Will water scarcity cause conflict?

Published: July 31, 2012
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The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne 
syed.ali@tribune.com.pk

The writer is a development consultant and a PhD student at the University of Melbourne [email protected]

The water issue is gaining increasing prominence in bilateral relations between Pakistan and India. Recent disputes over the Baglihar and Kishanganga dams have placed great strain on the long-standing water sharing arrangement based on the Indus Water Treaty. As water stress becomes an increasingly glaring reality, the whole world will be watching how our nuclear armed countries choose to address this challenge.

The water sharing problem in the Indian subcontinent, in fact, resonates with water stress related tensions across many other countries which share waterways, including the Nile and the Mekong. As population, agricultural and energy generation pressures mount, water supply in all these shared water basins is set to become more difficult.

Water availability across our part of the world is already unpredictable due to climate changes with a simultaneous increase in major flooding and severe droughts. A Dutch study has estimated that shrinking Himalayan glaciers will reduce the flow of water to the Indus by around eight per cent over the next four decades. This is not a good sign for Pakistan, which is already described by the UN as one of the world’s “hotspots” as far as water shortages are concerned.

The 1960 Indus Water Basin Treaty, signed at a time when India and Pakistan both had abundant water is now outdated. The Indus Water Treaty gave Pakistan rights over the Indus Valley’s three western rivers, while India controls the three rivers to the east. India has initiated several dam and power station projects on the western rivers, fuelling fears that these activities will alter water flows across the border. India dismisses Pakistan’s fears as paranoia, yet, it too fears that China may attempt to change the course of the Tsangpo/Brahmaputra River in Tibet. India also has tensions with Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal over water sharing.

The existing Indo-Pak water sharing paradigm may no longer be able to address the emergent tensions. Despite numerous rounds of bilateral talks, India and Pakistan are back in the Permanent Court of Arbitration over Indian dam building aspirations in Kashmir.

More innovative approaches have called for an integrated approach towards water management instead of trying to merely divide waters of the Indus basin. Such an approach would not only be more sensitive to the ecological and environmental challenges taking place in the region, but potentially help nudge our neighbouring countries towards broader cooperation as well.

Positive confidence building steps would include greater information sharing concerning river flows. Launching joint Indo-Pak dam ventures such as the Tala Hydroelectric Project, recently initiated between India and Bhutan, would be a further step in the direction of increased cooperation.

Conversely, it is crucial to acknowledge that our existing water woes are being compounded due to wastage, inefficient use and contamination. Water infrastructure systems, such as canals and pipes used to irrigate farm lands, are falling apart due to lack of adequate attention. Application of donor-backed policies like charging flat rates for irrigational water usage (as in Punjab) have not been able to generate the required resources to maintain the irrigational infrastructure, nor do they help ensure that poorer farmers are spared the brunt of revenue collection, or ensured better access to existing water supplies.

The untenable strain on groundwater is another serious issue. According to the World Bank, Indian aquifers are reaching critical conditions despite the fact that over 60 per cent of irrigated agriculture and 85 per cent of drinking water supplies in the country depend on groundwater. The groundwater situation in Pakistan is no better, yet, anyone with the money to pay for diesel can pump out as much water as they like. In fact, Pakistan has been keen to lease out vast tracts of its agricultural land to enable agribusiness companies produce food for Gulf states by tapping even deeper into already shrivelling water aquifers.

Conservation of groundwater aquifers as well as more efficient use of freshwater derived from rivers within water stressed countries, as well as across them, is the only way to ensure that the frightful projection of catastrophic regional water wars does not materialise.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 1st, 2012.

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Reader Comments (25)

  • Max
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:24PM

    Yes! Scarcity of this resource can lead to war. Both parties have to carefully assess the pros and cons of any such conflict and act in a rational manner. Implicit or explicit threats from state and non-state yahoos will jeopardize the peace process.
    Ejaz Haider has also touched on the same issue from another perspective. Pakistan needs to keep religious fanatics under leash. They are destined to create mischief and it will not be in the interest of any party to let them loose. Indian policy-makers have to look and understand this issue in a broader perspective.Recommend

  • gp65
    Jul 31, 2012 - 11:48PM

    Poorly argued. The author has joined many unrelated issues. Further the conclusions drawn from the facts that the author himself presents are not logical.

    There are 2 parts to addressing water resources in India and Pakistan:
    1) Divide the water of shared rivers in a fair manner between India and Pakistan.
    2) Each country to have water conservation projects to optimally utilize the water that is part of its share.

    Indus Water Treaty only deals with the first part. It does not and cannot deal with the 2nd part which is within the sovereign realm of each country.

    The author indicates that since water is no longer plentiful as when the treaty was signed, the treaty itself is outdated. How so? As long as the division of water is fair – whether the water is plentiful or scarce, the treaty has continued to serve its purpose. The treaty does not guarantee abundance of water only a fair share to both countries.

    The author also says that Pakistan and India are currently in arbitration over IWT and points to tis as failure of the treaty. In fact it is the exact opposite. The treaty itself provides arbitration as a dispute resolution mechanism and this mechanism is being utilized. This in fact proves the relevance of the treaty and not to the fact that it is outdated.

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  • You Said It
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:36AM

    It is meaningless to suggest launching “joint” Indo-Pak dam ventures when there is no trust. Given that the IWT allows India to build dams on the western rivers, and Pakistan has repeatedly challenged that unsuccessfully, it is unlikely that any such “joint” venture will not lead to similar challenges.

    Besides, there’s the question of where these “joint” dams are located. We already have the rights to build as many dams as we want in Pakistani territory. Why would we then agree to any such “joint” dams in Pakistan. So that only leaves the question of “joint” dams in Indian territory. Its unlikely that India will agree to joint dams in Indian Kashmir without Pakistan agreeing to reciprocate through joint dams in AJK/Gilgit/Baltistan. This is politically impossible for both countries. Even if we get past that, there is the question of Pakistan’s incapability to provide its share of the finance for such projects. Finally, the IWT already allows India to build such dams without Pakistani cooperation provided it meets the treaty guidelines — so why would India share its dam resources with Pakistan instead of letting us unsuccessfully appeal to arbitration forums?

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  • Zalim Singh
    Aug 1, 2012 - 12:43AM

    the water belongs to India.

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  • Naresh
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:22AM

    Syed Mohammad Ali Esq. :
    .
    Pakistan’s progress from having a Per Capita Water Availability of 5.500 CBM in 1951 to about 1,100 CBM in 2012 is basically due to the Pakistani Population increasing Six Times in the stated Period.
    .
    God creates Humans not WATERS and as such it is imperative that Pakistan Immediately – if not earlier – take drastic steps to Control its “Runaway and Ballooning” Population
    CheersRecommend

  • Abbas, John
    Aug 1, 2012 - 3:13AM

    Time to get sweet controlled anger revenge on Pakistan for Mumbai and Hafeez and Dawood. There is no need for blood to boil it can be just slowly heated for longer revenge. Pakistan deserves this fate…

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  • Nabeel
    Aug 1, 2012 - 4:52AM

    We need to move towards developing peaceful relations with India. Once we have peaceful relations then we can start talking about water sharing. If my neighbor has a farm he will more willing to share his water if I have friendly relations with him. Just simple advice any ten year kid could give.

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  • sabi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 5:04AM

    When ever right wing type people stick to certain issues,for that matter water issue between india- pakistan, authentcity of that particular issue become doubtful in my mind.And I have a logic for that and that is such people looking for every thing that can make it an issue for their existance in public.While that is so the issue in debate would be exagerated to the point where it will lose credebilty on the source of information.Too much contradictins create only confusions.Either I will lose my intrest in that particular isuue as useless or some time out of curiosty I will turn to some independant source of informations and use my commen sence to get to the point. On many a occasions it has helped me a lot.
    Now for instance indus water treaty and issue related to its smooth functioning are very hot in some circles.My question is why has India not stoped the water during peak of wars despite extreme internal pressure from rightest hindu wing and second why has not pakistan got enough support from concerned world bodies over it’s claimes.and finaly if there is more rain there is more water less rain less water.Anyway I’m not in a position to give India a free hand but there are some confusion too. May be somebody can give me some true informations before i lose my intrest on this issue and have my peace of mind.

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  • Aug 1, 2012 - 6:45AM

    Conflict will not solve this problem.

    Before engaging in war talk, it’s important for both India and Pakistan to significantly improve water use efficiency, particularly in agriculture.

    Out of the 169,384 billion cubic meters of water which was withdrawn since 2000, 96% was used for agricultural purposes, leaving 2% for domestic and another 2% for industrial use. By far the most water is used for flood irrigated agriculture. With the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system, Pakistan has harnessed the Indus River to transform 35.7 million acres for cultivation in otherwise arid conditions.

    It’s essential that Pakistani farmers change from wasteful flood irrigation to sprinklers and drip systems.

    http://www.riazhaq.com/2009/03/water-scarce-pakistan.html

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  • Aug 1, 2012 - 8:46AM

    Conflict will not solve any problems.

    It’s important for both India and Pakistan to significantly improve water use efficiency, particularly in agriculture.

    Out of the 169,384 billion cubic meters of water which was withdrawn since 2000, 96% was used for agricultural purposes, leaving 2% for domestic and another 2% for industrial use. By far the most water is used for flood irrigated agriculture. With the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system, Pakistan has harnessed the Indus River to transform 35.7 million acres for cultivation in otherwise arid conditions.

    It’s essential that Pakistani farmers change from wasteful flood irrigation to sprinklers and drip systems.

    http://www.riazhaq.com/2009/03/water-scarce-pakistan.html

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  • realist
    Aug 1, 2012 - 9:14AM

    After trying in vain to wrest Kashmir from India using the Kashmiri Muslim card, it is now using the water card. India would be well advised to not fall for such blackmail from Pakistan.

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  • Arijit Sharma
    Aug 1, 2012 - 11:16AM

    @sabi: ” …. My question is why has India not stoped the water during peak of wars despite extreme internal pressure from rightest hindu wing and … “

    That is because we are a civilized people.

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  • Indian
    Aug 1, 2012 - 1:23PM

    IWT is not wholly fair. 80 % of water in Indus river basin is allotted to Pakistan, and Indian states can use only 20 % for irrigation. There is lot of resentment in India. If the treaty is renegotiated the division should be 50-50.

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  • Hunter punter
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:33PM

    @ Author
    ” As water stress becomes an increasingly glaring reality, the whole world will be watching how our nuclear armed countries choose to address this challenge.”

    will both nuke each other?????
    Why do you even describe this as a “nucleur related” conflict??, when you know that in todays world, no one can nuke anyone els, unless he wants to kill his own country forever.
    Nuking a river means that pakistan will die a natural death, as its rivers and waters will suffer from intense poinsonour radiation.
    Water will neither start wars, nor will it be not addressed. But that will be thru treaties, already in place. If we cant agree to this one, how will we agree to a new one?
    Ejaz haider has written in todays ET regarding Hafeez Saeed and water and kashmir beiung the issues that that terorist harps on. India and pakistan are not political rivals, but just neighbours. Silly to expect India to be part of such debates.

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  • Kathy
    Aug 1, 2012 - 2:55PM

    If the same rules will apply on water share between China and India- once China changes the water flow, it is already mapping the water origin through satelliate technology, only then all parties in the region will be able to negotiate a reasonable solution.

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  • Manoj Joshi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 3:16PM

    Water is a depleting natural resource hence, a matter of grave concern for every nation and PAKISTAN is no exception. The future might see wars being fought for water. This isn’t a myth but a reality to be. Indo-Pak Relations in the future will depend more on the issues related to water and water sharing rather than Kashmir or other ethnic or religious issues. The question as to whether water scarcity will cause conflict cannot be answered as of now but cannot simply be overlooked as unimportant. Syed Mohammad Ali has voiced his apprehensions in the article ‘Will water scarcity cause conflict?’ and the apprehension cannot be simply overlooked as this is a future threat to India and Pakistan. The Indus River Treaty which had been signed at the time when the populations of India and Pakistan had been almost half of what they are at present hence the need to modify becomes all the more unavoidable for the two neighbours. As suggested by Syed Mohammad Ali that of a joint Indo-Pak Dam being constructed can and should be given a thought to and a solution should be worked out jointly by the Governments of India and Pakistan. The suggestion seems quite noble and worth being given consideration. Reading between the lines with regard to this sort of suggestion may not be the right approach. Besides joint working on a dam the two neighbours can also work on issues related to rain water harvesting, desert irrigation and prevention of unwarranted wastage of water besides checking water pilferage. Finally for the citizens of India and Pakistan a need to understand is that the kind of food that is eaten in this part of the continent i.e. Asia is more of spicy food and vegetables and pulses are prepared with a lot of gravy and this inevitably leads to increase in the consumption of water besides off course the climate in this part of the region being hot hence the water intake of a person tends to increase when compared to the other parts of the world. Hence, considering these factors a long term strategy is required to be chalked out for which the two nations must work on closely and on just and fair basis. The desired steps are essential in order to prevent any sort of conflict diplomatic or military in the future.Recommend

  • Manoj Joshi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 4:25PM

    Water is a depleting natural resource hence, a matter of grave concern for every nation and PAKISTAN is no exception. The future might see wars being fought for water. This isn’t a myth but a reality to be. Indo-Pak Relations in the future will depend more on the issues related to water and water sharing rather than Kashmir or other ethnic or religious issues. The question as to whether water scarcity will cause conflict cannot be answered as of now but cannot simply be overlooked as unimportant. Syed Mohammad Ali has voiced his apprehensions in the article ‘Will water scarcity cause conflict?’ and the apprehension cannot be simply overlooked as this is a future threat to India and Pakistan. The Indus River Treaty which had been signed at the time when the populations of India and Pakistan had been almost half of what they are at present hence the need to modify becomes all the more unavoidable for the two neighbours. As suggested by Syed Mohamma
    d Ali that of a joint Indo-Pak Dam being constructed can and should be given a thought to and a solution should be worked out jointly by the Governments of India and Pakistan. The suggestion seems quite noble and worth being given consideration. Reading between the lines with regard to this sort of suggestion may not be the right approach. Besides joint working on a dam the two neighbours can also work on issues related to rain water harvesting, desert irrigation and prevention of unwarranted wastage of water besides checking water pilferage. Finally for the citizens of India and Pakistan a need to understand is that the kind of food that is eaten in this part of the continent i.e. Asia is more of spicy food and vegetables and pulses are prepared with a lot of gravy and this inevitably leads to increase in the consumption of water besides off course the climate in this part of the region being hot hence the water intake of a person tends to increase when compared to the other parts of the world. Hence, considering these factors a long term strategy is required to be chalked out for which the two nations must work on closely and on just and fair basis. The desired steps are essential in order to prevent any sort of conflict diplomatic or military in the future.

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  • KT
    Aug 1, 2012 - 4:44PM

    I am a Pakistani. We get a lot of water through the monsoons and other seasons rains which cause flood and havoc every other year. If we had the common sense to build dams and not turn this into a senseless political issue raging for the last 3 or 4 decades, we would have had adequate water security as well as good flood defenses. Forget about India, Pakistan is its own worst enemy in this case (amongst many others).

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  • Rajendra Kalkhande
    Aug 1, 2012 - 4:47PM

    India should link water sharing with trade routes in all future negotiations. For water, geography favours India and for trade Pakistan. Pakistan is blocking India=s trade routes to Afghanistan and central Asia. Flow of goods and flow of waters are the same thing in my view. If Pakistan charges royalty for the gas or oil to flow through her territory, India should charge the same for the water to flow through India territory to Pakistan.

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  • KT
    Aug 1, 2012 - 5:15PM

    Also, building dams upstream does not necessarily mean restricting water supply indefinitely downstream. While India may route water from the dams for its own irrigation requirements, it has to drain excess back downstream to avoid risk of flooding its own areas. If we have sufficient dams downstream, we will have adequate water supply. Common sense again, has building Mangla and Terbela in Pakistan dried up Jehlum and Indus further downstream, NO. In addition to all this, steps need to be taken to reduce wastage and contamination that the author mentioned. Getting into another confrontation with India in this case is useless. There are a number of measures Pakistan can take which will ensure its water security and also provide prosperity to its people.

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  • Manoj Joshi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 7:11PM

    @KT:

    NO KT! India and Pakistan must learn to coexist and live with cooperation and not confrontation. I fully share your scepticism, distrust and antipathy but now it is time we renounce it and move forward with amity and trust. We are all a part of Asia.

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  • x
    Aug 1, 2012 - 7:31PM

    Why did we not build any dams?? Incompetence and short sightedness of our governments have been to blame for most of our problems. The PPP government was supposed to work on it, but ofcourse empty promises.

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  • sabi
    Aug 1, 2012 - 7:40PM

    As the time has passed so has the science developed.The scarsity of water because of rising population has given way to to develop better thechniques for irrigations saving thousands of cubic feet of water per acker or in other words to almost ten times less water consumption against flood irrigation.In some countries for example Israel irrigation is done on modern techniques such as sprinkling or dripp irrigation on very successful basis.The water shortage will eventually compell us to go for easier solutions such as adopting modern way of irrigations instead of going for war with no guarantee of more water but destruction and humilations.Those speaking of war scenario over water represent a sick mind attitude.Once the need arises to a criticle point the industy will be evetually developed making components at affordable price for modern irrigations.I don’t know about India but here in pakistan some farmers have started using modern techniques.I see it now a matter of time that this tried and tested methods of saving water overlaping old system of water consumption.

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  • KT
    Aug 1, 2012 - 9:46PM

    @Manoj Joshi
    My post is suggesting non-confrontation and cooperation. With both the countries dependent on the same resource both will have to act smarter and responsible in its use otherwise both will be sorry in the future. However, I am more critical of Pakistan on losing time and opportunities in the past to act smarter and more responsible and it seems that they still dont get the bigger picture.

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  • observer
    Aug 2, 2012 - 6:01PM

    Now that Agha Waqar has proved that water is better than Petrol, scarcity will certainly fuel wars.

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