Water is a basic human right because it is essential for human survival. Therefore, the provision and maintenance of accessible clean drinking water are central to a healthy and stable society. However, many countries now suffer from acute water scarcity, with 2.2 billion still lacking access to safely managed water.
A general issue of water accessibility is the sharing of freshwater resources. Nowhere is this more apparent than in South Asia, most notably between India and Pakistan. Already a relationship full of social, religious and territorial tensions, the question of water supply adds another dangerous element to an already fractious relationship. For the past sixty years, the Indus Valley Treaty, which divides the six major rivers of the Indus basin between Pakistan and India, has dictated freshwater resources. However, this division has fed into territorial tensions, with the Chenab and the Jhelum’s waters awarded to Pakistan under the IWT flowing through Indian administered Kashmir before Pakistan. As a result, the supply of water has played a crucial role in the ongoing territorial dispute over the region of Kashmir. Tensions have become more palpable over the past two decades, with India and Pakistan voicing their displeasure at the IWT and India in 2016 and 2019 threatening to restrict water flow as a punitive action response to terrorist attacks in the region.
This article will explore the causes of this evolving crisis and then consider the likelihood of a conflict ensuing over the Indus Valley basin’s water sources’ perceived ownership. Subsequently, we will contest that despite the propensity for conflict, there is an opportunity for a new agreement that promotes cooperation and empowers localised action which could form the basis of a new water-secure Asia.
Infrastructure, Agriculture and mismanagement:
Both India and Pakistan are water insecure. This issue has become increasingly acute throughout Asia, where rapid industrialisation, urban development, and population growth have increased water scarcity. According to research set out by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), water scarcity will increase in 74 to 86 per cent of regions in Asia, with about 40 per cent of the continent’s population facing severe water scarcity in 2050. The result could be catastrophic for its populace, ruinous to agriculture and likely to stoke further tensions between the region’s leading powers, especially Pakistan, India, and China, all of whom share water sources.
The cause of the scarcity has been the proliferation of urban infrastructure, heavy demand of the agricultural industry and general mismanagement of water. As a result, there has been an increasing over-extraction of finite groundwater; water held underground in the soil or pores and crevices in rock. It is expected that in the long run, groundwater recharge is likely to decline significantly. In northern India, groundwater depletion is expected to increase by up to 75% in 2050 and Pakistan total water demand is expected to increase from 163 km3 in 2015 to 225 km3 in 2050. Even with a robust water distribution treaty and excellent water management, both countries would be at serious risk of demand outstripping supply. Therefore, it is a point of concern amongst many observers that unless both countries employ more robust management of their supplies, these projections will likely come to fruition sooner rather than later. The impact of climate change has compounded these issues further. As global temperatures increase, the Himalayan Glaciers, which feed the Indus Basin, are predicted to diminish, which despite likely leading to increased water flow in the short term, will heavily deplete groundwater, reducing water resources in the long term.
However, this is a tall task, with Pakistan and India condemned for mismanagement of their supplies. Shamsul Mulk, former chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority, said that water policy is non-existent in Pakistan. Policymakers act like “absentee landlords” of water, he added. “Because of this absentee landlordism, water has become the property of the landlords and the poor are deprived of their share,”. In a 2018 report from the International Monetary Fund ranked Pakistan third among countries facing severe water shortages. Evidence of how water has been commoditised and hoarded, placing millions at threat of water scarcity.
India has also been condemned for its mismanagement of water supplies. Issues of leakage losses, water pricing and a lack of proper maintenance of existing infrastructure have caused losses of almost 40 per cent of piped water in urban areas. A result of this has been worsening conditions for the poorest, with inadequate access to water and sanitation contributing to the death of 780,000 people each year. These developments are likely to worsen, with climate change leading to more erratic rain patterns and less intense monsoon seasons. Coupled with increased depletion for water-intense crop irrigation and unregulated urban development, especially within former natural habitats that formally served as sponges for monsoon rains, it has created a narrow gap between supply and demand the country highly susceptible to fluctuations like droughts or increased water withdrawals.
Undoubtedly, India and Pakistan’s water demand will only prove to increase over the next decade, putting increasing pressure on the Indus Valley Treaty as both states begin to consider the prospect of conflict over the Basin’s supply.
Due to mismanagement and increased demand, both countries have sought a scapegoat for their inadequacies and fallen on one another. Pakistan and India already have a long-strained relationship over the Indus River. Trans-boundary water conflicts occurred on all tributaries of the Indus River before India and Pakistan signed the Indus Water Treaty with the support of the World Bank in 1960. The treaty divides the six major rivers of the Indus basin, allocating three western rivers (the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) to Pakistan, with some water apportioned to India, and offered India exclusive rights to the three eastern rivers (Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas). This immediately created tension as the waters of the Chenab and the Jhelum—awarded to Pakistan under the IWT—flow through Indian-administered Kashmir before they flow into Pakistan, which means that negotiations over water are always bound by concerns over territorial sovereignty, with water supply increasingly becoming a point of tension.
The risk of conflict has also been exacerbated by the symbolic value water holds in Indian nationhood. Evidenced from India’s dam-building boom of the Nehru years, who famously called large dams the “temples of the new India.” This sentiment has continued under Prime Minister Modi, who in 2016 stated that he would be bringing water back to India. In the same year, India came close to tearing up the IWT. It blamed Pakistani militants for an attack on Indian army personnel in Indian-administered Kashmir, threatening to terminate the IWT as a result. In 2019 India again vowed to cut back on water flowing through its rivers to arid Pakistan. For Pakistan, this is very contentious, as, without the IWT, there would be no clear consensus over the distribution of the Basins freshwater resources. Pakistan has previously alleged that India violated the Indus Waters Treaty by initiating Baglehar Dam’s construction in 1999. Claiming further, India exasperated the issue by initiating new projects such as the Ratle Dam on the Chenab River and Kishan Ganga on the Neelum–Jhelum River. The Pakistani government argued that the completion of these projects could deprive the people of the Indus Basin region of access to water. This inherent suspicion and mistrust between the two states have been used to provoke anti-Indian sentiment in Pakistan, providing fertile ground for further hostility and conflict. As India continues to initiate the construction of Dams on the Indus River Basin’s western rivers, Pakistan’s allocated rivers down stream will suffer from reduced quantity, which will affect access for many of the people who regularly rely on these rivers for water. Therefore, if India continues with its ambitions of constructing dams and barrages, it is likely to cause severe harm to the fundamental rights of water access, food, sanitation, employment and healthcare for all dependents.
As demand increases and supply dwindles, the risk of conflict will only increase. The IWT has been roundly criticised as outdated and an obstruction to the effective exploitation of the Indus River’s resources. Critics have pointed out that the IWT does not promote the Basin’s collaborative development and does not consider the effect of climate change on overall water availability or regional distribution beyond the national level. Additionally, the lack of clear restrictions on how many dams India can build in the Indus Basin creates a loophole for India in overexploiting through excessive damming. It is clear that if Pakistan and India continue on the same trajectory a conflict, is likely to ensue as a result, with a new comprehensive agreement needed to assuage the risks.
Water conflicts may take forms and follow threat multipliers implicating any constituent components of water security. These multipliers include; water access, available water quantity or quality, livelihoods and development, water-related disasters, and political processes. All of these are apparent within the Indus Valley Basin. To avert conflict, a range of actions must be pursued to ensure a robust regime where each state is water secure without encroaching upon the water security of another state.
Indian and Pakistani policymakers are aware of the mounting issues of water stress in the Indus. Both countries declared national water policies emphasise the need for more effective and integrated water resources management and call for cooperation on transboundary waters. However, both countries water policies remain too highly securitised and tied to national survival. It has been shown in multiple studies that such predominating logics of “water nationalism” undermine the prospects for productive cooperation, thereby acting as a detriment increasing the vulnerability of both states to disruptive water and climate pressures in transboundary basins.
Therefore, cooperation rather than nationalism must lead to developing a new comprehensive agreement that works towards creating a more sustainable Indus Basin. However, for this to succeed, a multilevel approach which balances the existing top-down structure with a participatory governance structure at the local level should be implemented. This would include nonstate actors such as scientists, students, NGOs, civil society, private entities, and the Indus catchment area’s local people in the water discourse. Small scale, often localised nature-based efforts show one of the highest efficacy rates in combatting water scarcity and groundwater depletion. Supporting these initiatives will help ease water security and provide local rural communities in the region a reliable source of water. Community-based tree-planting or land-sculpting programmes have shown the highest short and long-term efficiency rates in increasing groundwater levels, soil fertility and agricultural income, and lowest environmental impact. Scaling up these projects will empower communities to ensure water security, increase resilience against natural disasters and climate change, and reduce poverty. Expanding stakeholder networks is an essential tool in building confidence as they can push governments to seek mutual gains and add a new dimension to the trust-building measures between the two nations.
The challenges presented by the boom in population, industrialisation and general water mismanagement have meant the next decade will prove essential in whether water will form a basis for cooperation or conflict in South Asia. As demand exponentially increases, water insecurity will increase, which will enhance tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. A robust agreement must be set out to ensure the Indus Valley Basin’s sustainability, as the current IWT seems too outdated for modern times. In accordance with a scaling up of small, localised water sustainability projects in Pakistan and India, a balance could be struck where localised projects supplement the general supply, ensuring millions are not thrown into water insecurity over the next decade. However, as territorial disputes over Kashmir continue, it is likely that the control of water supplies will become a focal point and with India already showing a readiness to weaponise the supply, it seems likely that a conflict could ensue as a result.