Perils of water struggle between Pakistan and India


Meandering Indus River

When the viceroy-in-hurry Mountbatten entrusted Cyril Radcliffe, a British barrister completely alien to the subcontinent, to devise its physical partition plan, no one envisaged that physical features of a land also include water and that its flow could not be ‘partitioned’. It was the surreal spirit of the heady days in 1947 that quelled all rationality but the worst part was complete ignorance about settling water flows between the parts of the subcontinent that became Pakistan and the areas that comprised India. The irony is that the British who designed the largest canal system in the subcontinent preferred closing their eyes about this vital aspect.

The folly of the British and heightening alienation between Hindu and Muslim political leaderships resulted in a hastily divided subcontinent and the process was so faulty that within a year both the new countries were at daggers drawn over water flows. On 1st April 1948, India stopped supply of water to Pakistan from every canal and in wake of strong protests from Pakistan signed an interim agreement for restoring supply on 4th May 1948. The arrangement was a temporary solution adding another dimension to Indo-Pak rivalry. Pakistan had the singular misfortune of being the lower riparian and India did not shy away from exploiting the situation. Pakistan hinted that it may go to war if the water flows were stopped by India and rightfully so because water flowing down was vital for its agriculture and being an agrarian country, farming was its mainstay.

India refused to acknowledge the distinction between sovereign territory and the sovereignty over resources that pass through the subject territory and insisted upon following the broadly defined tenets of sovereign control. Indian insistence and the perilous consequences for Pakistan evoked international worries and saner minds realised that water flows cannot be controlled through border controls and need an appropriate mechanism to regulate them. The international community could not afford to ignore the inherent dangers in the situation to linger and efforts to sort this issue out began.

Signing of Indus Water Treaty in 1960

The World Bank became the interlocutor and it took a bitter thirteen years to devise a formula for regulating water flows that became the famous Indus Water Treaty that was aimed to rectify the anomalies of partition. Unfortunately, IWT was an engineering contraption not adequately equipped to tackle the intricate question of manipulating water flows according to the policy of the upper riparian. Indian government was provided a chance to claim ‘sovereignty’ over flowing waters in direct contrast to the nature of the issue. India relishes the position of ‘allowing’ water to flow down to Pakistan but keeps the issue in a prickly shape causing jitteriness in Pakistan.

The IWT has divided rivers between the two countries. India has the exclusive right to water from the three eastern rivers — Ravi, Sutlej and Chenab — a right that Pakistan has never disputed. Yet, the Hindutva-driven BJP government in India is now sowing a new narrative to bilateral water discourse. After the Pulawama incident this narrative came into practical play when an Indian cabinet minister announced that his country was stopping water to Pakistan from the eastern rivers.  Though Pakistan has downplayed it by saying that the water in these rivers belonged to India and that its volume is approximately 0.5 MAF, a miniscule quantity for the Indus River System that has over 140 MAF of annual water flow.

The latest rumpus has brought to fore many significant doubts needed to be addressed as soon as possible. The first point to be rammed home is that the Indian perception regarding ‘owning’ rivers must be altered. River systems are flowing examples of life and they breed lively eco-systems full of living organisms. Flowing waters are self-contained entities and cannot be stopped from living their own lives. Water is a human right and it cannot be monopolised by states as their sovereign attribute. Pakistan qualifies for unhindered water flowing down towards it as a matter of fulfilling the tenets of human rights. Water is the requirement of not only the existing generation but also the future generations that cannot be deprived of this resource.


On technical grounds Pakistan cannot dismiss Indian restriction on water flow by declaring it of no consequence. Pakistan on an average receives about 3.5 MAF for the Kharif and a little less than 1 MAF for Rabi seasons in the Ravi and almost 2 MAF in Kharif and 0.5 for Rabi season in the Sutlej. This water is absolutely important for groundwater recharging, particularly the one received in Rabi that is the non-monsoon period. It should also be kept in view that Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej rivers at times receive much higher quantities of water at Marala, Madhopur, and Ferozepur stations where the incoming water is first measured in Pakistan.

The quantity of discharge of water is important for recharging groundwater and the signs of in its depletion are already apparent in areas such as Lahore where Ravi has dried out. Ravi was a strong source of groundwater recharging due to its regular share of water flowing down along with monsoon rains. The water that India has the intention of withholding also takes care of the off-season flushing of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants that are callously added to the tributaries of Sutlej and Ravi through seasonal freshwater streams. Any reduction in water flow will push these pollutants to the groundwater aquifers that would deny the system its natural ability to flush and cleanse itself.

It has been duly noted that a string of upstream infrastructural development in India on these rivers has resulted in a steady decline in water flows to Pakistan as is evident by the decline in Ravi that dropped from11 MAF in 1976 to less than 3 MAF in 2018 and from little less than 9 MAF in Sutlej to about 3 MAF during the same period. The declining water quantities are not merely a result of the recently erected infrastructure but are also partially attributable to weaker monsoon rainfall due to climate change in the northern and eastern states of India such as Haryana and Punjab causing frequent droughts, heavy groundwater extraction and growing water scarcity.

Haryana and Punjab extract more groundwater than recharged by monsoon rains resulting in an increased pressure to divert water from the Indus basin to meet the immediate political needs of the electoral politics to woo the farming communities in India.  The more inefficient the water usage is in these two states, the greater the pressure on the Indian Union government to divert water from the basin. Successive governments in India have found it easier to go for new infrastructure development or promise out-of-basin diversions than to withdraw subsidies, introduce pricing mechanisms or to engage with the farming communities to conserve water along with pricing groundwater.

Himalayan water sources

To the perils of water distribution mechanism in the subcontinent are added new encumbrances such as domestic politics, water usage practices, climate change, and electoral political imperatives that appear almost beyond the capacity of political elements to solve. Owing to the intricate nature of the matter governments find it easy to shift the blame towards trans-boundary factors without realising that such blame game will not sort out the problem. The need is for renewal of international interlocution with renewed perceptive about the entire subject of water and its flows.

Another angle to the simmering issue of water flows is added now with the growing interest of China in the modernisation of agriculture in Pakistan and it is getting increasingly evident that that China may play an important role in Indus basin. CPEC has already laid-out agricultural plans that will heavily depend on water flows in rivers and Indian intransigence may upset Chinese designs. India is all-out in its opposition to CPEC and China is not comfortable with Indian designs. The chances are growing by the day of an impending confrontation on the water flows emanating from the Himalayan range. TW

M Ali Siddiqi is a writer who contributes to leading periodicals


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