Pakistan is facing water stress as much as the other countries around the region. Pakistan has been placed among the countries facing a high overall water risk by the World Resources Institute. Media is also abuzz with all sorts of experts saying the country will run dry by this date and by that year. The Chief Justice of Pakistan has also initiated a fundraising drive to raise money for a couple of dams. But whenever there is talk of water scarcity in the country the general public and the media speak through emotions instead of facts and put all the blame on India. They think that only India is responsible for Pakistan’s water woes. The level of ignorance can be gauged from the fact that a little while back there was a message circulating on social media that there are two rivers in Deosai area of Gilgit-Baltistan called ‘Chota Pani’ and ‘Kala Pani’ which flow to India, and Pakistan should divert them. So Pakistan should spend billions of dollars to divert small streams. I received this message from many otherwise educated friends. Although India may intend to rob Pakistan of its water as India is both a water hegemon state as well as a water-stressed country. But things have not reached that point and blaming India for Pakistan’s current water stress is factually incorrect and misleading. This mantra only gives Pakistanis an easy escape from their own failure to act as a water responsible state.
River issues between India and Pakistan are governed according to the Indus Basin Water Treaty of 1960, which was signed between India and Pakistan with the help of the World Bank. Pakistan got major rights over three western rivers out of a total of six rivers flowing from India and Indian controlled Kashmir to Pakistan. These three rivers are Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. India can build run of the river projects on these rivers and can use a fraction (20 percent) of water for local agriculture. Although India has built small dams on these rivers still the treaty has withstood the test of time and remained alive even through wars.
Waters of Indus and Jehlum rivers are relatively secure for Pakistan for two main reasons. Firstly, these two river flow from south to north through the Indian controlled Kashmir before reaching Pakistan controlled territory. Simply put they flow away from the Indian mainland and diverting them to Indian mainland will be quite challenging technologically and also politically
Waters of Indus and Jehlum rivers are relatively secure for Pakistan for two main reasons. Firstly, these two river flow from south to north through the Indian controlled Kashmir before reaching Pakistan controlled territory. Simply put they flow away from the Indian mainland and diverting them to Indian mainland will be quite challenging technologically and also politically. No large-scale irrigation is possible around these two rivers due to extremely mountainous terrain around the Indus, and also the Kashmir valley through which Jhelum flows is already well irrigated and receives plenty of rainfall.
Secondly, much of the water of these rivers particularly the mighty Indus comes from glaciers of Gilgit-Baltistan which are already under Pakistan’s control. Neelum River supplies almost half of the Jhelum River’s water, and is mostly fed by the glacial streams of Azad Kashmir. This can be understood from the period when India was constructing the Kishanganga project and the hue and cry it evoked. Everyone was saying that there will be no water for Pakistan’s own under construction Neelum-Jhelum power project if India completes the Kishanganga project. But now after the completion, both projects are running smoothly. Also with Kishanganga project India diverted Neelum river at a point where it is only a stream and threw it in Wular Lake and eventually in Jhelum River inside Kashmir valley from where it again comes to Pakistan. So Kishanganga project had an overall negligible impact on water availability for Pakistan. Chenab is a bit vulnerable in this regard due to its proximity to the Indian mainland, and also the less formidable terrain of the Jammu region. But still, India has refrained from developing any major diversion projects although it has built some small dams. Thus, Pakistan needs to focus on Chenab and employ active and skillful diplomacy to make India not violate the Indus Water Treaty when it comes to Chenab.
The fourth important river flowing into Pakistan is the Kabul River, originating and getting most of its water from Afghanistan. So far Afghanistan has been able to use little of Kabul River’s water due to its own political instability and the difficult terrain surrounding the river. But in the future things will not remain the same as Afghanistan as an upper riparian state will try to utilize more and more of Kabul River’s water. There is no treaty between Pakistan and Afghanistan regarding sharing the water of Kabul River and there is the potential of a conflict in this regard in the long-term as identified by different experts. A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, highlighted the fact that dam building on the Kabul River can be a source of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the future. Pakistan needs to reach an agreement with Afghanistan as soon as possible to legally and permanently secure its due share of water from Kabul River. A recent conference organized at the University of Peshawar titled ‘Sustainable usage of the Kabul River: Challenges and opportunities for Pak-Afghan cooperation’ also highlighted the need for a bilateral treaty between the two countries for equitable and sustainable use of Kabul River’s water.
It is clear that presently Pakistan’s water woes are not a result of hostile neighbors blocking the rivers but the causes lie somewhere else.
The write is currently pursuing Ph.D. at LKY School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore
Published in Daily Times, January 17th 2019.