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The water crisis and its implications for Pakistan

The factors responsible for the reduction in water supply include increase in population, climate change, lack of construction of water reservoirs, and misplaced use
of the Jhelum and Chenab rivers by India under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960


By M. Sharif

 According to the World Bank (WB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), Pakistan is one of the most “water stressed” countries in the world; it is likely to face an acute water shortage over the next five years due to lack of water availability for irrigation, industry and human consumption. A WB report states that water supply in Pakistan has fallen from 5,000 cubic meters per capita  to 1,000 cubic meters in 2010, and is likely to further reduce to 800 cubic meters per capita by 2020. Contributory factors consist of increase in population, climate change, lack of a solid vision to construct water reservoirs, and misplaced use of Jhelum and Chenab rivers by India under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960 that has resulted in reduced flow of water to Pakistan.  The water crisis has two dimensions. First is the distribution of water among the four provinces, particularly between Punjab and Sindh. The second is between Pakistan and India arising because of utilizing water from Chenab and Jhelum rivers. The first problem basically arises from the second one.

India got the right to fully utilize water from the three eastern rivers; Ravi, Bias and Sutlej, while Pakistan was to utilize water from the three western rivers; Indus, Chenab and Jhelum under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). India was also permitted limited irrigation of 1.343 million acres (2.85 MAF) from western rivers. Water for Pakistan was not quantified. However, it is implied in the treaty that India is not to exceed the specified limit for water utilization. If India continues with its current strategy of building dams on Chenab and Jhelum rivers, then there would be serious implications for Pakistan’s agriculture and national security. It would aggravate the already strained relationship between the two countries, which is due to the unresolved Kashmir issue. A very strong perception exists in Pakistan that India in its quest to utilize water from Chenab and Jhelum rivers and is not fulfilling its obligations under the IWT. It wants to constrict the flow of water to Pakistan. This strategy has a hidden political agenda to create scarcity of irrigation water that would hurt Pakistan’s economy and agriculture sector in between 10-15 years. The national interests of both the countries would be best served if India honoured its commitments under the IWT. But, is India ready to address Pakistan’s concerns or wants to safeguard its own interests by violating the IWT that could lead to worsening of relations between the two countries?

The water crisis at the national level exists due to the following reasons:

(a) In the past, the public leadership did not succeed to develop a consensus on construction of huge water reservoirs, particularly the Kalabagh dam that could have addressed many of the power and water problems which are being faced today.

(b) Provinces are in dispute over their respective share of water under the IWT, with particular reference to utilizing water for Kharif and Rabi seasons through link canals managed by the Indus River System Authority (Irsa). Irsa has stopped satisfying Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan provinces over distribution of irrigation water for current Rabi season because of 34.0 per cent shortage of water, primarily due to construction of Baglihar dam on Chenab. Water supply would be further constricted because of planned construction of Basrur multi-power project, Siwalkot dam, and Pakot Dul dam on Chenab river by India. Unless resolved it would continue to be a recurring problem.

(c) The Sindh Assembly has demanded scrapping of hydropower project on Chashma Jhelum link canal, a key project for the Punjab government. There is a strong perception in Sindh that the project would constrict flow of water to the province and hurt its agriculture as well.

(d) Punjab is accused of stealing 16,000 cusecs of water between Taunsa and Guddu, from 2nd  to 4th Feb, 2010. The Punjab government claims that system losses are to blame for the water that has disappeared.

Pakistan is facing numerous challenges including poverty alleviation, high food inflation and food security for a population of more than 180 million that is likely to swell to 250 million by 2050. These challenges could only be addressed adequately if the agriculture sector that presently contributes 21.5 per cent to GDP growth, and employs 40 per cent of the country’s workforce performed well. The fears of the Sindh province have to be dispelled by the federal government and the Punjab government with respect to honouring its right to water. Each province is to be provided sufficient amount of water, without any reservations from any quarter.

Coming to the water crisis between Pakistan and India, it prevails due to the following reasons:

1.India has embarked upon the construction of a huge network of water storage facility, the national river linking project at an estimated cost of $120 bn likely to be completed by 2016. It includes construction of Basrur multi-power project, Siwalkot dam and Pakot Dul dam on Chenab, in addition to the already constructed Baglihar dam.

2.The Baglihar dam’s construction enticed India to reduce water supply by 0.2 MAF, which is having a negative impact on the production of wheat crop. It is estimated that because of water shortage, it would be difficult to meet the target of producing 25 million tons of wheat. There is likely to be a shortfall of around 2-3 million tons.

3.India is building the Uri power project (240MW) and Kishan Ganga power project (330MW) on river Jhelum. A 22 kilometer long tunnel is to divert Neelam-Jhelum water for Kishan Ganga power project, which threatens Pakistan’s 930 MW Neelam Jhelum project.

The short term implications of the water crisis are already visible. The level of distrust between Sindh and Punjab is increasing. IRSA is facing difficulty to resolve water disputes between them. The meeting held on 4th Feb to resolve compensation of 0.4 MAF of water previously allowed by Sindh and Balochistan to Punjab, open Chashma-Jehlum canal to meet Punjab’s requirement for additional water and the 16,000 cusecs of water theft between Taunsa and Duddu ended up without any positive results. The water dispute can only be resolved if the provinces show maturity, as they have shown in resolving the National Finance Commision (NFC) award. The resolution of technical matters related to the downstream flow of water needs to be tackled through a centralized telemetry system that can measure water flow at around two dozen points, where its discharge takes place. Such a system was established in early 2000s at an enormous cost, but it hardly functioned. It should not be difficult to restart the system, but care should be taken that vested interests do not subvert functioning of the system.

Water dispute between India and Pakistan is of a larger dimension and can be resolved only if it is de-linked from politics between the two nations. The most important point in this respect is that India, being an upper riparian state has a greater responsibility towards resolving the quarrels within the framework of the IWT. This is for one simple reason that the root cause of the problem lies in lack of implementation of the IWT in letter and spirit by India. It has not been sharing technical information and data related to flow of water downstream with Pakistan, and is not agreeing for inspection visits to India by Pakistani teams, whenever required. Using water from the western rivers beyond a permissible limit of 2.85 MAF is a clear violation of the IWT. This can be resolved if India promptly shares water flow data and agreed to inspections taking place, as laid down in the treaty.

Recently, a three-member Indian delegation headed by the Indus Commissioner visited Pakistan. The commission agreed to resolve the water dispute within an agreed timeframe. The matter was earlier raised at the highest level between the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President, Asif Ali Zardari during their meeting in New York on the side lines of the UN General Assembly session last year. Manmohan Singh had assured the president that, “his country is seriously committed to our (Indus) water sharing treaty.” India needs to stand by its commitment. It should not disrupt or reduce the flow of western rivers, share technical information with Pakistan on water projects that it plans to construct on the western rivers’ side and respect the rights of Pakistan as a lower riparian state. The two states need to implement the water dispute resolution mechanism of the IWT in the larger interests of regional stability and well being of the people.

1 thought on “The water crisis and its implications for Pakistan”


    India believes that Pakistan’s bid to hoist the water issue on the bilateral agenda would be misplaced because the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) has stood the test of time in resolving differences. IWT Commissioners have met over a 100 times since the treaty was signed half a century ago to exchange information and iron out irritants, which means that the mechanism has been working well.

    In fact, Islamabad’s desire to bring the water issue on the table on the eve of this week’s foreign secretary talks is a change from its stand in 2002, when the “Pakistan Water Sector Strategy” argued for thwarting any “attempt by India” to scrap the treaty. It anticipated an adverse impact on the river water flows if the treaty was scrapped and argued for building storage capacities to meet requirements in times of shortages, which Pakistan has failed to do adequately.

    Experts say that instead of accusing India of reneging on the IWT provisions, Pakistan should pay attention to building storage capacities because climate change is impacting the quantum of water in the six rivers that flow from India to Pakistan.

    Under the IWT, Pakistan has the right to utilise the upper three “western” rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — and India has the right to use the water of three “eastern” rivers — Ravi, Sutlej and Beas — as it thinks fit.

    Under the treaty, India is allowed to store 3.6 million acreage feet (MAF) of water of the western rivers, but it has not built any such facility so far, allowing unimpeded flows into Pakistan. Since the water level in the Chenab varies wildly during winter and summer, a better strategy would be for both countries to build a joint storage project which would serve the farmers of both countries during the lean periods, some experts aver.

    Silting at dams

    Pakistan’s water woes are compounded by silting at the Tarbela and Mangla dams, with an internal official assessment admitting that it has lost 32 per cent of its storage capacity due to the problem.

    Islamabad should also not doubt India’s plan to put up projects that do not impede water flows on the western rivers, because Article III of the IWT allows it the use of western river waters for domestic, non-consumptive and agriculture purposes, besides the generation of electricity.

    Within Pakistan itself, there is a debate about the need for the government to improve its management of water.

    While framing the IWT, the irrigable area of India and Pakistan was assessed at 26 million acres and 39 million acres respectively, while the waters available to them are 32.8 MAF and 135.6 MAF respectively. This means that only about 1.26 feet of water is available to India for its agriculture on eastern rivers, while about 3.5 feet of water is available to Pakistan for its agriculture.

    Unused water

    Pakistan has a large surplus of unused water. Its documents show about 30 MAF as “available surplus” with a very high escapage to the sea.

    Pakistan’s irrigation efficiency is also understood to be low, at an estimated 40 per cent. Virtually all of the municipal and industrial wastewater is returned to the rivers, nullahs and streams untreated, which results in deterioration of water quality.

    The Pakistan document also suggests that canal capacities are not sufficient to provide the share of each province as per their allocation. The inefficient system aggravates the problems.

    As a result of the IWT, Pakistan was assisted by India financially (£62.06 million) and by the IBRD fund to build replacement works, including link canals for transferring waters of the western rivers to eastern rivers. This network of link canals could be used by Pakistan to properly distribute the water.

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