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Water crisis – from bad to worse

Pakistan is blessed with the most abundant of geological resources and its geostrategic position makes it one of the most influential countries in the region, yet, as there is always a flip side to the equation and autonomy in water resources is not one of them. By far, among the most critical threats to the nation is the problem of water shortage. According to experts, there will be an acute shortage of drinking as well as irrigation water in Pakistan by 2025 and, if the situation goes unchecked, there is the probability of a complete drought-like position by 2040, which would turn all fertile lands into deserts. Everything is on stake here. There is no time for respite or procrastination. This debacle has two distinct facets; the internal maladministration, and second, the tacit anti-Pakistan agenda of India. Both need to be tackled simultaneously if the calamity is to be averted.

Briefly looking at the source of the contention, history goes back to pre-partition Rad Cliff commission that decided the boundaries of the two nations. At the time of independence, in the geographical context, all six major rivers, i.e, Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum and Indus, have their sources in India. It means that the Government of India could control the flow of water to Pakistan. In technical terms, India became the upper riparian state and Pakistan became the lower riparian state when it came to water resources. The riparian part meant the flow of water from top to bottom towards the Southern part of South East Asia. Bitter conflicts kept occurring until the World Bank took up the noble task of arbitration among the two countries. After thorough deliberation, the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was agreed upon between General Ayub Khan and Jawarlal Nehru in 1960. The Eastern rivers, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas were allocated to India and the Western rivers, namely, Jhelum, Chenab and Indus are allocated for Pakistan. Further, the rivers could be used by either country in a way that the flow of water would not be impeded. This included agriculture and domestic uses. The contention was out of sight from 1960 to 1999. As a turn in water politics, India opted to reignite the controversy as a diplomatic bargaining tool.

The first violation came in the form of construction of Baglehar dam on Chenab in 1999. There were long rounds of the Permanent Indus Water Commission which turned out to be inconclusive. In 2016, Narendra Modi openly challenged the IWT and announced the review of articles in favor of Pakistan. In a flagrant display, he commented, “blood and water cannot flow side by side.” In recent years, India began construction of Kishan Ganga, Sawalkot, Ratle dams which directly affected the water supply of Chenaband Jhelum combined. As a roundup of the situation, these actions are a clear violation of the following International Conventions:

  1. The United Nations Charter
  2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  3. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
  4. The United Nations Water Resources Convention
  5. The Stockholm Declaration

Apart from violating the flow of Pakistani rivers, India has also vowed to block the spill-overs of Ravi, Sutlej and Beas which trickles down in Pakistan. This water is surplus of what is used by Indian Government for Power Generation and Agriculture. The strategy is to divert the spill-over towards the Indian Punjab and Haryana. This would actively damage the agriculture in Punjab to a large extent and further reduce the sub-soil water levels. As of 2018, the World Bank has miserably failed to address any concerns from Pakistan. The United Nations has also not been able to produce any credible pressure on the Indian government. It seems the resolution to the issue lies elsewhere for might is the only right in the world of international affairs.


Coming to another side of the equation, while India has been scrupulously considering every minute detail and making a case on diplomatic as well as practical basis against its neighbor, Pakistan government has slept over the oncoming disaster for decades. On the internal front, Pakistan failed to realize the gravity of the situation. Mounting the international diplomatic pressure on India was one factor, Pakistan could not predict and act over the basic counter-strategy against the crisis. Water resources and construction of dams in Pakistan became a point of political debate. Kalabagh Dam and Diamer-Bhasha dam repeatedly became disputed projects. Political parties could not come to an amicable solution and even the construction of smaller dams and power projects for storage of water are not upto the requirements. Better late than never, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has taken the initiative for collecting funds from domestic and foreign sources for funds in order to build a Dam. Financial experts are calling it the Chanda model (charity money) which is unheard of in other nations to build a project of national importance. Only time will tell if this venture will bear any fruit.

Now, the new Government of Pakistan has taken the mantle and initiating infrastructure and finance projects to mitigate the damages of the upcoming water crisis. As per UN statistics, Pakistan is the fourth largest consumer of water in the world. Also, only 7 percent of water entering into its territories is retained whereas India is able to retain around 30 percent. Around 10 million acre feet of water has reduced by Indian dams and the sub-soil waters are also receding. Overall, the situation is nothing short of disastrous.

As pointed out earlier, everything should be on the table for the Pakistani people when it comes to this water catastrophe. The litigation war needs to be filed before international forums but apparently, this diplomatic solution seems to be in vain. As India vows for a seat on the UN security council as a big player, International Government Organizations are inadequately empowered to take on a country like India. Second option available with Pakistan is partnering with China. As India is an upper riparian state to Pakistan, China is an upper riparian state to India. The rivers irrigating Assam and Arunchal Pradesh come from the main river Brahmaputra, which is in turn originates in Yarling Tsangoriver in China. Already, China has blocked some of the rivers towards India as no treaty nor any agreement exists on its utilization by either country. Last but the least desirable option is not recommended but is obvious, that if this crisis is not averted through internal or external mechanisms, there is bound to be a military conflict. Can the world afford an armed conflict over necessities of life between two nuclear powered nations? As a philosopher once said, “we are free to make choices, but we are not free from the consequences of those choices”…

(The writer is Chairman of Jinnah Rafi Foundation)

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