In the summer of 2010, a deadly heat wave hung over the parched desert lands of southern Pakistan. One of the increasingly regular floods had just devastated the province of Sindh. I traveled to the affected areas along the coast of the Arabian Sea; dwellings in the fishing community had been subsumed by the warm, salty waters, their boats – and livelihoods – wrecked. The once-thriving mangrove ecosystem that protected the local community had shrunk to a shadow of its former self, leaving the locals exposed to newly erratic weather forces.
The once mighty Indus that had flowed through these parts, its mouth expanding as it flowed into the sea, is now but a trickle. Those who follow the impact of weather patterns in these communities – such as the staff at the World Wildlife Fund, for whom I was writing a flood report – told me these new patterns are the result of geopolitical realities, and their effects are devastating.
In the days since that heatwave, India and Pakistan have bombed each other and stepped up threats of war. A quiet nagging concern now looms: a resource war. Thanks in part to poor management strategies and larger climate change concerns, India and Pakistan may soon be fighting over water.
Trans-boundary resource management is a complex undertaking, not least between two hostile countries, which have been at war at least three times in the 72 years since they (sort of) shook off the yoke of British colonization.
And yet, despite this bloody track record, the two have maintained relatively stable diplomatic relations over water management since the Indus Water Treaty came into effect in 1960. Since the Feb. 14 attack in Indian Kashmir that left 40 Indian Central Reserve police staff dead, the country’s Water Resources Minister, Nitin Gadkari, tweeted his government had “decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan.”
The 1960 treaty allots water from three rivers in the Indus River system – the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej – to India, while allocating the other three – the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum – to Pakistan. The headwaters of these rivers lie in the heavily disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir in India, and under the terms of the treaty India must ensure that the waters run freely across the dreaded Line of Control – a military line that is a de facto border between the countries.
While rhetoric in India such as Mr. Gadkari’s – similar to that of earlier statements by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that blood and water could not flow together – sounds inflamed, the reality is more complex. Shutting off water supply isn’t quite like turning off a tap. India would have to build massive dams on those rivers – projects that would take years to complete. There have been other dam disputes: since 2007 the treaty’s commission that meets biannually has hotly debated India’s construction of the Tulbul navigation project, a dam on the Jhelum River. India hopes the dam will allow it to store 300,000 cubic feet of water. Pakistan says the project is a violation of the treaty.
So what has prevented India and Pakistan from going to war over water? Likely nuclear deterrence. But even as the threat of the consequences of nuclear war holds the rivals at bay, so does the fear of water scarcity. The ultimate headwaters of the Indus lie in Tibet, and are controlled by China. India may choke off water supply to Pakistan by investing in damming projects, but China – a long-time ally of Pakistan – holds the trump card upstream.
Pakistan’s water crisis is further complicated by its own water management policies. The country invested in several dam projects that altered the flow of the Indus, and a decision to grow water-intensive crops such as sugar cane and cotton have led to the large-scale depletion of groundwater supplies. This has happened alongside massive population growth in a country of around 200 million people, and urbanization – two forces intensifying the pressure on an already broken system.
Add to this the reality of climate change, which has contributed to the threats of fast-melting glaciers in Pakistan’s north, an increasingly hot and arid southern desert, and floods. There is also a complex internal political power system that has been accused of favouring the province of Punjab over others, with little to no political will to address the problem.
Under all these pressures, some experts say Pakistan will run dry by 2025.
Given this climate, bold statements about shutting off water supply only helps to fan hysteria among the people of the two countries. Pakistan fears their future in a water-starved country, while India, in reaction to the terror attack, hungers for retaliatory action.
What the Indus Water Treaty really needs is a revision that adjusts for the reality of climate change. But in this political reality even the most peaceable treaty commission between India and Pakistan is swimming against the tide.
Sonya Fatah is an assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Journalism. She reported on South Asia from New Delhi between 2007 and 2014.