia’s development aid strategy for South Asia is based on two pillars: sustainable development (water, food and energy security), and regional connectivity (trade facilitation and infrastructure connectivity). The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Sustainable Development Investment Portfolio targets the three major Himalayan river basins—the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra—and is quite the collaborative effort. Six partner organisations are working with Australia to assist South Asia: the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, CSIRO, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, the Consumer Unity Trust Society International Centre of Excellence for Water Resource Management, and the World Bank’s South Asia Water Initiative.

Rivers provide a major source of livelihood as well as transport in many part of South Asia.

In addition to building strategic partnerships, a significant part of Australia’s regional development strategy for South Asia lies in boosting trade prospects. But these commercial interests dovetail neatly with the political and development aid objectives when it comes to water governance in the region. Australia, for example, was the main sponsor of India Water Week 2015, and sent to Delhi a large delegation of Australian companies and institutes showcasing their technology and know-how to Indian counterparts. This coincided neatly with Australia Business Week in India.

Australia’s eWater consortium has also been exporting its river basin modelling technology and expertise to India. And the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) too made an appearance at India Water Week 2015 and has been consulting to the Indian government over matters of inter-jurisdictional water governance. The MDBA is very well regarded in South Asia, though its management of the Murray Darling basin in Australia remains controversial.  Australia certainly considers itself a world leader in water resource management, sustainable agriculture and energy efficiency. And, as per the Australia in the Asian Century strategy, is ‘well placed to collaborate and share our experience of replacing centrally planned water allocations with a market’.

Australian firms have developed valuable expertise through recent experiences of drought, which has prompted considerable technological innovation in water recycling and irrigation infrastructure. Australia, according to the Australia in the Asian Century strategy will continue ‘to showcase our technology, providing commercial openings for innovative Australian firms’.

With such strong national self-efficacy, Australia has embarked with India on the India–Australia Water Science and Technology Partnership. The ostensible purpose of this initiative is to ‘manage water for security’ through technology transfer and scientific research partnerships.

This and the other Australian engagements in South Asia on water resource management may further Australia’s national interests, primarily commercial ones. But I question whether they will be able to achieve Australia’s stated ambition—the starting point for all this increased engagement—of bringing water security to the region through improved governance and water cooperation. The pursuit of scientific, technological and engineering solutions to wicked problems of policy is not necessarily the most effective way of strengthening regional hydro-diplomacy. The dynamics of water conflict and cooperation in South Asia are complex, and Australia seems to have dived in without much consideration of factors other than the national interest.

Main photo:
River life in Bangladesh (Paula Hanasz).

About Paula Hanasz

Paula Hanasz is a PhD candidate at Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.

Published:
23rd May, 2015

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