Kashmir’s Water: New Weapon of War for India and Pakistan?

India and Pakistan were separated at birth, established in 1947 when they gained independence from Britain. Since then, these two countries have been engaged in a violent, 70-year-long dispute over control of Kashmir, waging three wars, countless skirmishes, attacks, and subsequent retaliations. Today, India occupies 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan occupies 35 percent, and China occupies the remaining 20 percent.

Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin on GlacierHub
Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Water is an important aspect of India and Pakistan’s fight over Kashmir. Kashmir, a small mountainous region tucked between India and Pakistan, is home to glacier headwaters for several of the Indus River’s tributaries. The Indus River begins in the Himalayas of Tibet, then continues through to India, Kashmir, and finally Pakistan––and provides water resources to almost 270 million people.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960, which was brokered by the World Bank, divided up control of Indus rivers to Pakistan and India. It also established the Permanent Indus Commission to facilitate communication between the two countries and resolve any disputes. Under the treaty, Pakistan retains primary control of Kashmir’s western glacier-fed rivers––Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus––while India holds the water rights for the eastern rivers––Beas, Ravi, and Satluj.

Indian and Pakistani-controlled land areas are demarcated by the Line of Control (LOC) with one huge exception: the Siachen Glacier. The two international agreements defining the LOC did not include the Siachen Glacier area, leading both India and Pakistan to compete for control. India claimed the entire glacier in 1984, and has maintained a military presence there since.

Recent Events

Tensions between the two countries subsided for several years following a 2003 ceasefire, however, more recent conflicts between India and Pakistan have brought the long-standing dispute in Kashmir, and its roots in water, back into focus.

In 2016, 19 Indian soldiers were killed in the Uri attack, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say, “blood and water can’t flow together at the same time.” In the following weeks, India suspended meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission, then engaged a policy shift to begin exerting full control over their allotted water under the IWT.

Fast forward to February 21, 2019, when Nitin Gadkari, India’s Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, tweeted:

Gadkari’s declaration came one week after a car bombing in Pulwama (India-controlled Kashmir) left 41 dead, making it the deadliest attack in Kashmir’s history. India charged Pakistan as responsible for the attacks and vowed to retaliate, but the Pakistani government denied any involvement. The next day, Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility.

In the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks, media frenzy around this tweet quickly ensued. Several news sources speculated that India was attempting to put pressure on Pakistan, or that it was violating the Indus Waters Treaty by halting all water flow to Pakistan. Ministry officials later clarified on Twitter that Gadkari was simply reaffirming an existing policy. In accordance with their plan, India recently began construction of a dam on the Ravi river and plans only to use the eastern rivers, of which they have primary control under the treaty, for their proposed water diversions.

Caught in the Crossfire

In the month following, tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated, with Kashmir caught in the middle of their crossfire.

Making good on their promise of retaliation, Indian warplanes crossed the LOC for the first time since 1971 to carry out an airstrike. Pakistan responded by shooting down two Indian fighter jets, capturing one of the pilots, and releasing a controversial video of the pilot in custody before announcing they would release the pilot back to India as an act of good faith.

Uncharted Waters

Now two weeks after the pilot’s release, tensions in Kashmir have diffused somewhat, and both India and Pakistan have made it clear they intend to avoid further escalation. Historically, it didn’t take much to provoke hostile exchanges into an all-out war between the two, so what is making them more hesitant this time around?

First, both countries are now nuclear powers. And while India has a “No First Use” policy, meaning it will only engage in retaliatory nuclear strikes, Pakistan has yet to adopt such a policy. Any future hostilities run the risk of nuclear escalation and subsequent devastation, making Pakistan and India weary of reaching “the point of no return.” Though certainly possible, escalations of nuclear proportion remain unlikely.

Water as an Emerging Weapon

Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world's highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier on GlacierHub
Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier (Source: junaidrao/Flickr).

Additionally, throughout all of South Asia, future water availability is a monumental concern. In an article published by the New York Times, Arif Rafiq, a political analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said, “we may be getting a glimpse of the future of conflict in South Asia. The region is water-stressed. Water may be emerging as a weapon of war.”

It is no secret that political turmoil can wreak havoc on an environmental landscape, and in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, this is further complicated by the impact of climate change. According to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, rising temperatures will melt at least one-third of glaciers in the Himalayas by 2100, and up to two-thirds if we fail to meet ambitious climate change targets. Some glaciers are predicted to reach peak discharge as early as 2020.

Less water availability coupled with population growth will likely exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan as they continue their fight for control over Kashmir’s water resources. The Assessment noted that future glacier and snow cover changes in the Indus river basin may not occur equitably, meaning the water quantities allocated to India and Pakistan under the IWT could change drastically. Since the IWT has no provision to deal with water in the context of climate change, the two countries could very well have to re-negotiate the treaty in coming years.

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