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Can India and Pakistan cooperate on water?

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Omair Ahmad |

In 2010, I was working with an organization that hosted a conference on water issues. The rhetoric on the Indus was being tapped by militant organizations, and it was in the interest of both the countries to encourage some dialogue on the issues involved before it became unmanageable. One scene from that conference stands out in my mind. One of our Pakistani guests – a water expert himself – said, “You have no idea what we are struggling with. Do you realize that in my city we have water for only two hours a day?”. One of the Indians at the table coughed, and said quietly, “That is about how much water we get in Delhi as well.”

That conversation was an icebreaker. It suddenly reconceptualized the discussions we were having at a very human level. It also opened our eyes towards how little we knew about the challenges faced by people living in the same region. Too often, talk on water between Indians and Pakistanis is reduced to discussing the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, how it works, and how it fails. It is easy to understand why this is the case because the majority of freshwater in Pakistan is supplied by the rivers of the Indus Basin. Since these rivers flow through the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, before arriving in Pakistan, any drop in water levels and consequent water shortage is easily seen as an issue of India-Pakistan.

The problem with discussing water on an inter-governmental level is that the issues discussed sometimes lose sight of the lives of the common citizens of both countries, who stand to lose or benefit.

The reality is, sadly, far more complex. Rivers are too often seen as mere carriers of water, glorified canals that transport water from one place to another, instead of being seen as large, complex eco-systems that can be affected in a multiplicity of ways. Part of the problem is the Treaty itself. By its very nature, it is a creation of its time, when engineering solutions were seen as the acme of achievement. More importantly, as those who have studied the history of the Treaty know that this is not the ideal that was imagined when the negotiations began.

In his book – ‘Indus Divided: India, Pakistan and the River Basin Dispute’, published in 2017 – David Haines does a great job in situating the creation of the treaty in the tense atmosphere of post-Independence and post-Partition days. Yet, despite the first war between the two countries, this was also the time when the Nerhu-Liaquat Pact was worked out when the two countries did try to find some modus vivendi vis-à-vis each other. People on both sides of the border forget that it was only after the 1965 war that the borders hardened and visas became compulsory, unlike the past when domicile documents were enough (as was attempted in allowing Cross-LoC travel after 2005 in Kashmir.)

Read more: Grand Vision for Pakistan’s Water Future

Nevertheless, times were not suitable to push through a treaty that would allow joint maintenance of the basin or at least the part of the basin present in both the countries. Therefore, the Treaty remains a treaty of divorce, with one set of rivers managed by India, and the other by Pakistan and that too according to the specific and limited usage strictly defined in the Treaty. Moreover, the Treaty is not perfect; no treaty ever is. It is the nature of such agreements to leave all sides somewhat unhappy since that is still better than no treaty, widespread discontent and no mechanism to resolve the issues that may crop up. Within these broad parameters, the Treaty works because it continues to serve the self-interest of both countries within very strict bounds.

The problems arise from both external and internal factors. The external factors are, in a sense, easy to list out. The first and foremost of these is China and Afghanistan’s lack of participation as signatories of the Treaty, despite seating part of the Indus Basin in their territory. This is a problem more for Pakistan than for India, as the larger part of the catchment area is not in China but in Afghanistan which is located downstream from India, thus India is not affected by its water usage directly – unlike Pakistan. Nevertheless, it does not allow a holistic treatment of the Indus Basin, as a single unit, from within the Treaty. The Treaty has the space to try and build on this, but it is unlikely that the current geopolitical realities would be conducive to create such an opportunity.

Rivers are too often seen as mere carriers of water, glorified canals that transport water from one place to another, instead of being seeing as large, complex eco-systems that can be affected in a multiplicity of ways.

The second external factor that affects the Indus Basin is also beyond the control of India and Pakistan, and that is climate change. The key outcomes of climate change: disruption of weather patterns leading to floods and droughts, as well as higher than average temperatures, are going to be with us no matter what we do. Unfortunately, given how massive an impact it is making in the Himalayan region, there are very few organizations – except for the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) – that are focussed on what is happening. This means that as the Himalayas change in character, affecting the largest concentration of ice and snow on the planet after the North and South Poles, the countries in the region are only focussed on what is happening within their borders, and are unable to accurately predict or reasonably deal with the consequences.

In 2014, a massive downpour in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir led to huge losses and killed hundreds. Inevitably, these rushing waters and massive downpour impacted Pakistan too, causing a havoc and killing hundreds. No dynamic flood control mechanism exists across these territories, costing both countries massive damages in both lives and wealth, often impacting the most marginalized communities. While the countries cannot control the outcome of climate change, they do have the power to cooperate with each other in dealing with the impacts, but once again, political realities seem to outweigh the practical consequences of non-cooperation.

Read more: Pakistan’s Water Crisis makes Kalabagh an “inevitable” reality, assures CJP

Focussing on external issues, however, may obscure what is closer to the ground and easier to fix. One of the main challenges for water usage across South Asia, especially in India and Pakistan, is the water-intense form of agriculture. In both these countries, nearly 90% of the water is devoted to growing crops. More importantly, much of this water is simply wasted. Both countries use a form of rice cultivation in which the crop is grown in standing water, and the majority of this water is lost to evaporation. More problematically, large amounts of water are transported through leaky canal structures over long distances, evaporating on the way and ending up diverting far more water than is needed to grow the crops.

Part of the problem remains unequal access to water, and Sindh – the province with one of the oldest and greatest water distribution systems – ironically has some of the worst human development parameters in the country. Similarly, across various states of India, the provenance of free electricity to farmers has driven a massive increase in the installation of water pumps that pull up groundwater to irrigate fields. With the irregular rainfall brought on by climate change and complicated access to water through canals, farmers are drawing out as much water as they can, often far beyond the natural capacity of this groundwater to recharge. As the water levels plummet, not only do the poorer farmers – who cannot afford to dig deeper – suffer but the minerals in the water, including dangerous ones like arsenic, become concentrated.

The problems arise from both external and internal factors. The external factors are, in a sense, easy to list out. The first and foremost of these is China and Afghanistan’s lack of participation as signatories of the Treaty, despite seating part of the Indus Basin in their territory.

To add to these water problems, the greed for land – whether as farmland or as living space – means that the natural and artificial waterbodies that would sustain the water levels, such as lakes, marshlands, and small ponds, have been wiped out. This makes it harder for water to filter into the ground below to recharge aquifers, and during droughts, it makes it harder for marginal farmers to survive. In cities, however, another drastic effect is the build-up of lakes and riverbeds. One of the lessons of the tragic 2014 floods was that they were supercharged not just by excessive rain over a very short period, but that mismanaged urbanization meant that there was nowhere for the water to flow, except into inhabited areas – with catastrophic effects.

Last but certainly not the least important, is the issue of solid waste management, primarily non-biodegradable plastics. In one of our features (ww.thethirdpole.net) documenting cities in the Himalayan region – including Peshawar, Karachi, Srinagar, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Thimphu, and the Qinghai plateau in China’s Tibetan region – it was striking how common the issues were. Across the Himalayan region, with Bhutan being a little of an exception, plastic was found everywhere. Much of it was clogging up drains. There were a few examples of sewage plants working the way they had been envisaged. Alas, it is not surprising that some of the most polluted rivers are found in Asia and that these rivers are dying across the region.

Read more: Pakistan’s water crisis: expensive and deadly

With all these problems, many of them deeply local, can India and Pakistan cooperate? The answer, of course, is yes, if they want to. Some of this cooperation is already happening. At The Third Pole, we featured a heart-warming story of an urban forest project in Karachi and Lahore, both inspired and assisted by an Indian, who had gotten the initial idea from a Japanese colleague. One of Pakistan’s great successes in its mountainous regions has been micro-hydroelectric projects.

Small units maintained by local communities have provided a regular and cheap source of electricity to communities far from the national grid and relatively free from the problems of load-shedding. As India deals with the problems of economically and environmentally large hydropower projects – many of them abandoned as being unviable due to financial issues – this example is one that it can learn from. In both India and Pakistan, young children have petitioned the Supreme Courts of their country to look after their future, one which will be devastating if carbon-heavy forms of development take preponderance.

As the water levels plummet, not only do the poorer farmers – who cannot afford to dig deeper – suffer, but the minerals in the water, including dangerous ones like arsenic, become concentrated.

One of the successes that Imran Khan, as the new Prime Minister of Pakistan, can claim from his party’s leadership in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the Billion Tree Tsunami, in which PTI made reforestation a priority. Tree cover in a mountainous region helps manage temperatures, prevent landslides and retain topsoil, which in turn, helps the soil retain moisture and help recharge water. In India, poor farmers dealing with climate change became part of a 100 village project in 2010, shifting beyond mono-cropping, learning to deal with vagaries of the weather, and making a profit.

Read more: Water Talks: Second round begins between India & Pakistan

The problem with discussing water on an inter-governmental level is that the issues discussed sometimes lose sight of the lives of the common citizens of both countries, who stand to lose or benefit. Rightly or wrongly, the Indus Waters Treaty will dominate the discussion on water, when the countries discuss issues at the highest levels, but it is at best a limited lens to deal with the massive challenges that both countries face. Given that so much of our agricultural, political and social systems are alike, it would make sense to broaden the conversation, to try and understand what is happening across the whole basin, both the good and the bad.

We should also not forget that the people are ahead of the leaders; they read the news and pick up innovations, birthing in towns the leaders have only heard of. If the governments help take these discussions forward, make it easier for people from both the countries to meet, exchange ideas and find a solution together – imagine how far we can reach!

Omair Ahmad is the Managing Editor of the Thirdpole.net. A web portal that focuses on understanding Asia’ s water crisis. He has worked as a political analyst and journalist over the last decade, with a particular focus on the Himalayan region. He holds Masters degrees in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and Syracuse University, New York, and is the author of, “The Kingdom at the Centre of the World; Journeys into Bhutan”. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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