70 Years on: Pakistan – India Water Woes Continue

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Fauzia Nasreen*

*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.

Water is recognized as a global asset. The existence of human life, the ecosystem and the planet’s sustainability depends on water. However, advancement of human civilization, excessive exploitation of natural resources and rapid population growth has severely impacted both the environment and water resources. Anthropogenic pressures are adding to the harmful climatic changes already under way with erratic weather conditions resulting in scarcity of water and increased frequency of natural disasters. Pakistan has been identified as one of the few countries that are water stressed and in the vortex of hazardous climatic changes. Since Pakistan depends on its soul Indus river basin for various uses, water flows in the Indus River and its tributaries are vitally important for its socio-economic stability.

The integrated water management through the irrigation network that was developed in the subcontinent during the British colonial rule has undergone a major transformation since the partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947. The territorial partitioning of the subcontinent also resulted in the partitioning of the irrigation system. Two Head works that were servicing the irrigation network in Pakistan were included in India. The acrimony following the division of the subcontinent had grave implications for Pakistan. Water flow into Pakistan was blocked as the interim agreement reached between the two sides (East and West Punjab) was held in abeyance in 1948, enhancing the vulnerability of crop cultivation in Pakistan. A temporary arrangement was reached which provided some breathing space to Pakistan.

In the following years, the World Bank played an essential role in settling the water dispute between Pakistan and India. The negotiating process initiated thereafter with active mediation of the World Bank was accepted by the two sides as the best option under the circumstances prevailing at that time. The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), signed in 1960 between Pakistan and India, did withstand the test of time. However, the increasing water pressures accentuated by additional factors such as rapid urbanization and industrialization, population growth and need for food sufficiency in the context of the subcontinent are posing challenges for the Indus Waters Treaty. Since there is no exit clause in the Treaty and the World Bank is the guarantor as a third party, both Pakistan and India need to ensure its implementation in the spirit of cooperation. Conflict is neither a choice nor advisable in the prevailing tense security environment in the region.

IWT does provide a dispute settlement mechanism that obligates, as the first step, the Indus Waters Commissioners of the two sides to meet at least once a year. Because of Indian intransigence and indifference the two sides had not met for quite some time. This hiatus was overcome with the resumption of their meeting last year on 21 and 22 March. This year again the Indus Waters Commissioners met on 29 and 30 March, reinforcing the need to uphold the spirit of the Treaty. Held around the World Water Day and in the backdrop of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) the meetings underline the imperative to look beyond the geostrategic parameters and treat water as a human rights issue. The lives and livelihood of vast populations are linked to the availability of the water. The entire ecosystem and biodiversity of the region as well as sustainability of the environment and landscape depend on this vital resource. The issues connected with water, including, most essentially, the trans-boundary water resources, therefore, demand a visionary and holistic approach.

There is a need to take a pause and reflect on how violation of IWT would lead to the vitiation of the existing fragile security environment and have a serious socio-economic impact on the region as a whole. Ignoring the centrality of climate change, in particular the rapid melting of the glaciers, is to the peril of the roughly 2 billion combined population of South Asia. Construction of several water and power projects on the Jhelum and Chenab rivers by India present a serious threat to the river flows into Pakistan which happens to be a lower riparian. The restrictions on the usage of the three eastern rivers: Ravi, Sutlej and Beas under IWT have already had disastrous impact on the areas that were being serviced by these rivers. The drainage and eco systems that were supported by the natural flows of these rivers have eroded the eco balance with effects on West Punjab. Excessive exploitation of freshwater resources, most importantly of the Western Rivers by India, militates against the IWT and certain moral obligations under the international and customary practices as a member of the comity of nations.

Keeping in view the challenges of the 21st Century, segregation of issues is counter-productive. The water challenges cannot be divorced from the overall sustainable development parameters. The 2030 global development agenda epitomized by the 5Ps: Planet, People, Progress, Peace and Partnership calls for a comprehensive approach. Regions are a significant component of this outlook. Since climate change is a cross cutting issue in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and lay due emphasis on intergenerational equity, the leaders and people of different regions have a special responsibility. Water threats hurled at Pakistan and the rhetorical statements by the Indian leadership on water flows into Pakistan reflect hegemonic tendencies. They indicate disregard for the international norms and challenge the self-image of a responsible global player projected by Indian leaders.

There are two perspectives on the nexus between water scarcity and conflict. The general observation is that the underlying cause for future wars will be water. Given the volatile relationship between Pakistan and India and the concentration of conventional and non-conventional weapons, any full blown confrontation instigated by extreme shortage of water in the future can have unforeseen consequences. Coupled with climate change, the fallout on security and socio-economic conditions will have far reaching effects in the region. The phenomena of heavy unseasonal rainfall and spells of droughts are having strong adverse bearing on migration, both internal and external. Since Indus waters constitute a lifeline for Pakistan it is inextricably linked with the security of the country. Disagreement on various Indian water projects has become a source of serious friction between the two countries, giving credence to the “water wars” discourse.

The other perspective is based on “Water rationality”, a term coined by Undala Z. Alam. It favours cooperation rather than confrontation and conflict because it is believed that is the best way of ensuring national water security. This cooperation was manifested in the IWT negotiating process because i) a dire need was felt both by Pakistan and India to negotiate on the shared fresh water resources; ii) the World Bank nudged the two parties as a third party mediator; and iii) the financial backing enabliing the two parties to undertake replacement projects to obviate the water losses. However, under the present circumstances where climate change has emerged as an existential challenge, criticism is leveled at the lack of measures to safeguard the environment. The question now arises whether it is possible for Pakistan and India to develop their discourse on water issues within the framework of effects of climate change.

The Indus Basin System has been a cradle of old civilizations as availability of water served many purposes. Its role in sustaining life of many communities has been central to the growth and development of the region. Its ecosystem is unique – supporting wild life, flora, fauna and sanctuaries for some rare species. It’s mangroves at the mouth of the delta (coast of the Arabian Sea) provide sustenance to precious marine life throughout the Asia-Pacific coastal belt. Therefore, both Pakistan and India must carry out development affecting the Indus River in a sustainable manner. In order to meet its water needs India seems to be exploiting the western fresh water system in an aggressive manner. Their water management strategy focuses more on building link canals, diversion of river water and on consolidating control over water resources through unilateral measures.

To address the growing challenges, Pakistan should seriously work towards devising an effective national integrated water resources management strategy premised on water conservation, recycling, efficient use and storage of water to avoid wasting of this dwindling resource. Along with reforestation and conservation of the ecosystem and natural habitats, special attention should be paid to the preservation of the wetlands. Since more than 35 MAF of water flows into the Arabian Sea and is wasted, the country is deprived of a substantial quantity of water which can be stored in small reservoirs and new big dams such as Diamer- Basha, Mundi and others. The rapid melting of glaciers is bringing about such devastating consequences as floods and other disasters in the form of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF). The north- western areas of Pakistan and adjoining areas of Afghanistan are worst affected. Therefore, joint Pakistan-Afghanistan efforts are needed to deal with this changing geographical feature.

Conservation is one area where involvement of civil society, communities, private and public sectors is essential. Goal 17 of the SDGs talks about revitalizing global partnerships with the aim of promoting sustainable development. Under the sub headings: Finance, Technology, Capacity Building, Trade and Systemic issues it emphasizes triangular regional and international cooperation, access to science and technology and knowledge sharing. There is an increased focus on coherence in development cooperation and channeling such cooperation in a way that it facilitates the partners in meeting the targets listed under each goal. Advocacy, public awareness and concerted campaigns, together with the inclusion of climate change issues in school and college curriculum would go a long way in mitigating the looming crisis of water scarcity.

“Improved wastewater management generates social, environmental and economic benefits, and is essential to achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

UN Report of 2017 on Wastewater: The Untapped Resource.



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