The 1991 accord and water management

May 2021 brings about a fresh set of national security threats for Pakistan

Mehreen Naushad June 15, 2021
The writer is a LLM graduate from George Washington University and is currently a Research Associate at the Center for Law and Security


May 2021 brings about a fresh set of national security threats for Pakistan. It is at risk of acute water scarcity. The water predicament in Pakistan is aggravated by two primary reasons — climate change and water governance. The recent scare of water scarcity due to slow glacial runoff, and conflict between the provinces over the distribution of the Indus River water is a perfect example of the same. This article explores the challenges to water in Pakistan, in particular the management of water, and legally analyses the Pakistan Water Apportionment Accord 1991.

Of all the provinces, Sindh claims to be at a higher risk of the water crisis. On May 6, 2021, the Sindh Assembly asserted that the province is not receiving its due share of water as per the 1991 accord, and accused Punjab of diverting Sindh’s water share to water its own fields. On May 16, 2021, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) while increasing the water quota for Sindh rejected Sindh’s allegation of diverting its share of the water to Punjab. IRSA claimed that the supply of water within a province is the internal affair of that particular province, and as such should not be attributed to the federal government.

Water, in Pakistan, is constitutionally the subject matter of the provinces. Inter-provincial disputes over the distribution of water poses a great challenge for water management. The Pakistan Water Apportionment Accord 1991, although made great strides in resolving the issues of apportionment of water between the provinces, it failed to address the real issue of sharing water shortages caused conflicts between the upper and lower riparian. These conflicts are further exacerbated due to water scarcity caused by climate change, wastage of water due to outdated and poorly maintained water infrastructure for irrigation purposes, and availability of poor-quality water for public consumption, and lack of effective water management and governance.

Previously, water was allocated between the provinces on an ad hoc basis. The Pakistan Water Apportionment Accord 1991 apportioned specific shares of total allocable water to all of the provinces. Since the accord does not define the manner for calculating how much water will be allocated to the provinces, IRSA was established to regulate the implementation of the accord, and to develop operating rules for water allocation. Accordingly, IRSA has established a three-tier process for forecasting the volume of water that will be available to the provinces for the next crop season. Accordingly, the Operating Rules as developed by IRSA identify two thresholds, i.e., the average use of water from 1997-1982 proportions, and the baseline volume of water for allocation of water. However, these rules are complex and lack clarity. Consequently, the interpretation of the accord is a major source of conflict between the provinces.

The two major water conflicts that exist within Pakistan over the division of water and sharing of water shortages are between Punjab and Sindh, and between Sindh and Balochistan. Sindh as a lower riparian is in discord with Punjab, and Balochistan as a lower riparian of Sindh clashes with it over availability of water. It is evident that despite the country’s overall water situation, the upper riparian is at an advantage to take larger share of water in time of shortage and does not acknowledge the rights of the lower riparian in sharing water shortage equitably.

According to Punjab, at the time of the signing of the accord, Pakistan’s installed reservoir capacity has decreased since 1991 due to sedimentary buildup. It further argues that the apportioned baseline volume is dependent upon the construction of reservoirs, and as such in case of inflow below the baseline volume should be apportioned in accordance to the proportions of the 1977-1982 period. Whereas, Sindh takes a differing view to that of Punjab’s. It claims that the apportionment of water is unequivocal i.e. it is not contingent upon the construction of further reservoirs. Sindh holds that in case the inflow volume falls below the baseline volume, the shortage is to be adjusted ‘pro-rata’ amongst the provinces, the accord does not introduce different apportionment for shortages.

Furthermore, the Council of Common Interest (CCI) under the Constitution of Pakistan was designated to hear any complaints about water interference. The CCI and the 1991 accord were meant to create a foundation for collective inter-provincial action on water. However, due to various factors including the wide gap between Punjab and the other provinces, the same was not successful.

Accordingly, there is a strong need for collective inter-provincial action to prevent water scarcity. It is imperative that Pakistan ensures equitable distribution of water among the provinces, including Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. This requires an integrated approach beyond the mere construction of more dams such as fully implementing the 1991 accord, reconstituting the CCI or establishing an oversight committee with the authority to settle water disputes, greater allocation of resources for improved water infrastructure and capacity building of water management institutions such as IRSA.

Furthermore, the Operating Rules formulated by IRSA lack clarity and seem to be inconsistent with the 1991 accord. The 1991 accord is inflexible in the sense that it uses the average flow of water during the 1977-1982 period to set the water allocation formula. Furthermore, it also fails to specify the rules for control structures. Hence, it would be useful to improve the operating rules within the framework of the accord.

Inter-provincial disputes on water can be resolved by amending the 1991 accord to ensure that the provinces receive their share of water entitlement, maintain transparency and prevent wastage of water. Furthermore, it is important to that a meticulously calibrated system is put in place for measuring water inflows, storage and outflow. In addition to this, the measurement system must be audited by an impartial and independent party, and all reports should be made transparent for the public and relevant stakeholders to scrutinise. With respect to dams, the government should explore alternative options to the construction of dams on the Indus River such as water storages both on the Indus basin and outside the Indus basin. In case of constructing a dam on the Indus River, it is pertinent that the government seeks consensus from all relevant stakeholders through policy dialogue.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 15h, 2021.

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