Understanding Pakistan’s Real Water Crisis by Atrey Bhargava (A’21) and Uzair Sattar (A’21)

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

The title of our project, "Can Blood and Water Flow Together?", describes the politics of the water in power relations in the Indus Basin between Pakistan and India, two nuclear-powered states in a state of perpetual hostility. The goal of the project was to understand the water crisis, the role India plays in it, and analyze the effectiveness of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between the two countries.

The importance of the topic increased overnight on May 20, 2018--just a few days after the project began--when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kishenganga Hydroelectric Power Plant amid calls from Pakistan claiming that the plant violated the Indus Water Treaty by diverting water away from Pakistan.

The media went into an absolute frenzy, and high-ranking politicians wasted no time in issuing a sensationalist statement saying that “India had closed the tap on Pakistan” and could induce drought at will. If a layman got all of his information from the news and no other sources (as is often the case in Pakistan), the only thing he would have taken away was the fact that India was the sole cause of Pakistan's water crisis.

This thought process makes intuitive sense, given the animosity between the countries since Partition. Most of Pakistan's surface water comes from the Indus river and its tributaries, which together comprise the Indus Basin. The Indus River flows from the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas in China to Indian-occupied Kashmir, and then finally into Pakistan, flowing all the way into the Arabian sea. Pakistan is the lower riparian, and India is the upper riparian. Given this relationship, skeptics always believed that India holds back water and 'closes' the river to hurt Pakistan. The Kishenganga inauguration plays into these beliefs.

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.

Because of the Kishenganga dispute, Pakistan's water crisis started getting increased attention at all levels of society. It was now sexy to talk about the water crisis because India was ostensibly causing it. Water went from being used as fodder for heated political conversation over family dinner tables, to being the topic of discussion in high-level meetings in the World Bank, to statement after statement pouring out of the Prime Minister's office highlighting the magnitude of the crisis. Moreover, it was election season in Pakistan and politicians were proactive in highlighting the failures of their opponents in solving the problem. This discourse, started by the Kishenganga inauguration, was a good thing, given the seriousness of Pakistan’s situation regarding water.

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.

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. To understand the water crisis itself, we had the privilege of meeting senior bureaucrats, government officials, water experts, think tank officials, and academics. Very soon into our interviews, we were able to understand that Pakistan was not 'water scarce' in the most literal sense of the term - this meant that the notion that Pakistan 'did not have enough water' was wholly untrue. Pakistan has a surplus of water when it comes to fulfilling the daily requirements of its citizens.

Daanish Mustafa, Professor at Kings College London, described it best when he said, "There is a crisis. It is worse than you think. But it is not what you think."

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.

These findings made us conclude that Pakistani policymakers used India to divert attention from their failings in addressing the water crisis. This is caused by a failure to look inwards and address the causes of the crisis relating to equitable distribution, the cultivation of water-heavy crops, and an outdated feudal 'zamindari' (land law) system that has not been changed since the colonial period.

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.