Crisis in the Indus Basin
Water plays a critical role in the economy, politics and national security of Pakistan. The country’s is the world’s most water-intensive economy as the amount of water utilized per unit of GDP here is the highest in the world. Agriculture contributes 19.3% to the national GDP, offers employment to 44.5% of Pakistan’s total labour force, and has an 80% contribution in the national export base that depends exclusively on the sustained supply of water. Availability or unavailability of water can have serious implications for this country’s integration as persistent water shortages can trigger inter- or intra-province rivalries – it can even give birth to secessionist movements. Water crisis can also threaten regional peace and security and even bring nuclear-armed neighbours, i.e. India and Pakistan, to the brink of war.
Despite the self-evident nature of the strategic significance of water in national politics, economy and security, Pakistan’s water sector is facing serious challenges, internal as well external. Growing population, unchecked urbanization, unregulated exploitation of groundwater, abysmal application and conveyance efficiency of the irrigation system, dilapidated irrigation infrastructure, financially unsustainable operation of the irrigation system (Abiana or water tax covers only 24% of total operational and maintenance cost) and continued plantation of water-intensive crops are some structural, policy and administrative hindrances that are widening the gap between supply and demand.
All these factors have combined together to precipitate an acute crisis in the Indus Basin. Pakistan is being characterized as a water-scarce country as currently per-capita availability of water has alarmingly plunged to less than 1,000 cubic metres. If the situation persists, Pakistan may become a country with an absolute scarcity of water by 2025. IMF ranks Pakistan third in the world among those countries facing acute water shortage, and both the UN Development Program and Pakistan Council of Research on Water Resources (PCRWR) have warned against impending water crisis. PCRWR has warned that Pakistan will run dry by 2025, if it failed to take mitigation steps. Not only surface water, Pakistan’s once vast underground aquifer is also under extreme strain due to unregulated extraction of water. There is no denying the fact that the burgeoning domestic consumption and institutional incapacities are exacerbating the water crisis; we cannot, at the same time, rule out the external factors that are further constraining the capacity of the Indus Basin to ensure sustained supply of water.
In the following paragraphs, we will limit our discussion to Pakistan’s transboundary water conflicts with India and Afghanistan.
Apart from creating political, legal and administrative problems, the hastily drawn and haphazardly-implemented Radcliffe Award led to a water dispute as well. The Award bifurcated the Indus Basin Irrigation System, causing the perennial issue of supervision and management of a vast and extensive network of canals, barrages and headworks.
In the wake of the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the British decided to develop vast barren land between Doabas [the land between two rivers] and they, resultantly, embarked on an ambitious projects of establishing Canal Colonies. They aimed at reducing population pressure on eastern Punjab, winning the loyalty of the erstwhile Khalsa Army, creating a buffer against the potential Russian invasion of India and, most importantly, enhancing the revenue stream of British India. The British constructed massive control infrastructure along the whole length of the Indus and its tributaries down to the lower Sindh. The plan proved a marvellous success as it turned the semi-desert plains or, at best, pastoral savanna of southern and western Punjab into the largest centre of commercialized agriculture. At the time of partition, two major headworks (Ferozpur and Madhupur) were given to India, but their commanded lands fell within Pakistan. As a temporary measure, governments of both eastern and western Punjab inked a standstill agreement to ensure an uninterrupted supply of water to canals. That agreement expired on April 1, 1948, and India immediately stopped water to Depalpur and Central Bari Doab Canal (CBDC) which created the first major water-related Indo-Pak crisis. Later on, both sides agreed to sign the Inter-Dominion Accord that made it obligatory for India not to stop water to the above-mentioned canals till Pakistan found alternate sources of irrigation. That stopgap arrangement remained in place till 1960 when after nine years of protracted bilateral negotiations, facilitated and brokered by the World Bank, Pakistan and India signed the landmark Indus Waters Treaty. Later on, India gradually stopped water to Depalpur and CBDC and Pakistan had to remodel BRB (Bambawali-Ravi-Bedian) Canal to irrigate the commanded areas of these canals left dried due to stoppage of water by India.
The Indus Waters Treaty divided the Indus basin into two parts: eastern and western river basins. The Eastern river basin, with Beas, Sutlej and Ravi, which had an accumulated water flow of 33MAF, was allocated to India for exclusive use. Pakistan was given complete and exclusive control over Western rivers that had a total water flow of 135MAF. In other words, out of the Indus Basin’s total annual flow of 168MAF, 20% water rights were given to India as opposed to 80% given to Pakistan. Being the upper riparian country, India was also authorized to non-consumptive use (fishing, navigation, wildlife sanctuaries, flood protection and control, etc.), limited agriculture use (701,000 acres of land permitted in India and Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK) in the basin of three western rivers), hydropower generation (subjected to the observance of design and operational criteria stipulated by IWT) and maximum 3.6MAF storage capacity divided among three rivers. As compensation, Pakistan was assisted financially and technically to build two reservoirs (Mangla and Tarbela), eight link canals, one gated siphon and five barrages. Now that both countries are facing the dual challenges of population pressure and increasingly erratic and unpredictable water supply, the IWT has stretched to its limits in order to prevent bilateral disagreement from spiralling out of control. Notwithstanding that the IWT has surprisingly survived four wars, recent political and ecological developments are exposing its shortcomings and are exacerbating the water crisis. These lacunas are, in return, providing ammunition to further plunge the already strained and hostile Indo-Pak relations.
The construction of hydroelectric dams is one such area where the IWT has failed to offer a viable conflict-resolution mechanism. India is undertaking massive dam-construction activities in IIOJK. It has already built almost 14 hydroelectric projects on Chenab River and plans to construct enough plants so as to enable itself to store the water of Chenab for 20 to 25 days. Chenab River is critically important for Pakistan’s agricultural lifeline as it provides water to 21 canals that irrigate about 7 million acres of agricultural land of Punjab. Any disruption in the flow of Chenab is bound to exacerbate the water crisis gripping Pakistan. Baglihar Dam is one such example that can potentially reduce the flow of Chenab up to 23000 cusecs, impacting thereby 3.5 million agricultural land. Pakistan is also raising objections over Pakal Dul (1000MW), Lower Kalnai (48MW) and Ratle (850MW), which are being constructed in Chenab basin. Not only Chenab, Jhelum and its major tributary Neelum (known as Kishanganga in India) are also facing hydro-aggression. Kishanganga Hydroelectric Power Plant and Uri Dam are some worth-mentioning projects that are threatening the course of Jhelum River and water availability downstream which is a flagrant violation of IWT. Pakistan maintains that this dam-constructing spree under the guise of run-of-the-river design constitutes a grave violation of its downstream riparian rights enshrined in the UN Watercourse Convention and stipulated in IWT. In total, India is working on 17 projects on Chenab and 16 projects on Jhelum and its tributaries.
Disagreement over the mode of arbitration and interpretation of various provisions of IWT are also stumbling blocks in the way of peaceful resolution of transboundary water disputes between Pakistan and India. Pakistan took the matter of the Kishanganga Project to the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration which gave the decision in the favour of India. India resumed the construction on the project after some adjustment and started violating both the decision of the court and the IWT. Pakistan approached World Bank and demanded the constitution of the Court of Arbitration (CoA) over Kishanganga and Ratle projects. India opposed the move and argued that the technical nature of the matter warranted the appointment of a Neutral Expert. The World Bank initiated both processes of conflict resolutions but halted the process in 2016 and asked both parties to develop consensus bilaterally on the mode of arbitration. Pakistan is reluctant to accept the appointment of a Neutral Expert out of the fear that the decision given by a Neutral Expert would be non-binding in nature and India would not adhere to his/her findings. It is only CoA that can force India to show verifiable compliance with IWT or the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The matter is still lingering despite the complete functioning of the Kishanganga Project, and latest communication between Pakistani Permanent Commissioner for Indus Waters, Syed Mehr Ali Shah, and his Indian counterpart Pradeep Kumar Saxena could not even create a consensus on how to conduct the meeting, whether online or physical conventional meeting, not to speak of reaching consensus over the mode of Arbitration.
The hostile political atmosphere is dumping all hopes of a negotiated settlement of the Pak-India water dispute. The intransigence on the part of Hindu nationalist and far-right extremist Narendra Modi has vitiated the atmosphere to the level that any prospect of the resumption of meaningful dialogue seems a far-fetched idea. The popular anger in the aftermath of the Uri attack, which resulted in the killing of 19 Indian soldiers, provided the BJP-RSS regime an opportunity to announce their plans to revisit the IWT. Pakistan responded to that threat with the policy statement that any attempt to stop water by India would be tantamount to the act of war and Pakistan would have all rights under self-defence to retaliate militarily to Indian aggression. Though India stopped short of water, it moved ahead in its efforts to cripple Pakistan economically. Under the arguments that “blood and water cannot flow together,” Narendra Modi-led BJP government resumed construction over various dams so as to weaponize water. The Pulwama attack — it later turned out to be a staged one as was revealed by a WhatsApp chat between controversial anchor Arnab Goswami, who is very close to PM Modi, and the head of the Indian Broadcast Audience Research Council – and resultant public clamours for the scrapping of IWT further provided Modi the space to enhance the storage capacity of India to disrupt the flow of Western rivers. Now that India has rescinded the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, has bifurcated the Occupied valley and included it into the Indian union placing them under the direct control of Delhi, Modi has all legal and administrative resources at his disposal to undertake popular decisions. After the annexation of IIOJK, the RSS-BJP regime has started the construction of seven new hydropower projects over Chenab and its tributaries. The recent vitiated atmosphere and consequent shrunken space for bilateral negotiations have exposed the inability of IWT to offer a good mediation mechanism that may satisfy both sides. This shortcoming is exacerbating the crisis of water shortage in the Indus basin.
Climate change is another area where IWT failed to anticipate and suggest remedial measures. In 1960s, climate change was not a major concern, ergo the negotiators did not incorporate climate-related concerns in the treaty. Advisor to PM on Climate Change, Malik Amin Aslam, recently remarked that the IWT overlooked climate changes and decreasing the level of underground water. He suggested incorporating patterns in climate shift and aquifer depletion in the Treaty. Climate Change has increasingly become a major source of threats for Pakistan’s food security, livelihood, environmental and ecological health. Glacial melt from Western Himalaya contributes more than 40% of the annual flow within the basin. It is estimated that glacial depletion due to climate change would reduce annual flow to the tone of 30-40% in the Indus River. Coupled with glacial depletion, the erratic precipitation pattern would also help further worsen the threat of water shortage. All these factors would combine together to reduce Pakistan’s per-capita water availability below 750m3 by 2050 (South Asian Initiative). Beyond any doubt, climate change-worsened water crisis can easily spiral out of control unless IWT or other bilateral arrangements come up with a mutually beneficial solution.
In addition to rapidly expanding its ability to manipulate the flow of western rivers in IIOJK, India is also assisting Afghanistan to build multi-purpose dams on the Kabul River as part of its sinister design to strangle Pakistan’s fast diminishing water resources. Kabul River basin is critically important for the food, energy and water security of many districts of KPK. Kabul Basin has numerous small rivers and seasonal streams and it supports 50,000 hectares of intensively irrigated areas and high-value crop. It covers 14000km2 area within Pakistan before the confluence with the Indus River near Attock. India is helping Afghanistan build 13 dams on the Kabul River and it is estimated that with the completion of these dams, annual water flow in the Kabul River would be dropped by 16-17%. Shahtoot Dam is one such dam that has attracted agitation from Pakistan. Shahtoot Dam would have a capacity of 4.7MAF, 25% more than Mangla Dam and it is bound to create serious disruption in the availability of water in downstream areas. On 09 February 2021, India signed a pact with Afghanistan over the construction of $300 million worth Shahtoot Dam and both sides are determined to go ahead despite Pakistan’s reservations. Transboundary water dispute with Afghanistan is particularly volatile in nature as both sides don’t have any legal treaty on water and conflict-resolution mechanism. In addition, Afghanistan government has been refusing to engage Pakistan under various pretexts. Unless Pakistan and Afghanistan enter into a legally binding treaty, management of the Kabul River Basin would remain a volatile issue and potential source of an armed conflict.
The geography has made Pakistan dependent upon a single river system and this dependency has further been complicated by the dwindling underground water and increasingly unreliable precipitation. Along with improving the storage and diversion capabilities of the irrigation system, Pakistan must undertake coherent and well-delineated hydro-diplomacy and urge both countries as well as international community to resolve the dispute amicably. Pakistan needs the immediate strengthening of legal expertise to fight successfully at multiple international platforms. Involving World Bank in the process of expanding IWT by incorporation of provisions dealing with climate change and future demands of water on the back of rapid population growth and other needs should also be pursued on a war footing basis. Joint management of water resources is the only forward otherwise world’s most impoverished region, which is already struggling with abject poverty, underdevelopment, and civil unrest, would continue to face multi-dimensional and multi-faceted problems.
The writer is a graduate of the
University of Agriculture, Faisalabad.
He writes on national and international affairs.