By Barrister Mansur  Sarwar Khan

Lands turning into desert

To seek a constructive way out, we need to ask an honest question from ourselves: At present, are we really in position to abrogate the Indus Water Treaty and get even a half way decent agreement from an extremely hostile neighbor? Of course, NOT! Since Indus river systems became a trans-boundary flow case after the partition in 1947, we could have convinced India and the international community at large to follow international laws regarding the established water rights for lower riparian. Instead, we were forced to negotiate and accept the partition of the Indus valley and Indus River waters as consequence. In other words, we agreed to the law of jungle, might is right, instead of taking right stand based on relevant international law of established water rights.

On the other hand, the entire canal irrigation system was designed, planned and implemented on a cardinal principle of equitable river water “disposal” / distribution per unit of irrigated area in the Indus Valley. Interestingly enough, in this intra-national context, our negotiations among four provinces revolved around the prevailing international water laws to satisfy established water rights because of inundation canals under lower riparian scenario. Although ground realities did change drastically after say independence, formation of one unit, Indus water treaty of 1960 and in spite of original design criteria opted for the use of 97% water use in irrigated agriculture; once an agreement signed with consensus, it should be accepted whole heartedly. As a matter of fact, we should still feel fortunate enough that all provinces signed on the Water Apportionment Accord in 1991. This brings us to ask one more honest question to ourselves: Without endangering the entire fabric of our federation, is there any possibility to get a better water apportionment accord among our four provinces? Answer is obvious; a big NO.

In spite of the above two soul -searching questions and candid answers, fact remains that both of these agreements had a huge impact on the on-going water crisis. In both cases, as far as one can honestly feels, all stake-holders are sticking to these best possible agreements based on compromises made but only in letter sense. If these agreements are our best possible and last resort options, we can have way out only if we create conditions that make all stake-holders to implement and follow these agreements both in letter and spirit.

For example, India is allowed to develop hydro-power potential by constructing dams as long as this power generation is made to stay within run-of- the-river principle. If India tries to deviate, we negotiate and once issue is established and bilateral negotiations fail, there is provision to seek arbitration from a neutral expert by using the good offices of the World Bank. Such an arbitration on Bughliar Dam is a recent case in point. Yes, there were few minor adjustments made but these alterations do not stop India to continue building dams across all three western rivers, allocated for supplying water to Pakistan, as long as these power generation facilities are kept confined to run-of-the-river flows.

In letter sense, India could do so. However, in doing so, India is developing a capacity and capability to flood Pakistan when there is least water required for crops and can create drought conditions when there is dire need for crops in the Indus Valley of Pakistan. Since we do not have observers stationed at all such dam and control sites, India can start storage when there is very little rain or glacier water available. A delay of well-coordinated water stoppage for even few weeks can ruin our agricultural economy to a greater extent.  Similarly, when there is not much need for crops, like wet season, a letter bound hostile India can flood the country to cause further damage to economy. This risk is further enhanced with acceptance of sluice gates to remove silt by the neutral expert appointed by the World Bank while arbitrating on Baglihar case. While doing all such manipulations, India will be hiding behind the letter sense of the Indus Water Treaty. But for Pakistan, water crisis will keep getting bad to worse as time progresses.

At the national level, we created problems for ourselves by ignoring the basic principle of design for equitable river

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water disposal; we generally term it irrigation, but started deviating to establish new rights for water use by increasing water allowance criterion followed in canal areas of the Pakistani Indus Valley.  Like the famous gold rush in the US, just to establish water rights, all provinces tried to increase water allowances either by developing new irrigation systems or widening the existing facilities by authorizing and pushing more water than the original design of conveyance systems. This has caused rivalries and hot exchanges among provinces and stakeholders. Also, different lobbies used such deviations to seek political benefits by justifying extra water needs over and above the original water allowances.

Because of an absence of proper water management essentially at secondary canal level, water crisis, particularly at the lower parts of these canals, is very evident.  Coupled with flood irrigation, either irrigation by flooding basins or using old Punchoo system, water crisis keeps on increasing its intensity day by day.  IRSA or no IRSA and telemetry system or no telemetry system; unless we decide to distribute water by going beyond letter sense and include the spirit of the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991, we do not see an end of this water crisis in Pakistan.


In order to face this emerging serious threat to our main living source, we may have to revisit our perceptions and self-righteous claims about Indus Water Treaty of 1960 and the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991. If all stakeholders honestly decide to follow these agreements in letter and spirit, instead of getting stuck to the letter part only, there exists a real hope to face off such crisis effectively. On the other hand, if we keep playing drama of make-believe for appearing to be acting according to the letter part of such historic commitments, I am afraid that its potential consequences could be disastrous for all concerned. We all have to move beyond blowing fire to get our self-claimed and perceived rights and show courage to openly take steps to shoulder relevant responsibilities both in letter and spirit. With that kind of stated paradigm shift, I am sure that there is nothing that we cannot face and manage.

  1. A. Context of Water Crisis: Before we deliberate on a potential way-out of this crisis, to bring about the above stated paradigm shift in our thinking patterns, the following realities have to be revisited:
  2. B. Issues Associated with Water Crisis: For finding a way-out from the emerging water crisis within the stated ground realities, it is important that we identify issues to be addressed.   These issues can be listed under different categories that include:
  • The Red-Cliff boundary drawn to bring partition of 1947 was either absolutely blind toward hydraulic boundaries of the Indus River Basin, or, more bluntly, it was intentionally designed to partition this basin as a revenge of an imperial power fatally hurt.
  • Indus Water Treaty of 1960 was not based on international laws applicable for trans-boundary river basins; it was a naked display of power by an upper riparian state  that made a weaker lower riparian to swallow its pride and accept an unequal deal brokered by the World Bank.
  • In spite of fact that the Indus Water Treaty was not just in view of the established water rights of the lower riparian state, Pakistan; a question still needs to be answered honestly: Considering our inherent weaknesses and constraints, what were the chances to get a better deal at that time and, for that matter, even now? Perhaps, none.
  • Within Pakistan, Punjab being one of the upper riparian province, are there enough measures taken to satisfy Sindh, a lower riparian province, to deliver its legal share as per Water Apportionment Accord of 1991?
  • Sindh being “upper riparian” for Baluchistan, are there required measures put in place to ensure “lower riparian” province of Baluchistan to get its due share as per Accord of 1991?
  • Even in the presence of equitable river water distribution based on area irrigated in the Indus Valley, the Accord of 1991, on the contrary, is basically pegged in the historical water use under international water laws; is there any possibility for all four provinces to get a better deal either in 1991 or, for that matter, now? Perhaps, none. If so, what stops us to think about ways and means to make it work?
  • With inundation canals replaced with modern weir-controlled canal irrigation systems with specified water allowances and after signing the Water Accord of 1991, why cannot we go back to original design criterion of equitable water distribution within each province to bring more areas under irrigation?
  • Scarcity of water with ever exploding population and topped with climatic changes, supply and demand side water management are plausible options to be given due consideration. By blowing fire in the national context and threatening calls of water wars at regional level will not help to face off water crisis; innovative and rational approaches will – why cannot we divert our energies to do just that?
  • Why cannot we take up a positive and thankful approach by reminding ourselves the following:  With all our short-comings and blunders, we still are very lucky nation to have the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 and the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991 intact; why cannot we divert all our energies to make sure that these agreements are implemented in original letter and spirit? When we all know very well that nothing better can be achieved in the prevailing environment and as per the prevailing ground realities, why should we hurt our interests knowingly anymore?
  • Management of population explosion in view of the free fall of per capita water availability of water;
  • Additional Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to ensure that the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 is implemented by India and Pakistan both in its original letter and spirit;
  • Additional Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) to ensure that the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991 is followed by all four provinces of Pakistan in its true letter and spirit;
  • Agreed and efficient supply side water management;
  • Agreed and enforceable demand side water management;
  • Creation of conducive environment for effective water conservation practices; and
  • Getting rid of ineffective water governance.
  1. C. Potential Way-out of Water Crisis: Of course, a potential way-out of the prevailing and more serious emerging water crises is to address all issues that cause misunderstandings, lack of transparency in water sharing, uneven water distribution, unreliability of quantity and quality of water, mismanagement on supply and demand sides, unfavorable conditions for water conservation and imperial style water governance in all relevant water-consuming sub-sectors.  Based on this assumption, different components of this  potential way-out of water crisis are presented in the following sections:
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D1. Population Management as a Way-out for Stopping Drop in Water Availability per capita: It is interesting to note that everyone in Pakistan is concerned about the downward slide in the annual water availability per person but hardly have we even mentioned about the real cause of such steep drop say 5,300 m3 in 1950-53 to under the magic figure of 1000 m3 per capita per year at present; it is mainly due to the population explosion from 34 million in 1953 to 176 million in 2010. Let acknowledge this ground reality for a realistic appreciation of the water crisis we face and its nature.

We need to remind ourselves that we had 9.23 million hectare irrigated land in 1950-53 that went up almost 100 percent (18.02 million hectares) in 2000-03. However, our surface water diversions to the irrigated lands also increased from 83.4 BCM (67.64 MAF) to 129.4 BCM (104.95 MAF) during the same period. As this increase in water availability was less than the additional area brought under irrigation, annual water delivery depth per unit area dropped from 0.90 m to 0.72 m; these figures are significantly lower than required irrigation depths in each province as given in Table 3. Even with the introduction of tube-well technology since sixties, additional groundwater availability of about 50.29 BCM (40.8 MAF) has made this annual water depth available for the current area to 1.o m; a bit higher than before. In either case, we are not supplying adequate amount of water and we are forced to live with deficit irrigation phenomenon in this country. No wonder that our productivity of many crops is well below the one found on the other part of the Indus Basin under Indian control.

Based on the data presented above, it appears that main cause of steep drop in per capita water availability is less associated with the quantity of water available or being made available but more linked to the ongoing population explosion in Pakistan.  Unless we come up with measures to manage this explosion; there is no way to check this free fall in the annual water availability per capita.

D2. Additional Confidence Building Measures regarding Indus Water Treaty: Why do we need additional measures to implement Indus Water Treaty when there are already institutional provision of Indus Water Commission and a built-in mechanism of a neutral arbitrator that can be sought through the good offices of the World Bank?  One obvious answer is that the existing provisions have not helped fully to remove mistrust developed between our two upper and lower riparian states. Main reason for such development is that most Pakistanis have come to believe that the existing mechanisms are not sufficient and additional confidence building measures are needed to ensure that the treaty is followed in its true letter and spirit.  In order to address this mistrust, according to a recent report by Sandeep Dikshit in an Indian newspaper, the Hindu, on 12th March 2010, the Government of Pakistan has proposed the following steps:

  1. Construction of projects at three western rivers should be undertaken only after objections are amicably resolved;
  2. Joint watershed management should be agreed;
  3. Joint commission of environmental studies be established;
  4. India should provide details of new project six months before commencement;
  5. Diversions for storage and farm purposes be conveyed to Pakistan; and
  6. India should also provide details about ancillary projects.

In response, India has expressed its concerns, as per the referred report, as under:

  1. Pakistan needs to improve water management , and
  2. The drop in flow is because of overall pattern of receding glaciers.

As far as the first point from the Indian side is concerned, water management improvements have remained main focus of Pakistan for last four decades or so. However, there is a lot of room for improvement and any good suggestions in this area should be seriously considered like more focus on watershed management is needed. For the second point, it makes Pakistan’s proposal even more meaningful that both countries should establish a joint commission for conducting environmental studies. If glaciers are receding, they must be receding because of excessive snow melt. As reason given for drop in flow is quite confusing, it will make sense and improve trust between the two states by conducting such environmental studies to let scientific data support or reject such ongoing arguments.

In parallel to the Indian concern about water management, the referred Dikshit’s report points to Pakistani concerns about deforestation and water pollution on Indian side. Moreover, Pakistani officials always have complaints about the non-responsiveness of Indian to their concerns raised in the Indus water Commission.

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In the given context, if both countries wish to follow the Indus Water treaty of 1960 in its true letter and spirit, both must whole heartedly support to this proposition adding all necessary confidence building measures to ensure a transparent, honest and fair water transactions as agreed in the treaty. Asking to revisit this treaty would be opening a Pandora box that may become too difficult to manage. We need to keep reminding us that it took India and Pakistan more than 12 years to strike a deal; it is better for regional peace and security if our emphasis stays to demand all potential confidence building measures to ensure its implementation in intended real letter and spirit; if sanity prevails on both sides, it is a doable option whereas alternative of revisiting or reinventing this treaty is too dangerous even to contemplate for both states.

After the most recent, March 2010 to be precise, meeting of the Indus Basin Commission in Lahore, Pakistani representative has hinted about an agreement to install telemetry system to monitor water levels at different points along the western rivers of the Indus Basin. At this time, details of such agreement are not made public but this is an important and encouraging development. However, it remains to be seen if both parties have also agreed to jointly operate and maintain this monitoring technology or they plan to hire third party to operate and manage this appreciable confidence building measure. It goes without saying that if fool-proof arrangement is not agreed to operate and manage such system, mere installation of such devices will turn out to be a gimmick of window-dressing only. Both parties have to review the failure of telemetry systems that were installed in Pakistan and Egypt for flow monitoring and then decide a mutually satisfactory arrangement to make such technology based CBM to work and work to satisfy both sides.

As the remaining three western rivers of the Indus Basin are virtually life-lines for Pakistan and its people and hence this water issue has a real potential to turn this beautiful sub-continent into Hiroshima and Nagasaki as both India and Pakistan are nuclear states; any threat to very survival of even one state got seeds for total destruction all around. All sane elements of both countries sincerely cannot even start contemplating such dreadful scenario to emerge. So, if both countries wish to implement this Indus Water Treaty in its original letter and spirit, India and Pakistan should remain focused to keep on adding mutually verifiable CBMs to eliminate all sources of mistrust on trans-boundary water management agreement as agreed.

If there is no hidden agenda to hurt each other, let us think of stationing representatives from Pakistan at each dam site and control point as Egypt, being lower riparian country, has been allowed to do so for monitoring purposes. Without such institutional arrangement in place, even telemetry system is not going to deliver desired results.

However, Egypt, the lower riparian of the Nile River, is a dominating regional power whereas Pakistan does not enjoy such status. In the South Asian Sub-continent, India is dominating regional power as well as non-friendly upper riparian state too. This presents double jeopardy and extremely uneven playing field for Pakistan. Virtually, all cards are in the Indian hands and it is playing these cards blatantly.

By allowing India to have sluice gates for the removal of silt, a virtual reinterpretation of the Indus Water Treaty by a “neutral arbitrator” in case of Baglihar Dam, a devastating precedent has been set, without assigning pre-conditions to safe guard original spirit of the treaty to ensure water quantity and timing, to make an already bad situation even worse.  Like the recent filling of Baglihar Dam at a time when river flow is too low and it is also a critical time when crops are planted on Pakistani side, it does not require rocket-science to foresee what the others dozens of planned dams can do to Pakistan and its main economy of agriculture.

Needless to say that water is not just an ordinary issue for Pakistan, it is the only lifeline for its survival; its existence depends upon the implementation of the Indus Water Treaty not according to mere letter sense but according to its real spirit. Obviously, Pakistan would like this treaty to address  all possible hindrances and potential manipulations in terms of quantity and timing of all allocated flows from the three western rivers to its territory.

In such a stated scenario, there is real potential for getting things out of control for both nuclear states.  People from both sides have to realize the potential dangers and force their decision-makers to stop playing games with the survival of more than one billion people of India and Pakistan and start devising solid confidence building measures to calm this emotive and combustible situation down. Being India in the driving seat, it has all levers of control to avoid a train-wreck on the Indus as Professor John Briscoe has cautioned.

To be continued…………….