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December 7, 2011

Water are we arguing about?

Image: International Rivers

Transboundary waters are largely viewed as drivers of conflict – creating potential avenues for “water wars” between nation states in the future. But these same waters can also provide avenues for cross-border cooperation. The Indus River, shared between India and Pakistan, is a prime example of this.

If India and Pakistan were to share a certain level of trust in existing mechanisms like the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), they could move beyond the traditional concerns of water division, towards more contemporary concerns like climate change and efficient water usage. If not, the two countries will be mired in endless and easily avoidable political controversies while growing water demand and dwindling resources engulf and debilitate the region.

The Indus River was partitioned between the two countries in 1960, much like the land was partitioned in 1947, under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). India received 20 percent of the total flow via the Eastern Rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) while Pakistan received 80 percent or 135 MAF of the total flow via the Western Rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). The partition, once agreed upon, left very little room for controversy.

However India was also accorded customary usage of the Western Rivers for agriculture and hydel power generation and most of the water issues between India and Pakistan arise over this usage, particularly, India’s Run-of-the-River (RoR) dams on the Western Rivers.

Islamabad repeatedly voices concerns that India will use these dams on the Western Rivers to block or flood water flowing into Pakistan while conservative Pakistani media sources and even militant factions repeatedly accuse India of exercising ‘water aggression’ and turning Pakistan into a desert. The Pakistani Army told Washington this year that “water is taking a centre stage to an array of disputes between India and Pakistan.”

These fears and accusations are more or less unnecessary. There are mechanisms in place to check these dams.

The IWT provides a simple procedure to address basic concerns about Indian dams on the Western Rivers. If Pakistan has ‘questions’ about the dams they are discussed in the Indus Water Commission, if there are ‘differences’ between India and Pakistan concerning any dam the case can be referred to a neutral expert and if a ‘dispute’ arises over the construction of a dam, or the interpretation of the treaty itself, then the case can be tried under a Court of Arbitration.

These mechanisms have been used in the past, are presently being exercised and will be adhered to in the future.

In 1999, Pakistan raised objections over the design of the Baglihar Dam. After several rounds of unsuccessful talks there were still some disagreements over the height of the freeboard, the inclusion of gated spillways and the level of pondage the issue was deemed a ‘difference’. In 2005, a neutral expert named Raymond Lafitte was consulted and in 2007 changes were made to the design of the dam and construction of the Baglihar dam was cleared.

The Wullar Barrage or the Tulbul Navigational Lock was subjected to design changes by India in the early 1990s after Pakistan raised objections in 1986 and the project has actually been stalled even after these changes were made due to continued disagreements. Now in order to overcome the political deadlock and address serious concerns about navigation and flooding, the design of the barrage on the Jhelum River might be amended even further from a concrete barrage to a series of temporary rubber dams.

Proceedings over the Kishanganga Dam have been deemed a ‘dispute’ and the case is currently being tried in a ‘Court of Arbitration’. It is being considered by international, Pakistani and Indian legal and hydrological experts.

The Indian government has not confirmed the design of the Bursar project yet, but once it does the design of the dam will be handed over to Pakistan, 6 months before construction as stipulated, and will no doubt undergo the same level of scrutiny from Indian, Pakistani and even international quarters if need be.

Other dams also undergo a rigorous process of discussion between the Indian and Pakistani officials in the Indus Water Commission and at times do not need to undergo rigorous debate and arbitration.

It is also very important for Indians and Pakistanis to understand that run-of-the-river dams are not like conventional dams; they do not hold large amounts of water. Each RoR dam has negligible storage capacity (known as pondage) and hence cannot cause any sort of significant damage to Pakistan’s water supply. As Mr. Brahma Chellaney states ‘you can not store running water’.

Pakistan has now raised concerns that individual dams built on the Western Rivers might not be able to exert damage on Pakistan but the cumulative storage of all the existing and planned dams may. So let us address this concern as well.

The current cumulative impact of Indian dams on the three Western Rivers of the Indus is not in violation of the IWT nor is it detrimental to the flow of water into Pakistan, even during the months when surface water flow is at its lowest. As for the future capacity it should also be taken into account that all these projects are still “potential” dams. Their design and storage capacity will first go through a consultation process with Pakistan as per the specifications of the IWT.

The issue of cumulative storage is relatively new and needs to be studied in detail. Nevertheless, if India were to hold back or release a significant portion of water in Pakistan it would risk international recrimination for its actions, a potential attack from Pakistan and destruction of around a 150 km of its own agricultural land and infrastructure; a cost that would run into several thousand crores.

Now, Pakistan’s anxieties as the lower riparian (recipient) of the Indus River waters are understandable. Close to 80 percent of its total freshwater flows come from the western tributaries of the Indus River. In addition Pakistan’s per capita water availability is teetering precariously close to the ‘water scarcity’ threshold at just above 1,000 m3/capita; and this makes the country very anxious about ensuring its total share of water from these rivers.

But these fears have to be based on facts rather than emotion and the facts show that Pakistan’s anxieties about alterations in river-flow patterns can be better addressed by looking at internal and environmental factors.

Demand Management:
Pakistan’s irrigation sector has some of the lowest conveyance efficiencies in the world. As a result 25 percent of the existing water supply allotted to the irrigation sector is misplaced in ‘line losses’. On top of this, only 36 percent of the water is actually absorbed by the crops due to poor ‘field application efficiency’. The Indus River also has some of the highest silt loads in the world and due to this over 6 MAF, 20 percent of Pakistan’s storage capacity, has been lost. Salinity due to over-pumping of groundwater is another urgent issue, affecting 6.8 million hectares of irrigable land. At times, uneven division amongst different states within Pakistan, rather than uneven distribution between India and Pakistan proves to be the reason for discord over water. PoK and Sindh allege that Punjab enjoys a favoured status with regard to internal water distribution.

Climate Change:
In addition, Pakistan might not have an availability of 135 MAF via the Indus in another 10 years; not because of Indian dams but because of the effects of climate change. 40-60 percent of the water flow in the Indus River comes from glacial meltwater from the Himalayas and according to the Former Head of China’s Meteorological Administration Qin Dahe the Tibetan glaciers are retreating faster than any other glaciers in the world. Once these glaciers vanish he says, “water supplies in Pakistan will be in peril.”

According to NASA’s satellite images the devastating floods that covered a fifth of Pakistan’s total land mass in 2010 were not an attack engineered by India via its dams but rather unusually heavy monsoons, potentially caused by the La Nina effect that enhances Asian monsoons, and abnormally high temperatures in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan. Quite frankly there is very little India can do when the environment overwhelms its existing capacity to hold back excessive monsoon water.

Several water and political analysts realize that it is not water division but rather demand management and climate change that need to be addressed – and this a common problem across the region, not just in Pakistan. According to Michael Kugelman demand-side water management inside individual countries is as important for South Asian water security as are trans-national water mechanisms. South Asia houses a quarter of the world’s population, yet has less than 5 percent of its annual renewable water resources so economic usage of this water is key to solving the water problems in the region. With regard to climate change, Dr. Leena Srivastava recently provided evidence in her research which shows that some of the Himalayan glaciers are melting more rapidly than the global average and this in turn could increase the frequency of floods in the short run and increase water shortages in the long term in South Asia.

Now a combative approach purely about water division can be addressed under the stipulations set out by the IWT but in order to treat the river as a shared and limited resource, India and Pakistan need to start moving towards a more collaborative paradigm. The only place that this is alluded to in the treaty is under the ‘Future Cooperation’ section. This section needs to be developed further.

Future cooperation could include a transboundary effort to ensure the better usage of existing water resources. This could be done via an Integrated River Basin Management program. Projects that encourage better water management practices on both sides of the border can expand the Indo-Pak spheres of cooperation and create a more sustainable approach towards water. There is in fact a project, conducted by LUMS Pakistan (Lahore University of Management Sciences) and ORF India (Observer Research Foundation), which is doing exactly that – exchanging ideas on the best water management practices in both the Punjabs.

Future cooperation could include a detailed study on resource-sharing between India and Pakistan. Rafay Alam, a member of the faculty at LUMS-Lahore, has suggested that India and Pakistan should conduct a ‘Transboundary Water Opportunity Analysis’. This analysis would study the shared political, social and most importantly economic benefits of water-sharing. It would include initiatives like Pakistan purchasing electricity generated from Indian hydro-electricity projects in J&K (as opposed to importing oil and gas from the volatile international market), India investing in and benefitting from aquaculture or fisheries in Pakistan on the Eastern rivers and even joint measures to harvest rainwater.

Lastly, India and Pakistan require cooperation on reducing the impact of climate change. According to B.G. Verghese, debris dams, torrential surges and Glacial Lake Outburst Floods or GLOFs are already on the increase and these can cause severe damage to both India and Pakistan if they are not adequately monitored and managed. It would therefore behove both India and Pakistan to cooperate on issues like disaster management and early warning systems as well as measures that would reduce global warming in the sub-continent.

It is important to start defining the true meaning of water cooperation by evolving Indo-Pak hydro-politics from endless and unnecessary debates over ‘water division’ and RoR dams to more sustainable and resource-friendly efforts like demand management, resource sharing and disaster management. Ultimately, the former will maintain a political and developmental deadlock between the two states while the latter could save millions of lives in India as well as Pakistan.


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