The ‘war’ over water between India and Pakistan can jeopardize joint efforts to conserve the precious resource, writes Manipadma Jena

In recent months, Pakistan’s politicians have been ratcheting up the rhetoric on water scarcity under the Indus Water Treaty. Is war for water a possibility between India and Pakistan? Unlikely. For one, Pakistan’s buffer stock of water will last for just 30 days. Water disputes, the world over, have more often been settled through negotiations. Pakistan’s federal minister for environment, Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi, has said that cooperation is the most logical response to trans-boundary water management issues. The Indus Water Treaty is, in fact, one of the best examples of this. India has not disturbed the flow of water to Pakistan even during wars, acts of terrorism and other such conflicts that have bedevilled relations between the two neighbours.

Although the Indus treaty has stood the test of time, water conflict could, in all probability, move into centre stage along with the Jammu and Kashmir issue and further complicate bilateral relations. This is because Pakistan is likely to face serious water shortage in the coming years. The Indus water issue is very much a part of the Kashmir question. Headwaters of the Indus and its tributaries, the Jhelum and the Chenab — the western rivers over which Pakistan has full rights under the treaty — are in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s persistent contention is that India is taking advantage of its position as the upper riparian and storing and diverting water that belongs to it. Since its public opposition to India’s 450-megawatt capacity in the first stage Baglihar dam in 2005, Pakistan has been using various pressure tactic to get the Indus Water Treaty renegotiated. “Renegotiating the Treaty would in ways mean rewarding Pakistan for its failure to conserve it scarce water resources over the past many decades,” say Indian observers.

Analysts further add that Pakistan’s complaints are aimed at diverting attention from the long-drawn, but now critical, internal water row among Sindh and Baluchistan on the hand and Punjab on the other. Punjab is the main beneficiary of the Indus’s waters.

The Indus Water Treaty, which was accepted as equitable by the two countries, gave unrestricted use of the three eastern rivers — Ravi, Beas and Sutlej — to India, with a mean flow of 33 million acre-feet (one acre-foot equals 43,560 cubic feet of water), one-fourth of the 136 mac that Pakistan got from the Indus river system. However, from the western river, India is also allowed 3.6 mac of water for storage, flood control and hydro-power generation. India is also permitted irrigation for 1.34 million acres, but is currently irrigating only 0.792 million acres.

Similarly, projects on the ground amount to one-sixth of the total potential to generate 18,653 mw from western rivers. If India used its full entitlement for hydropower, it would amount to only 3 per cent of their mean flow. While rumours of India building “hundreds of dams” on Pakistan’s rivers is doing the rounds in that country, in reality, India has 33 projects, informed India’s high commissioner to Pakistan, Sharat Sabharwal, at the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations. Out of these, 14 are in operation, 13 are under construction while the rest are in various stages of completion or have been scrapped. Twenty of these projects have capacities of 10 mw or less. Twenty-two more projects are in the offing, he said.

Pakistan has raised multiple objections that have delayed various projects, but it is chiefly opposed to the Baglihar project on Chenab, the Kishenganga project and the Tulbul navigation project, both of which are on the Jhelum. In all these projects, Pakistan has brought in, additionally, a new security dimension to the dispute. It fears India may exercise a strategic advantage by regulating the dammed waters of the Chenab and the Jhelum during war.

Pakistan, which got 80 per cent of the Indus river system and 65 per cent of the river basin area, invested in just three dams and eight barrages. Today, the nationwide power deficit has impacted industrial growth and resulted in violent public protests. By 2014, Pakistan is expected to build 32 small and medium dams for irrigation that will be spread over Sindh, Punjab, the North West Frontier Province and arid Baluchistan.

Irrational water resource management, burgeoning populations, unplanned urban and industrial growth, a chemical-fuelled Green Revolution that has run its course and left soil moisture depleted as well as unclear climate change patterns have brought Pakistan and India face to face with a looming water crisis.

Pakistan is moving from a water- scarce nation to a water-starved one. In 50 years, per capita water availability has dropped from 5,600 to 1,038 cubic metres. The figure is expected to fall to 809 cubic metres by 2025, says Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority.

The country’s population is growing at a high 2.3 per cent compared to India’s 1.3 per cent. Its sole dependence on the Indus — 70 per cent of its people live in the Indus basin — exacerbates its critical water position.

Inadequate investment in water conservation and the injudicious management of available water resources have resulted in Pakistan’s water crisis, says a World Bank report. Up to 40 per cent of the water is being lost because of canals that remain unlined and porous. Pakistan has 61,000 kilometres of main and 1.6 million km of secondary water courses, the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. Already 20 million tonnes of salt sit in the water system, says the World Bank. Pakistan uses 93 per cent of its water resources for agriculture against the global average of 65 per cent. Indiscriminate withdrawal of groundwater has resulted in seawater seeping into and ruining natural aquifers. Over the last 20 years, sea intrusion has wasted two million acres of arable land in Sindh.

Blessed with rivers, India’s water management is a little better.However, major water conservation issues such as river-linking and big dams versus small dams remain unresolved. Watersheds and rainwater harvesting are nominal. Both countries are also ages away from scientific agricultural practices. Forward-looking policies are not in place even though the need for them is staring in the face. The two nations refuse to acknowledge that the age of easy water availability is over, and that from now on there can be no food security and even sub-national security without water security.

What the Green Revolution gave India and Pakistan — an abundance to export water hungry crops — has now become unfeasible. Even in the most arid areas, farmers have no alternative but to irrigate their fields by flooding them. Few have adopted the much more efficient drip irrigation system, which governments urgently need to subsidize. Climate change compounds the water problem. Experts say that climate change could alter the timing and rate of snow melt, with an initial increase in annual run-off, followed by a steep decrease as glaciers recede, severely impacting river flows.

Over the next 40 years, the global demand for food is expected to double, and that implies that the amount of water used to achieve global food security would also have to double.

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