Climate crisis and water diplomacy | Political economics

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Several scientific studies have shown that the climate change crisis is real. The recently released Global Food Policy Report 2022 warned that “summer heat waves are expected to increase at a rate of 0.71 days per decade in the country [Pakistan]. In India, it is estimated to triple or quadruple by 2100… water scarcity in Pakistan is expected to worsen with climate change. Glaciers in the Himalayas, an important source of rivers in South Asia, have lost more mass since 2000 than during the entire 20th century… Of the five basins in the world where GDP losses from water scarcity are expected being the highest, three (Indus, Sabarmati and Ganges-Brahmaputra) are in South Asia. In the Indus basin alone, GDP losses by 2100 are expected to exceed $5 trillion.

Pakistan has various ecological regions, ranging from mountains in the north to a coastal zone in the south. Its glaciers are melting rapidly due to rising temperatures leading to the formation of 3,044 glacial lakes in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Of these, 33 glacial lakes have been assessed as glacial lake overflow (GLOF) prone. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), more than 7.1 million people in the UK and KP are vulnerable due to their low economic status. In addition, Pakistan’s water resources are under enormous pressure.

Rapid population growth has made Pakistan a water-scarce country. This can lead to food insecurity for marginalized communities. According to the National Water Policy (2018), surface water availability per capita increased from 5,260 m3 per year in 1951 at about 1,000 m3 in 2016. This is expected to decrease further to 860 cubic meters by 2025, marking Pakistan’s transition from a water-stressed country to a water-scarce country. 1,000 cubic meters of water per inhabitant per year are needed to avoid consequences on food and health.

Currently, Pakistan’s freshwater resources stand at 176 million acre-feet (MAF). Fresh water is available through the Indus river system consisting of five main rivers: Indus (44%), Chenab (19%), Jhelum (16%), Kabul River (16%) and others (5%) . Snowmelt and monsoon rains supply fresh water to the Indus River and its tributaries. The Indus River is the main source of irrigation for 80 percent of agricultural land, covering an area of ​​21.5 million hectares. Pakistan ranks fourth among the countries with the largest irrigated area. Its contiguous irrigation network is the largest in the world.

Pakistan is essentially an agrarian economy. Most of its fresh water (95 percent) is used in irrigated agriculture. The rest is used for domestic and industrial uses. Operationally, however, less than 40% of the water is actually used for irrigation. The rest is lost in transport and application in the field. Population growth and exponential urbanization, water-intensive agricultural practices, unsustainable groundwater extraction, and erratic rainfall due to regional climate changes are among the major water stressors in Pakistan.

It is time for Indian and Pakistani authorities to take the Indus Waters Treaty seriously and come together to find workable solutions within its framework.

India has traditionally relied on water sources from disputed Jammu and Kashmir for irrigation in its northern states, including Punjab.

When India stopped the flow of water to Pakistan in May 1948, the latter not only protested, but claimed ownership of the Indus basin on the basis of “prior appropriation”.

The water crisis attracted global attention and the United States interacted with India and Pakistan in the early 1950s. As a result, the two countries signed the Indus Waters Treaty ( IWT) in 1960. The IWT went beyond the Linienthalian cooperative framework and instead divided the rivers so that the water of three eastern rivers was under Indian suzerainty, although Pakistan was to use those waters. for irrigation purposes for the first 10 years. The three western rivers came under the exclusive control of Pakistan, although India could use these waters for hydroelectric power generation as long as the water flow remained uninterrupted. Despite opposition from nationalist lobbies in both countries, the arrangement was applauded around the world.

The treaty survived hostility and wars between India and Pakistan, but failed to deter India from interfering in the Indus Basin flows. In 1999, the regular period of water management was disrupted when India announced its intention to build the Baghliar dam on the Chenab. Pakistan brought its concerns to the Standing Indus Commission, but its members (from both countries) could not reach a consensus.

Eventually Pakistan approached the World Bank which came out in favor of the dam. India has started construction of other works including Kishanganga Project, Ratle, Sawalkot Dams and Wullar Dam on Western Rivers, that’s to say, Chenab and Jhelum, in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan objected because the dams can impact the water flow of the Chenab and Jhelum rivers. Pakistan has seized the International Court of Arbitration against the Kishanganga project. The tribunal partially ruled in favor of Pakistan; however, he authorized the construction of the dam, urging India to comply with the IWT’s requirement of minimum water flow in the relevant river.

India is said to be working on more hydropower projects, including the Pakal Dul Dam. India’s unilateral actions in the Indus basin not only worsen the water relations between the two countries, but also erode mutual trust. The other day, the Indo-Pakistani water bureaucracies held a meeting in New Delhi to discuss concerns over the Indus Waters Treaty.

Being a low-lying riverine state, Pakistan is threatened by India’s plans for projects on western rivers. Pakistan is a predominantly agrarian economy. Nearly 80% of its irrigation water comes from the Indus river system. About 45 percent of the population is employed in the agricultural sector. Pakistan’s irrigation system consists of canals and dams fed by water from western tributaries. Any action by India to disrupt the flow of water in the said rivers ultimately impacts the availability of water in the country’s system of dams and canals.

It is time for Indian and Pakistani authorities to take the IWT seriously and come together to find workable solutions to the problems within its framework. If the trust deficit and inflexibility between neighbors is not reversed, it will further aggravate regional security problems.


Professor Dr. Muhammad Fahim Khokhar holds a PhD and three post-docs in environmental sciences from Germany and France. He has worked on various European climate projects such as NOVAAC, GEMS and MACC. Currently, he heads the Institute of Environmental Science and Engineering, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Islamabad and a research group called C-CARGO (Climate Change and Atmospheric Research Group). He can be contacted at [email protected]

Dr. Ejaz Hussain holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Heidelberg and a post-doctorate from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright Scholar and Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Iqra University in Islamabad. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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