By Air Commodore® Khalid Iqbal

Kofi Annan was a visionary Secretary General of the UN with special focus on water. He said, “… Fierce competition over fresh water may well become a source of conflict and wars in future… But the water problems of our world need not be only a cause of tension; they can also be a catalyst for cooperation…If we work together, a secure and sustainable water future can be ours”.

With the climate change and diminishing water availability in the Middle East, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, possibility of violent conflict between states is increasing. Water usage rights and obligations remain a hazy domain as there is no codified International law on water sharing. Though Helsinki Declaration, made an attempt towards this end, it failed to address the issue squarely. Hence, there is ample room for conflicting interpretations of treaties and norms pertaining to water sharing. As a consequence, Interstate and intrastate water conflicts are very common and are difficult to resolve. Most of these conflicts emerge out of distrust and lack of political will rather than water shortage and technical inadequacies.

Nine out of twelve basins which have been identified as high risk flow in Asia. South Asia has specially been identified as one of the most critical regions with respect to water. Per capita water availability in this region is amongst the lowest in the world; and it is under perpetual stress due to swelling population, rapid industrialization and speedy reclamation of land for agricultural purposes.

Pakistan is a single-river system country. India is an upper riparian to the Indus water system; and downstream is Pakistan with its predominantly agrarian economy. India has realized this weakness, hence it is mischievously trying to deny Pakistan’s rightful share of water. Indians are attempting to reinterpret the settled terms and conditions of Indus Basin Water Treaty (IWT) to incrementally undermine the legitimate interests of Pakistan.

India has a history of lingering water disputes amongst its adjacent countries, now it is on its way to stir up similar feuds amongst the countries of this region. Kabul River contributes 20% water to the Indus system. India is working on a number of projects in Afghanistan to reduce its flow into Pakistan. For example, construction of a dam on River Kabul for Kama Hydroelectric Project would curtail the annual flow to Pakistan by about 0.5MAF.

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Senator John Kerry has recently released a US Senate report titled “Avoiding Water Wars” in South and Central Asia. It postulates that the Indus Water Treaty may fail to avert water wars between India and Pakistan. Report acknowledges that the dams India is building in occupied Kashmir will limit the supply of water to Pakistan at crucial moments in the sowing season. India is constructing 33 dams that are at various stages of completions, and cumulative effect of storing water for these dams would limit the supply to Pakistan. “Studies show that no single dam along the waters controlled by the Indus Waters Treaty will affect Pakistan`s access to water, (but) the cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the sowing season,” the report warns.

“This report highlights how water security is vital in achieving our (American) foreign policy and national security goals.” said Senator John Kerry, while releasing the report. “Others question (is) whether the IWT can address India`s growing use of the shared waters and Pakistan`s increasing demand for these waters for agricultural purposes… A breakdown in the treaty`s utility in resolving water conflicts could have serious ramifications for regional stability,” the report cautions.

According to the report, the drive to meet energy demand through hydropower development is also occurring in India and Pakistan. This is particularly true with respect to India, which faces a rapidly expanding population, growing economy, and soaring energy needs. To meet growing demand and cope with increasing electricity shortages, Indian government has developed plans to expand power generation through construction of multi-purpose dams.


The number of dams under construction and their management is a source of significant bilateral tension. “Any perceived reduction in water flows magnifies this distrust, whether caused by India`s activities in the Indus Basin or climate change” the report opines. Currently, the most controversial dam project is the proposed 330-megawatt dam on the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Indus.

Surprisingly, the report has not presented any concrete solutions to the problems of lower riparian and has tried to strengthen the impression that Indus Water Treaty has become redundant. The report seems to be more focused on how to coax Pakistan to succumb to India’s ever increasing water requirement.

The report acknowledges that the IWT has maintained stability in the region over water for decades. But “experts question the treaty`s long-term effectiveness in light of chronic tensions between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region, where a significant portion of the Indus River`s headwaters originate,” the report adds. In fact, it is the responsibility of the international community to strengthen the treaty and urge India to honour its commitment under the treaty.

IWT is a robust treaty that has withstood the stress of two wars and a number of spells of dangerous brinkmanship. Treaty is based upon four cardinal principles.  Firstly, it provides for sharing of water sources by giving exclusive rights of three eastern rivers to India and three western rivers of the Indus water system to Pakistan. Secondly, it lays down a mechanism to provide requisite financial support to assist Pakistan in making dams and canals to makeup for the loss of its three eastern rivers. Thirdly, it provided for harnessing of hydroelectric potential of Pakistani rivers by India provided these dams are on the basis of run of the river and there are no storage, no diversion and no tunneling. Fourthly, it provides for dispute resolution mechanism.

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Unfortunately, India is defying all the four principles of agreement, with impunity. It is building a number of hydro electric power projects on Chenab and Jhelum rivers along with storage facilities. It is diverting Pakistan’s water by making link canals and under ground tunnels. In case of Baglihar dam, it is funneling the water out on the plea that this is necessary to avoid sedimentation. Same is true for Kishenganga project.

India is required to release 16,000 cusec Chenab water to Pakistan whereas water flow at Head Marala has, at times, dipped to only 5,000 cusec because of Baglihar Dam’s water storage facility. Another upcoming project on Chenab River is Bursar Dam, which will further reduce Chenab’s water flow to Pakistan by as much as 2.2 million acre feet (MAF). Fourthly, the level of arbitration is intentionally raised by India from Indus commissioners’ level to international arbitrators, just to up the ante. In case of Bhasha Dam India has registered its objection to the dam site on untenable grounds. Presumably RAW has done considerable investment to harden the attitude of anti-Kalabagh dam constituency.

American worry that breakdown of the IWT, for whatever reason, would threaten their foreign policy objectives in the region is not misplaced. America has strategic interests in the region, and enjoys good relations with India and Pakistan. It needs to convince India to give up the violation of IWT for lasting peace in the region. Moreover, the US senate needs to carryout a supplementary study focusing on finding viable solutions to the problems of lower riparian countries.

Pakistan also needs to put its house in order by building a national consensus on major water storage dams on Indus water system.  Moreover, last year’s floods have amply demonstrated the untapped capacity in terms of rain water storage.