Escalating Tensions & Water Scarcity

It seems that with a cooling of tensions, the Indus Water Commission talks between Pakistan and India have resumed with both Indian and Pakistani authorities meeting on March 20-21 to discuss water disputes in Lahore. India’s Indus Water Commissioner P.K. Saxena suggested that topics for debate would include the construction of the Kishanganga dam on the Jhelum River and the Ratle dam on the Chenab River. Yet, Pakistani authorities have adamantly refused this proposal and have taken the matter to the World Bank in order to find a ruling in their favor.

The results of the meeting, which concluded just today, have resulted in an agreement by both sides to redesign the Miyar hydroelectric dam, as well as allowing the re-inspection of power projects on rivers in lower Kalnai and Pakul Dul. Further details regarding the talks are expected to be released at a later time. The meetings that occurred came as a surprise as Modi last year threatened to scrap the Indus Water Treaty, which specifically calls for annual talks, all together. 

The message sent by the Modi administration last fall, following Pakistan’s alleged activities in the disputed territory of Kashmir, consisted of building additional dams on the Indus River Basin and dropping its commitment to the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). This stance has spurned talks of war and an escalation in conflict in Pakistan, if India were to follow through on its threat.

Following the attack on the Uri army base in Kashmir, India accused Pakistan of using terrorists to further its agenda. PM Modi stated that,


“Blood and water cannot flow in the same direction.”


Modi suspended water talks between the two nations that occurred under the annual meetings of the IWT. Furthermore, PM Modi has declared that the construction of hydroelectric dams on the rivers Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus would be expedited late last September. There were also suggestions during a meeting of advisor’s to PM Modi that the cancellation of the Tulbul navigation project, that would redirect waters to Indian cities in Kashmir, should be reconsidered.

In response to these statements, foreign policy advisor to Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Sartaj Aziz, stated in September 2016 that if India were to restrict water flows to Pakistan then “it will provide China, for example, a justification to consider suspension of waters of the Brahmaputra River,” that provides crucial water supplies to the Indian state of Assam. Pakistani lawmakers further threatened India that it would be tantamount to declaring war. Pakistan’s Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani stated that:


“India has no legal right under the treaty to revoke or review it on its own... Interference with Pakistan’s water supply will be tantamount to an act of aggression and aggression will be met by aggression.”


The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), negotiated in 1960, has continued to hold weight even after several wars and decades of heightened tensions between the two nations. The treaty, in short, allocates 80% of the waters in the Indus Basin to Pakistan and the remaining 20% to India. India also has the added ability to use some of the water for farming and power generation so long as it does not restrict water flow for the riparian nation, Pakistan. The IWT gave India complete control over the eastern rivers of Sutlej, Ravi, and Beas but called for the western rivers Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab to flow without any restrictions to Pakistan.

The construction of dams is allowed in the treaty and India seems to be justified in its stance but Pakistani fears regarding Indian control over the source of its main water supply are not only substantial but pose risks to the state’s very stability and prosperity.

Water experts, such as the late John Briscoe, commented on the water dispute between the two states in a New York Times article, stating that if India were to reserve waters at specific times, the reserved water in storage would have the ability to seriously harm the planting season during a dry period. Furthermore, Pakistan experiences a serious water scarcity problem and lacks the adequate infrastructure to both store and conserve water. Currently, Pakistan’s water reservoirs are only able to store a water supply that would meet 30 days worth of demand compared to India’s 150 days and Australia’s 800 days.

Further compounding the risks of water scarcity, climate change, has also been responsible for decreasing water levels as cooler springs and summers have led to lower levels of Himalayan snow melt that supply the majority of water to the regions rivers. Several studies have found that,


 “As the overall climate warms, monsoons increasingly invade the mountain chains of the Indus upstream... When monsoons penetrate into the region and push dry westerly winds northward, summer temperatures drop.”


This reduces snowmelt and lowers the water level of the major rivers that the two nations rely on. Other studies have found that water levels will continue to fall or stay steady for the foreseeable future but within several generations, if the climate continues to warm, the glaciers that supply the rivers will be seriously depleted and cause serious problems over water scarcity. 

Additionally, political promises made by PM Modi further raise tensions of a conflict over water. Modi, on November 25, 2016, stated that,


The fields of our farmers must have adequate water. Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan... We formed a task force on Indus Water Treaty to ensure farmers of Punjab and other states get each drop of water due to them.”


India is also facing similar water scarcity problems and is burdened with an even larger population than Pakistan that also requires ever-larger amounts of water and increased demand for energy. If Modi is serious regarding renegotiating the Indus Water Treaty or using a larger share of the water that it is allocated, Pakistan’s concerns and it’s anxiety will continue to increase. Currently, India has 33 hydropower projects either planned, completed, or in stages of construction on Kashmiri rivers.

Pakistan’s anxiety’s may be further compounded by it’s decision to declare the autonomous region of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) into a province that further escalates tensions with it neighbor. G-B was initially a part of Pakistan’s current portion of Kashmir but was ceded to the government of Pakistan and labeled the northern areas in the past. India and Pakistan both continue to hold the view that the region is their sovereign territory but the region has also become a crucial player in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistani anxieties over India’s opposition to the CPEC project may be heightened by fears of increased water scarcity and its effect on hydroelectric dams (Diamer-Bhasha Dam Project) due for construction further downstream under CPEC.

The two nations would be wise to realize that cooperation over water, regardless of military and political disputes between the two nations, is crucial to the prosperity of both. If India was to cancel the treaty, it would risk increased instability in Pakistan resulting from possibly weak harvests, lower agricultural yield and profits for the sector harming Pakistan’s economy, and provide further fuel for anti-India militant groups that would capitalize on the cancellation of the treaty by making it a piece of propaganda. Pakistan must also realize that India, according to the treaty, is entitled to use portions of the water supply and must be prepared to meet the challenges that may come along with such an Indian decision.


Image Source: US Embassy Pakistan - Tarbela Dam (Flickr)