Troubled Waters

Michael Renner
Do a simple Google news search for "Afghanistan" and the top hits are all about military offensives, drone strikes, and killings. Reporting on that country has been dominated by a widening spiral of violence.

Yet Afghanistan and its neighbors also contend with serious natural resource pressures. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that each year some 400,000 Afghans are seriously affected by floods, avalanches, and drought. As the United States pours enormous resources into its Afghan war-the Obama Administration requested US$73 billion for fiscal year 2010 even prior to the decision to increase the number of U.S. troops there to about 100,000-large parts of Central and South Asia are facing increasing water troubles that affect livelihoods and, if unalleviated, could undermine the region's future stability.

Two large river basins-that of the Amu Darya and the Indus-are of critical importance to millions of people in Central-South Asia, a region that encompasses Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also parts of the territories of their neighbors India, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Some 178 million people inhabit the densely populated Indus basin, and the Amu Darya basin is home to 21 million people.

Much of the region is already undergoing or approaching physical water shortages (see table). While the region is mostly arid or semi-arid, poor water and watershed management lie at the heart of many problems. Competing water use plans pose critical challenges under conditions of environmental degradation (including heavy loss of original forests), demographic pressure, and rising demand for water. Asymmetries in political and economic power, along with diverging priorities accorded to irrigation and hydropower projects, make for complex and often uneasy relations among the different countries. Climate change-in the form of glacier melt, drought and shifting precipitation patterns, rising temperatures, and changes to the monsoon cycle-will increasingly exacerbate water scarcity. And qualitative issues are as important as quantitative ones: Access to clean drinking water is a major, though largely unmet, objective.