Interview with Asim Zia for Environmental Peacebuilding Association's Interest Group on Water

How did you decide to follow that path of water and peacebuilding?

I began my career as a civil servant in Pakistan in the Ministry of Economic Affairs, working on international development projects in Pakistan funded by bilateral and multilateral donors. Pakistan depends on glacial meltwater, snowfall in western Himalayas and monsoons in the Indus basin which supplies 70% of the countries’ agriculture. Yet the water supply is expected to decrease with the glacial melt crisis and climate change while prices and population are increasing rapidly. At the same time, we have the transboundary problem between Pakistan and India. The Upper Indus basin Kashmir region is a major conflict zone. Growing up in Pakistan, seeing the sustainability and food-energy-water nexus challenges was a major motivation for me to study and solve this problem, especially because I saw firsthand how people are affected when there is no water.


What about your work on transboundary cooperation?

The Indus River Basin has six major rivers flowing into it and hundreds of small streams flowing into these six major rivers. These six sub-rivers are six separate worlds. The Indus basin treaty was signed with World Bank mediation in the 1950s to resolve the conflict between Pakistan and India. It gave three eastern rivers to India and three western rivers to Pakistan. That was a good way to equitably allocate the water, but it meant that part of the rivers given to India was also in Pakistan, and part of the rivers that were given to Pakistan was in India. I saw, firsthand, what happens when an upstream country takes all the water from that river and downstream people and ecosystems suffer. That is where my grandfathers’ land was, so I experienced it in a very personal way. This motivated me to study environmental and climate policy. I am now the director of the Institute for Environmental Diplomacy and Security. Transboundary water cooperation is a major focus of our research and outreach efforts. We've been engaged in Kabul River transboundary water negotiations.


You have founded research groups and action groups among other achievements, what are the most relevant experience or work you have done, the one that touches your heart? How can we build ecological and international transboundary cooperation to solve these problems?

There are three tracks in environmental diplomacy. Track-one diplomacy is formal negotiation, the treaties signed between diplomats, which can get caught up by political challenges and inertia. Track-two is bringing scientists together from different riparian countries in a river basin and having them identify points of consensus and cooperation that we can use and harness to build cooperation. Track-three represents citizen-to-citizen negotiations among communities that live in the directly affected areas. My focus has been on conducting action research with track-two and track-three environmental diplomacy meetings. We've conducted these meetings now in five river basins –in the Amazon basin, Indus basin, Jordan river basin. We were recently been invited to do similar work in the Mekong and Nile. Transboundary Water-In Cooperation (TWIN) is a growing network of networks that’s expanding very rapidly.


Could you tell us about your Fulbright Global Scholar Award and the research you plan to conduct?

I will spend two months in the Indus basin, Jordan basin and Amazon basin, working with host Institutes on track-two and track-three diplomacy. In each of these regions, I’m organizing track-two and track-three meetings of scientists, policymakers, and experts working in the specialty ministries like water, as well as community experts with representation from all the riparian countries. In Pakistan, I am inviting people from India, Afghanistan, and China, because these are all the Indus basin riparian countries. In Ecuador, I am inviting people from Brazil, Colombia, etc. Another goal of the award is to organize two environmental diplomacy meetings on the sidelines of the UNFCCC to be held during COP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021. I'm also doing some community-based focus groups, conducting over 100 interviews with scientists and community activists in all the three River basins as well 15-20 focus groups on the communities which are directly vulnerable because of the conflicts in these regions. Our previous research shows that when we talk about water quantity, people start fighting. They say, “You're building a dam. I own this much water. You want this much water.” There are always upstream and downstream allocation issues. Whereas when we talk about water quality, everyone, whether they're upstream or downstream, cares and is willing to cooperate to conserve the water quality so that the fish remain healthy, ecosystem services remain strong. The idea is to bring these riparian partners and communities together around conserving water quality in these regions. Finally, I’m conducting basin-wide policy assessments. We have been setting up water monitoring systems and multi-hazard early warning systems in these regions. I'm now doing policy assessments on the current status of these systems: where the sensors are deployed, where citizen scientists are working, and what type of early warning systems exist for floods and droughts.


What advice can you give to those who want to start a career in water and peacebuilding?

I recently participated in the Environmental Peacebuilding Youth Group webinar during which we talked extensively about these issues. It’s a question of passion. My advice is to be passionate about bringing about change, conducting action research by working with communities rather than remaining isolated in your silo. When there is conflict, it's very difficult to live and survive so it's really important that we work with the people in communities, connect with them, to bring about peace through the environment.


What are the most surprising thing that has come out of your research and you would like to explore further?

A challenge in transboundary water issues is that countries don't want to share their data. When the World Bank mediated a treaty between Pakistan and India, one of their requirements was that the countries share quantity data, but the countries would only share very high-level aggregate data. They were unwilling to share their distributed data sets, necessary to produce accurate models. This is very problematic. An “Aha!” moment came for me when I started to get into satellite remote sensing technologies and novel computer vision applications of AI. These allow you to calculate the drought index, vegetation growth, the presence or absence of water from satellite data. These tools allow one to do many things. For example, you can look at lake levels over time and predict how much water is being consumed upstream. We started to do that in the last five years. So, we are no longer solely dependent on the data sets that countries are sitting on. Much of my focus now is on triangulating field data with satellite data over time to build effective early warning systems and water monitoring systems.


Is there anything else you want to highlight for our readers?

I want to highlight the role of the Environmental Peacebuilding Association. I think that they are doing a great job and I am really looking forward to the Geneva Conference. There is so much vulnerability with water with people talking about water wars and all kinds of crisis. The environmental peacebuilding Association is situated in a way that it can do a lot more in those vulnerable places and really focus on equity challenges.


The most beautiful water body I have ever seen are the glaciers while hiking to the K2 basecamp.


A figure that inspired me Mohandas Gandhi


The most important word is cooperation


Find the original interview and more information at Environmental Peacebuilding Association's Newsletter Archive