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.
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.
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.