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.

Asia’s High Glaciers Protect Communities from Drought

A recent study in Nature by Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at Cambridge University and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, shows that the high mountains of Asia, including the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and Karakoram, are being greatly affected by global warming. In some areas of the Himalayan region, for example, temperatures have risen faster than the global average. From 1982 to 2006, the average annual mean temperature in the region increased by 1.5 °C, with an average increase of .06 °C per year, according to UNEP. Even though studies on the high mountains of Asia are incomplete, it is believed that the mountains will lose half of their ice in the next 30 years.

Farmers in Pakistan are shifting from wheat to cope with the droughts (Source: Muhammad Darjat/Google Images).

This glacial loss has consequences for Asia as the glaciers provide an important ecosystem service to 800 million people by acting as a regional buffer against drought and providing summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers. If the glaciers in the eastern and central Himalayas disappear by 2035, the ecosystem service protecting against drought would be lost. Despite the fact that glaciers can promote drought resiliency, the surrounding areas would be particularly vulnerable to water scarcity because the glaciers will not supply enough meltwater to maintain the rivers and streams at adequate levels.

Lack of water could lead to devastating food shortages and malnutrition, further impacting the economy and public health. Based on a projected estimate of glacier area in 2050, it is thought that declining water availability will eventually threaten some 70 million people with food insecurity. Droughts in the Himalayan region have already resulted in more than 6 million deaths over the past century. Glacier loss would only add to drought-related water stress in the region, impacting a surrounding 136 million people.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Pritchard explained, “Without these glaciers, particularly in the Indus and Aral, droughts would be substantially worse in summer than they are now, and that could be enough to drive conflict and migration, which becomes a regional and potentially global issue. It could result in social instability, conflict, and migrations of populations.”

According to Pritchard’s research, the high mountains of Asia supply 23 cubic kilometers of water downstream every summer. If the glaciers were to vanish, the amount of water during the summer would decrease by 38 percent in the upper Indus basin on average and up to 58 percent in drought conditions. The loss of summer meltwater would have its greatest effects on the municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with water stress being classified as medium to extremely high. For example, the Indus River, which has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks, is Pakistan’s primary source of freshwater. About 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture depends on the river and much of the world’s cotton comes from the Indus River Valley. Additionally, decreased meltwater would further affect upstream countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Nepal that rely on hydropower. The Toktogul hydropower plant and four smaller plants downstream produce almost 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity.

An irrigation system in the Indus basin in Pakistan (Source: GRID Arendal/Creative Commons).

Pritchard presents data that show how much the glacier meltwater contributes to different regions within Asia during drought. Some areas, such as the Aral Sea, rely exclusively on the glacier water during the drought months. The glaciers provide meltwater when rainfall is minimal or nonexistent under drought conditions because glaciers store precipitation for decades to centuries as ice, which then flows to lower altitudes when melting in the summer. Twila Moon, a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, recently discussed the consequences of global glacier volume loss on populations worldwide in Science magazine. “Rising seas, to which melting ice is a key contributor, are expected to displace millions of people within the lifetime of many of today’s children,” she stated. “This loss of Earth’s land ice is of international concern.”

As temperatures continue to rise, the surrounding regions will begin to lose their source of water for food, agriculture and survival. Due to inadequate scientific studies and evidence, the trends and status of glaciers in the Himalayas and other ranges are not being sufficiently observed and recorded. A lack of adequate monitoring of the glaciers means political action to adapt to the foreseen changes will be limited. More communication between the scientific community and policymakers is needed to relay knowledge about the impacts of changes in glaciers on the region’s hydrology, environment and livelihoods.

New Report Documents Pakistan’s Water Insecurity

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A map of the mean annual precipitation in Pakistan, illustrating the country’s aridity (Source: United Nations Development Programme).

Water security is a pervasive issue in Pakistan, a largely arid country. The majority of the country receives less than 300mm of rain per year, while a small region in the north receives upwards of 1000 mm per year. The Indus River provides much of the water to the area, but its flow is irregular due to the variable precipitation. Moreover, the river originates partly in Pakistan and partly in India, creating additional political challenges that stem from the decades-long history of tension between the two countries.

Last month, the United Nations Development Programme released a Development Advocate Pakistan report that describes the uncertain future of water in Pakistan, which is impacted by changing climate and melting glaciers, as well as political issues with neighboring India. The report’s editors suggest several ways to increase water stability in Pakistan. They advise increasing public awareness because the lack of trust stems in part from incomplete access to data and information. They also recommend high efficiency irrigation systems and updating academic curriculum in the country to include sustainable development.

Tharparkar1_Pakistan
A road passes through Tharparkar, a region in southern Pakistan (Source: Rcbutcher/Creative Commons).

As the report describes, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan provides most of the water in the glaciated parts of the country. Altitudes exceed 5000 meters with annual snowfall of approximately 5000 millimeters in the highest regions. This zone is the largest area of perennial glaciers outside the polar regions; nearly one third of the Gilgit-Baltistan area is glaciated. The meltwater of these glaciers contribute a massive volume of freshwater, which forms a significant component of the flow into the Indus River.

The variability of river flows as a result of monsoon seasons has led to water crises and conflicts between provinces, as well as neighboring countries. The Indus Water Treaty has allowed for peaceful relations between Pakistan and its neighbor India for the past 40 years. As Justin Rowlatt describes in his BBC report from September 2016, the Indus Water Treaty has survived two wars and numerous military impasses between the two countries. However, the increased water stress in the Indus River basin since the early 1990s has strained the treaty. 

Coverage of the UNDP report in Indian and Pakistani newspapers has unsurprisingly varied. A recent article in the Times of India covering the report emphasized Pakistan’s negligence and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Treaty. An article in the Hindustan Times reports that, “Pakistan has cleverly employed the IWT to have its cake and eat it too” by receiving the larger amount of water the treaty allots for downstream States, while also using the treaty to sustain conflict with India.

The coverage of the issue by Pakistani newspapers is sparser. In one editorial published in Pakistan Today, the author calls the UNDP report a “wake-up call” and urges cooperation between Pakistan and India to resolve the dispute.

The treaty itself fails to address two important issues. The first is that it does not provide for a division of water during shortages in the dry years between India and Pakistan. The second is that it does not discuss the cumulative impact of reservoirs on the flows of the Chenab River, a major tributary of the Indus, into Pakistan.

On a fundamental level, the government of Pakistan does not think the Indus Water Treaty is effective because its people are not satisfied with the amount of water received, but the government of India does not wish to amend the treaty or address water conflict between the countries in other contexts. The treaty allows India to create reservoirs on nearby rivers to store water for hydropower and flood shortages. This provision has created conflicts between Pakistan and India, since India controls the flow of most of these dams and reservoirs.

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The Jhelum River in Pakistan (Source: Myasinilyas/Creative Commons).

The Jhelum River also presents a problem to Pakistan’s water security. The river is controlled by India, but is a major source of irrigation and hydropower for Pakistan. If India were to close the gates of the river for long periods, it would have a detrimental impact on Pakistan. As relations between Pakistan and India continue to decline, India has threatened to use water as a political weapon. The “possibility of turning off the taps has been raised before, but never as forcefully as this,” explains Rowlatt in his BBC article,

Pakistan itself contributes to the dysfunction of the treaty. As the editors explain in the UNDP report, “Pakistan’s negligence in conducting sound analysis and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Commission of World Bank” has slowed progress.

The Times of India reports that following the release of the UNDP report, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva to discuss the dispute over the Indus Water Treaty. Sharif hopes that a Court of Arbitration helps solve the dispute, while the government of India requested the World Bank nominate a neutral expert to solve the disagreement. The World Bank Group is a signatory to the Treaty and has encouraged both India and Pakistan to agree to mediation on the issue. It is clear that without some sort of institutional change, Pakistan’s water security will become less certain as climate continues to change and tensions with India escalate.