Islamabad, March 13: When Toufiq Siddiqi talks about building bridges of friendship across South Asia, one can hardly doubt his sincerity. His arguments are clear, crisp and logical. He has, after all, devoted a significant part of his time over the last few years pursuing this goal.
Toufiq is a US citizen of truly South Asian origin — he was born in Hyderabad, India, and then had to migrate to Pakistan at the age of 14 along with his father, Prof. M. Raziuddin Siddiqi, an eminent mathematician and former vice-chancellor of the Osmania University. Prof. Siddiqi had been requested by the newly formed state of Pakistan to set up a university in Sindh, which he did.
Prof. Raziuddin Siddiqi devoted his life to the promotion of education in India and Pakistan. Today, his children — Toufiq Siddiqi and his sister, Shirin Tahir-Kheli, are promoting a different kind of education — learning to co-operate on issues that divide South Asia and building bonds based on mutual interest.
Building water security is one such potential bond of friendship and co-operation.
For years Toufiq Siddiqi has tried to persuade the opinion-makers in India and Pakistan of the economic feasibility of a common gas pipelines connecting the region — he is the author of a detailed study Enhancing Clean energy Supplies for Development — A Natural Gas Pipeline for India and Pakistan. If not an agreement on an actual pipeline, Siddiqi’s work provides a basis for a informed discussion on the issue.
And he is now convinced that deepening the co-operation between South Asian countries in river basin sharing could be another step in the direction of building permanent friendships in the region.
Siddiqi, along with his sibling, Shirin Tahir Kheli, a former US ambassador, has been running a project on Water and Security in South Asia (WASSA), getting water experts from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal together to discuss the issue.
It was in pursuit of this goal that Siddiqi, an energy and environment expert, got some South Asians together in Islamabad to discuss water and security in the region — a brave move at a time when the relationship between India and Pakistan has hit a new low.
Toufiq Siddiqi says that WASSA has four clear goals: identifying the key issues regarding water resources in the region; examining the differences that exist between the countries of the region over river basin sharing treaties; identifying modalities to resolve water conflict issues within and between countries; and exploring the investment, equity and climate change aspects of water availability affecting water security.
River water sharing treaties are of special importance in South Asia because the major rivers of this region flow across more than once country. In the western region, India and Pakistan share the waters of the Indus basin.
In the north and the north-east, the basin of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna are shared by India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Although arrangements exist for sharing the waters between the various countries, Toufiq Siddiqi points out: “Their implementation has not always been satisfactory and there is a perception that these arrangements would be inadequate in times of water scarcity.”
While the India-Bangladesh treaty on the Ganges is purely a water sharing arrangement, the Mahakali Treaty between India and Nepal is a benefit sharing treaty.
By contrast, the Indus Waters Treaty is a river sharing treaty by which the western rivers of the Indus basin were given to Pakistan and the eastern ones to India.
It, therefore, has no provision for sharing the benefits associated with hydroelectric power development. Many experts believe that the Indus Treaty, although it has worked well, is a sub-optimal treaty.
Water experts brought together at WASSA feel that for optimal water resource development through co-operative efforts, it was essential to establish a basic framework of co-operation among the riparian countries through a framework treaty.
“Defining principles for sharing the costs and benefits of water resource development projects within each river basin would be highly desirable for reducing tensions between countries,” Siddiqi recommends.
Siddiqi and his colleagues at WASSA also think that the setting up of joint river commissions, local tribunals well versed in international water law and management and separating the functional aspects of water related disputes from political considerations, are some of the measures that need the attention of the countries of the region.
Shirin Tahir Kheli who is co-ordinating the project with Toufiq Siddiqi says that South Asia is heading towards water scarcity.
At the face of it, she points out, Bangladesh, Nepal and India are endowed with enough water to provide a comfortable balance between “resource” and “requirement” whereas Pakistan already has a scarcity situation.
It was high time that “water is treated as a strategic resource,” Tahir Kheli says.
The main limiting factor in increasing food production in South Asia, according to Tahir Kheli is the availability of water. She feels that of the various measures necessary for economic development, “water resource development is one of the most important and co-operation between various countries of the region will greatly help sustainable water resource development.”
This is what the objective of the WASSA project is.