Water shortages threaten renewed conflict between Pakistan, India

by Shahid Husain | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 2 August 2011 15:59 GMT
As population growth and climate change reduce the amount of water available to Pakistanis, water disputes with India are growing

KARACHI, Pakistan (AlertNet) – As population growth and climate change increase competition for water around the world, India and Pakistan may find water a growing source of conflict, analysts say.

The two South Asian countries have a long history of tensions over issues as diverse as terrorist attacks and rights to Kashmir. Diplomatic initiatives have helped reduced these tensions in recent years.

But given that India and Pakistan share numerous rivers, some experts think that the issue of water supplies could lead to renewed conflict, making water conservation an even more urgent priority.

Water is clearly in increasingly short supply in India and Pakistan. Per capita water availability in Pakistan has fallen by nearly 75 percent over the last 60 years, in part because of rapid population growth. The country is seen as having too few dams and reservoirs to hold water supplies, and agricultural production is threatened by a lack of water.

Nasim A. Khan, an academic and former secretary of Pakistan’s Alternative Energy Development Board, sees the territorial dispute between Pakistan and India over Kashmir as in part a fight for water resources, and is concerned by India’s construction of dams in the part of the territory that it controls.

“The roots of the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus (rivers) are in Kashmir, and any foul play can create tremendous differences,” Khan said, referring to India’s construction of dams on these rivers over the past two decades.


Khan maintains India has depleted water supplies from two rivers, the Ravi and Sutlej, which have their sources in India but flow into north-east Pakistan, as well as from the Beas, an Indian tributary of the Sutlej. 

“The Sutlej and Beas are already dry, and the Ravi is partially dry. All water is being stopped in India,” Khan said.

The Indus Water Treaty, signed by Pakistan and India in 1960, reserves the waters of the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus for Pakistan, while the Ravi and Sutlej are reserved for India

India’s dam building in Kashmir, however, has raised suspicions in Pakistan that it is taking an unfair share of the waters of the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus, Khan said.

“India continues to violate this treaty by consuming more water and building dams. Pakistan has raised this concern with the World Bank,” he said.

Indian officials maintain they are operating within the boundaries of the Indus Water Treaty, though the treaty is widely viewed within Pakistan as favouring India. World Bank mediation of one dispute over dam building was decided in 2007 in India’s favour.

Pakistan is constructing several dams of its own on rivers in the area of Kashmir that it controls, as well as in the country’s northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Paul Brown, a British journalist who has written books on climate issues, says the governments of countries such as India and Pakistan need to keep water from becoming one more weapon in their geopolitical rivalries.

“They need to regard water as a precious resource and a human right that has to be shared between nations,” Brown said. In part, this is to set a good example to the people most affected by potential water shortages.

“If supplies run low for irrigation or drinking water, local populations are likely to take the law into their own hands and grab what water is available. This could lead to serious local tensions getting out of control," Brown said.


Brown believes that water conservation, especially through more efficient irrigation and treatment of waste water, can help relieve the pressure on supplies.

Khan sees the provinces of Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan as particularly vulnerable to water shortages, compared to the northern parts of the country.

Pakistan’s Indus River System Authority is tasked with addressing questions of water apportionment between provinces.

Alongside political mediation, Khan also sees hope in technological advances.

“Pakistan must strive to develop low-cost reverse osmosis technology to convert sub-surface brackish water into potable water. And for the lower part of Sindh and the coastal belt of Balochistan, seawater reverse osmosis can reduce conflict” over water resources, Khan said.

Haris Gazdar, a development economist in Pakistan who works for the Collective for Social Sciences, a Karachi-based independent think tank, holds out hope that conflict over water supplies can be avoided if conservation efforts are stepped up.

"In theory there is no reason why more water cannot be made available. (But) conservation and management require not only investment but changes in social and political organization and technology,” he said.

Shahid Husain is a special correspondent for Pakistan's national English daily The News. He is also Pakistan bureau chief for The Sunday Indian.

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