Can India and Pakistan’s Historic Water Pact Endure?

Via F0reign Policy, an article on the Indus Waters Treaty – which was created to avoid conflict – but, to confront the climate crisis, it must evolve:

Since 1960, a treaty brokered by the World Bank has prevented a water war between pugnacious neighbors India and Pakistan—even as the two countries have gone to war three times over other issues. The Indus Waters Treaty outlines the usage rights of the Indus River and its five tributaries, which snake through the two countries. It allocates control of the three eastern rivers to India and the three western rivers to Pakistan, which is downstream. China and Afghanistan also utilize water from the Indus Basin.

The Indus Waters Treaty has held up during periods of intense diplomatic strain and withstood multiple disagreements of interpretation, including an ongoing dispute over Indian hydroelectric dam projects. But India and Pakistan’s relationship has been contentious for decades. Within this context, negotiating the details of a water-sharing agreement is a delicate task, made more so by the climate extremes that are altering the rivers it governs.

As India and Pakistan face an elevated risk of frequent droughts and floods exacerbated by climate change, the regulation of water resources has grown more important. And with both countries experiencing hydrological extremes, some experts are asking whether the Indus Waters Treaty can endure in its current form. In the six decades since the treaty went into effect, India’s population has nearly tripled and Pakistan’s has increased by almost fivefold. Irrigation and energy demands in both countries have risen rapidly, while groundwater supplies are drying up.

Both countries are grappling with similar effects from climate change, but the disputes over the treaty show how it could become another issue that divides them. India and Pakistan have each turned to dams for irrigation and hydroelectric power to satisfy their energy needs, racing to make use of water at different points in the same river system. Their recent disagreement centers around the design of two dams in the disputed region of Kashmir—testing the language of the treaty and its ability to anticipate how dams could be used or abused in the water sharing arrangement.

Pakistan has issued numerous complaints against India’s dams, arguing that parts of their design violate the treaty. Pakistan argues that certain dam designs that allow for adjusted water storage capacity will let India withhold water from its downstream neighbor. Pakistan also worries that India’s dams could release uncontrollable floods during monsoon rains as India tries to manage floodwaters in its own territory. For its part, India maintains that its dam plans fit within the scope of the treaty, which grants India certain non-consumptive rights to upstream water on the three western rivers allocated to Pakistan. This week, both countries attended a meeting convened by a neutral expert at the Permanent Court of Arbitration branch office in Vienna.

While both countries compete for increasingly needed water, the rivers that make up the Indus Basin are steadily changing as rainfall patterns shift and extreme weather events become more common. Water extremes have intensified with increasing glacial melt, changing monsoons, and worsening heat waves—leaving rivers at times bone dry and at others swelling their banks. “These rivers were already known for their variability,” said Zia Hashmi, director of research at the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources. “Climate change has actually increased this variability.”

According to data from NASA, the Indus Basin aquifer is the second-most overstressed aquifer in the world, lacking enough natural replenishment to offset usage. This is in part because of the region’s heavy reliance on groundwater in the region for farming, as well as a lack of regulation on consumption. India is the world’s largest groundwater consumer, and Pakistan is the world’s third largest. Both countries use most of their water for agriculture, despite agriculture making up around 15 percent of India’s GDP and around 21 percent of Pakistan’s. Irrigation water that doesn’t come from groundwater supplies often comes from canals connected to Indus Basin waterways.

Some experts say that in this changing context, the Indus Waters Treaty is no longer fit for purpose. Ashok Swain, a professor at Uppsala University in Sweden and UNESCO chair on International Water Cooperation, said the treaty should evolve beyond its role as an agreement that aims to prevent conflict by strictly dividing water resources rather than seeing water as a shared commodity. “I consider it [to have] outlived its utility because it is not exactly fulfilling the objective of a water agreement,” Swain told Foreign Policy. Managing water resources “should be the need of the hour rather than just avoiding a combative violent conflict.”

Swain said the climate change challenge could prompt more cooperation between India and Pakistan, but the two countries’ tense relations make that an uphill battle. Numerous countries have cited climate change during water disputes, and India and Pakistan could each perceive the other as exploiting the threat for its own benefit, he said. “It is a much larger issue than the water itself,” he said. “It’s a matter of trust. There is a lack of trust between these two countries.”

The immediate dispute turns on technical design questions for India’s Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric projects, dams with power production capacity of 330 megawatts and 850 megawatts. In 2016, Pakistan raised an objection with the World Bank about certain aspects of the projects. The World Bank announced it would pause the mediation process to let the countries work out an agreement; it only resumed last year. Since then, Pakistan requested the case be heard by an arbitration tribunal in the Hague. This angered India, which has favored dispute resolution through a neutral expert. Differing opinions about the appropriate dispute mechanism have also become a sticking point. In January, India issued a notice to Pakistan of its intention to modify the treaty, citing Pakistan’s handling of disputes as one reason for the request.

India’s Parliamentary Committee on Water Resources cited climate change and global warming as reasons behind its recommendation to renegotiate the agreement in 2021. Pakistan has also named climate change as a factor in its water resource issues, although not explicitly in relation to the Indus Waters Treaty. Climate justice plays an increasingly prominent role in the country’s international diplomacy. At last year’s annual United Nations climate conference, Pakistan led the charge for climate reparations, months after extreme floods inundated one-third of the country.

But acknowledging the impact of climate change on hydrology is only the first step to finding working solutions for water-related issues said Vaqar Zakaria, managing director of Hagler Bailly Pakistan, an Islamabad-based consulting firm. “Our capacity to bring in the science and to bring in a rational basis to understand the risks [associated with climate change] and then develop strategies to manage the risks, I don’t see that happening yet,” he said. Although both India and Pakistan have acknowledged the damage wrought by climate change, they have yet to converge on the topic when it comes to water-sharing.

Some experts argue that the Indus Waters Treaty gives India and Pakistan a forum to discuss evolving climate risks at the international level. Srinivas Chokkakula, an Indian researcher who focuses on water conflicts and governance, said commissioners from both countries trained in the technical aspects of water usage could play a crucial role in evaluating risks if given the chance. “You need to allow for those kinds of interpretations that accommodate changes that are both technological as well as [for the] changing context,” he said, adding that the treaty leaves space for interpretation to account for climate change, but these conversations become more difficult as disputes progress.

Experts seem to agree that without communication between India and Pakistan, the evolution of the Indus Waters Treaty is not possible. The agreement does not allow either country to exit unilaterally, although either country could technically ignore rulings that don’t work in their favor. “[That] helps short-sighted politics but not the long-term resilience of the treaty itself,” Chokkakula said. The stakes for violating the treaty remain high, and the threat of water wars and international pressure incentivizes both countries to cooperate. Chokkakula believes the best way to boost the long-term resilience of the treaty is through continued dialogue that takes climate change into consideration.

Communities in India and Pakistan are already demanding more from their political leadership as climate change and water infrastructure projects change their rivers and threaten their livelihoods. Hashmi said focusing on cooperation is crucial during times of excess water when both countries will suffer. “The communication is not very good between the two countries in terms of water flowing in the rivers at different times, especially during emergency situations,” he said. “You cannot avoid floods by dams, but you can minimize your damage by flood by improving our early warning systems, forecasting systems, and making people aware of the threat looming on their heads.”

Modeling the impact of the climate crisis on river basins and focusing on domestic water policies could be key to minimizing the risk of water scarcity, which has become political tinder in the Indus Waters Treaty disputes. But building greater resilience into the treaty requires both countries to find middle ground over the issue of climate change, or at the very least to see it as a starting point for an approach to water sharing that takes shared risk into account. This will ultimately require bridging the trust gap that has so far proved a fundamental barrier in resolving disputes. Both countries face similar threats of catastrophic flooding and droughts that can be mitigated through cooperation—not solved by infrastructure projects alone.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 26th, 2023 at 3:45 am and is filed under India, Indus, Pakistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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