Blood and Water Will Flow Together by Atrey Bhargava (A’21)

by tuftsigl
Sep 13

Our research trip in Pakistan has been a transformative experience for both Uzair and I. Uzair Sattar and I met in this past year’s EPIIC class; he’s from Pakistan and I’m from India, and we wanted to look at a project that impacted both of our countries.

Our thesis explored India’s role in Pakistan’s water scarcity, if any, and we hope to recommend ideas which would help better cooperation and foster transboundary surface water management. At the same time, we also wanted to identify management and water distribution/allocation issues within Pakistan which have contributed to the present crisis.

Before delving into the broader reflections of the trip, we find it imperative to provide a basic timeline of our interviews as well as an introduction to our interviewees.

Through the course of the trip, we were fortunate to interview water experts, lawyers and academics, not limited to but including Professor Daanish Mustafa from Kings College, London, who is the co-author of the first climate change response strategies for Pakistan in addition to being the lead author for the UNDP (Pakistan) five year flood response strategy; Mr. Feisal Naqvi, Pakistan’s Counsel for Indus Water Treaty; Mr. Ahmad Rafay Allam, Pakistani environmental lawyer and activist; and Mr. Masood Ahmed, Lead Water Resources Specialist at the World Bank.

One of our fundamental challenges during the trip was to understand the scope, context and interpretation of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). This is a bilateral treaty signed between India and Pakistan, with the mediation of the World Bank, in 1960. The IWT has successfully lasted over the past five and a half decades but dangerous political rhetoric from the Indian side, after the Uri attacks in 2016, temporarily disbanded the annual meetings of the Indus Water Commissioners till 2018. These meetings are mandated under the IWT, and though the talks have since resumed, there are growing disputes between India and Pakistan on dam designs in the Kashmir valley and beyond.

Two of these disputes, the Baglihar and the Kishanganga, have already been taken to the neutral expert in the World Bank and the International Court of Arbitration, respectively. Being the lower riparian, Pakistan took both these cases to the aforementioned courts under the dispute resolution mechanism of the IWT. While the Baglihar ruling legitimized India’s dam design on account of siltation concerns for Indian dams, the Kishanganga ruling in 2013 limited Baglihar’s precedent and established the primacy of interests of the lower riparian, e.g.. Pakistan, in any similar dispute.

According to most of our interviewees, India has not violated the treaty and possesses very limited ability, as of now, to store water and affect agriculture in Pakistan. Until the time that India chooses to use the established mechanisms within the IWT for dispute resolution, there is very little threat for Pakistan. Most scholars we interviewed were certain that the current political, economic and military asymmetry between India and Pakistan would ensure that any attempt at renegotiating the IWT would be in India’s favor. Cooperation for groundwater management and climate change should be discussed at another platform and in a different committee than the Indus Water Commission.

In considering the waters of the Indus, our research points towards a much bigger problem of water mismanagement within Pakistan. An exponentially increasing population coupled with almost primeval water infrastructure and an uneven distribution of water according to wealth are primarily responsible for the current water crisis.

In Pakistan’s Constitution, water becomes the property of the landowner and post-colonial legacies of huge landlords have amassed most of the supplies of water in the rural areas. Though Pakistan is not alone in facing this crisis of this inequitable distribution of water, Pakistani media has wrongly portrayed India as the reason for the present shortage of water in cities and rural areas alike.

Pakistan’s economy is heavily dependent on agriculture: nearly 25% of Pakistan’s GDP comes from it and 97% of Pakistan’s water is used in the agricultural industry; even most of Pakistani agriculture is in the Indus plain, which comprises about 25% of the country’s total land area. In the three percent of water used for civilian consumptive purposes, a substantial amount is spent on horticulture. These problems are further exacerbated by ‘tanker mafias’ or gangs who control the supply of water and sell it at three times the cost in cities like Karachi, which face the brunt of this crisis.

Since Pakistan’s water sources are fed by erratic rainfall, environmentalists have highlighted the need for better rainwater harvesting, storage and better canal lining during the monsoon season. With changing weather patterns, rising temperatures and depleting glaciers, the future of the Indus River basin is unknown but these measures to preserve groundwater and understand water not as an infinite resource but as a commodity will go a long way in increasing the long-term sustainability of the basin for the millions of people dependent on it.

It is systemic problems that have plagued any potential solution to this crisis: poor political and economic choices, poor wastewater management, and the post-colonial mentality of dealing with problems from a supply and structural approach rather than a demand-side approach.

Our conclusions from the research were very aptly summed up Professor Mustafa, “We have a crisis, and it is much worse than what you imagine. It is just not the same crisis that you are thinking about.”

Needless to say, India’s presence and relationship with Pakistan heavily affects any decision Pakistan strives to undertake. Being the upper riparian, India does have more advantages with water usage, but it would go too far to say that India has the ability to cause Pakistan’s water scarcity. The psychological effect of India limiting water to Pakistan in 1948 still plagues Pakistanis, and there needs to be better cooperative and trust-building measures between the two countries for their mutual benefit.

By looking at transboundary disaster control and groundwater management as positive sum games, both countries have the potential to serve as an example of transboundary water management for the rest of the world. Joint sustainability and development in the basin can serve as a broader model of peace between the two countries and plausibly ameliorate some of the historical animosity between the two arch-rivals.

This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me to visit Pakistan. For the arduous process in getting my visa and arranging my security clearances, it has all been an extremely enriching and worthwhile experience. Traveling the cities of Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi were a lifelong dream for me, and I cannot thank the Institute of Global Leadership and all others involved in facilitating this process. I am extremely indebted to everyone, and most of all Uzair Sattar and his family for being the most gracious hosts and far exceeding my expectations for this summer. I can safely say that there is no one else I could have completed this research with, and I’m extremely happy that we made this decision in April to take on this project. It has provided me an opportunity to spread my idea of Pakistan to every person I see in India and hopefully do my share in bringing our nations together. I have no doubt that Uzair will do the same and one day, through similar cross-border networking, we can see a very different South Asia.