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

by tuftsigl
Aug 27

Atrey and I completed our summer research project in Pakistan. The title of the 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.

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.

Our research project was two-fold. First, we wished to identify what the water crisis was. Was it a question of not having enough water? Was it a question of not getting enough water from India? Was it a question of not being able to distribute the water Pakistan had effectively? All these issues and more were oft-repeated in sloganeering about Pakistan's 'water scarcity.' 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. However, the crisis lies in the unfair distribution of the water and tainted state priorities of what to do with the existing water. Therefore, one of the first things Atrey and I did was stop using the phrase 'water scarcity' and replace it with 'water crisis', as this was the more accurate way of describing the situation. 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."

The second aspect of our research was looking at the role India played in the crisis and assessing the validity of people's sentiments that being the upper riparian, India had unjustly 'closed the tap on Pakistan.' To help with this, we interviewed Indo-Pakistan experts in think tanks and policy advising institutions, Track Two diplomats, officials from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, as well as the very lawyers that fought Pakistan's cases against India regarding projects on the Indus River including the infamous Kishenganga and Baglihar disputes.

Our findings were simple. India possesses the potential to severely disrupt water flows and more importantly, the timing of those flows into Pakistan - especially in winter months. However, given the safeguards of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty--which is binding on both India and Pakistan--Pakistan's right to the uninterrupted flow of water on the three eastern rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) is secure.

The decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration over the Kishenganga dispute in 2013 guaranteed that Pakistan's rights as lower riparian could not be infringed upon by India. Therefore, there was unanimous agreement amongst experts that India played no direct role in the water crisis and could not do so in the future should they continue honoring the Indus Waters Treaty (as they have been doing for 68 years now). Therefore, the concerns Pakistanis may have about India abusing its position as upper riparian of the Indus River are not only inaccurate but ignorant of the law that protects Pakistan's water rights.

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.

We are hopeful, however, that with time, understanding of the crisis, and India's role in it, will lead to a more informed discussion rooted in facts, not hysteria and chest-thumbing national sloganeering.