SCO Acquires Greater Say in South Asian Water Diplomacy as SAARC Withers

Key transboundary rivers, like the Indus and the Brahmaputra, rise from Chinese-controlled territory, giving China a major locus standi. This power vacuum will inevitably lead to a greater role by China in managing hydro diplomacy in South Asia.

The 18th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), held in Kathmandu in November 2014, was the last one to take place, and the only one that has happened after Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India. Despite the norm that such summits should happen every two years, none has since taken place, and there is no real indication that one might any time soon. Pakistan is supposed to be the next chair of the summit – each country in the association hosts the summit in alphabetical order – but with the current state of India-Pakistan relations, it would take quite a change for it to go through.

While Indian commentators have largely ignored the issue, possibly content that another venue for India-Pakistan rivalry has been abandoned, key countries in South Asia, such as Nepal, where the secretariat is headquartered, consider it a loss. A number of key achievements, including a free trade agreement, a development fund, a food bank and an arbitration council, have languished as SAARC has disappeared from view.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and while India has been content to promote the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as an alternative to SAARC, leaving out key countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan actually means a retreat. And the country and institution rapidly filling this vacuum are China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), respectively.

China as an institutional actor in South Asia is not a new challenge for India. At the 13th SAARC summit in Dhaka in 2005, when India wanted to include Afghanistan as a full member (something it may now rethink), Nepal proposed including China as an observer. China’s response, though muted, indicated it was more than willing to take part in the institutional structure of South Asia. For India, it meant that “the China card” was now a solid part of its dealings with its neighbours. It now had to demonstrate that it offered a better way – maybe even in cooperation with China – for the region to move forward.

While the Manmohan Singh administration seemed willing to engage with this new reality, the government led by Modi – after an initial invitation to all SAARC leaders to his government’s inauguration – has not. Meanwhile, the SCO has gone from strength to strength, including India and Pakistan in its partnership, Afghanistan and Nepal as dialogue partners and Bangladesh as an upcoming dialogue partner.

This makes the recent call by Sherry Rehman, the Pakistani minister for climate change, to the SCO to take a leadership role that much more important. The single most visible impact of climate change is on waters, and the key countries that India shares its major rivers with are Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh – all of which are now associated with the SCO. And all of these transboundary rivers are currently facing some crisis or other.

The push for hydropower by India on the Indus river system, and Pakistan’s concerns, has elevated the matter into such a crisis that the Indus Waters Treaty – considered one of the most successful in the world – is endangered. With Nepal, the issues surrounding the Mahakali, Koshi and Gandaki river basins have bedevilled relations since Independence, and as climate change leads to higher incidences of floods and droughts, this is likely to increase. In Bangladesh, we have one major treaty – the Ganges Water Treaty – which is set to come to its end in 2026, with no indication of how it will be reviewed. As the treaty is dependent on specific water levels throughout the year, and these are likely to be more affected by climate change, any review will be hugely challenging. It is worth noting that when Xi Jinping made his trip to Dhaka in 2016, the first one by a Chinese head of state in 30 years, he stated, “We drink from the same rivers.” Four years later, rebuffed by India’s dithering on Teesta waters, Bangladesh turned to China to redevelop the river basin.

If the SCO is to get involved in climate change issues, it will inevitably become involved in transboundary water issues. Key transboundary rivers, like the Indus and the Brahmaputra, rise from Chinese-controlled territory, giving China a major locus standi, and with SAARC withering on the vine, and neither BIMSTEC nor any other regional institution seriously capable of handling the issue, this power vacuum will inevitably lead to a greater role by China in managing hydro diplomacy in South Asia.

Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.