Resources & Climate

“East is East and West is West”

in Program

By David Michel – Water managers in the Indus Basin will have to overcome a host of overlapping socio-economic, environmental, and policy pressures as they strive to fulfill their society’s future water needs. The Indus sustains some 200 million people and nourishes the breadbaskets of both India and Pakistan, countries where the agricultural sector provides almost a fifth of national GDP and employs roughly half the labor force. But demands on the river have risen to the point that it no longer reaches the sea year round. Nearly 90 percent of the Indus’s resources are already allocated to supply the subcontinent’s growing populations and expanding economies, with little to no capacity to spare.

Even as they increasingly exploit the Indus, India and Pakistan also are draining their underground aquifers. Water tables have plummeted throughout the region as overdrafts exceed rates of recharge. Satellite data indicate the Indus Basin lost 10 billion cubic meters of groundwater annually between 2002 and 2008, a yearly depletion equivalent to half the available water storage in all the reservoirs of Pakistan.[1]

Consequently, numerous studies foresee increasing water scarcity there. The consulting firm McKinsey and the International Finance Corporation project supply deficits will top 50 percent on the Indian side of the Indus Basin by 2030. The situation is equally alarming across the border. The World Bank figures Pakistan already has hit the limit of its available resources, yet will require 30 percent more water by 2025 to meet rising agricultural, domestic, and industrial needs.

Climate change will exert additional, chronic pressures on freshwater supplies in the region. The Indus headwaters rise in the Himalayan range where snow and glacial melt contribute some 45-60 percent of the river’s annual flow. In recent decades, glaciers worldwide have retreated as global average temperatures have warmed. Initially, greater glacier melting will boost river runoff, increasing the danger of seasonal flooding.  As de-glaciation continues, however, melt water flows will subsequently wane, diminishing downstream supplies.  According to one study, receding glaciers could pare water supply in the upper Indus more than eight percent by 2065.  Reverberating through irrigation demands and crop yields, this drop could ultimately reduce the number of people that basin resources could feed by 23 to 30 million.[2]

Left unaddressed, such strains could sow increasing competition over dwindling water supplies, potentially fueling destabilizing international tensions.  Water has been a consistent flash point between India and Pakistan since their partition. The international boundary that set the two nations apart also set them at odds over water.  As the downstream neighbor, Pakistan feared Indian withdrawals or diversions could deprive it of its water supply, throttling its agriculture and undermining its food security.  Up-river, India worried that according all flows to Pakistan would curtail possibilities for developing the Indus for its own benefit. 

Since 1960, the river has been governed by the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).  The IWT physically divided the Indus, allocating use of the three western tributaries that feed the main river entirely to Pakistan and the three eastern tributaries to India, while also controlling the type and features of projects that India can establish on its portion of the Indus.  The IWT has stood through three wars and countless clashes.  But the accord has no provisions for how the parties should respond to variations in water flow that climate change could engender.  Nor does it address water pollution, though deteriorating quality cuts into available quantities as sources become too degraded for many uses.  And while consumers across the basin rely on groundwater to supplement or substitute for surface water, there is no agreement for sharing supply or even sharing data on shared groundwater resources. Finally, though the Indus in fact begins in China and receives 10 percent of its discharge from Afghanistan’s Kabul River, the ITW includes neither of these other two riparians.

Indeed, the IWT may now hinder India and Pakistan’s abilities to face emerging realities.  Both countries, for instance, lack adequate water storage capacity – a serious vulnerability as climate change threatens to disrupt future water availability. Both also suffer significant power shortages.  New dam construction could potentially furnish them with reservoirs to buffer prospective shortfalls, flood control against the projected rise in extreme monsoon events, and hydropower to reduce their carbon emissions.  Developing such projects, though, would heighten the need for enhanced cooperation as the ends of irrigation, electricity generation, flood protection, and ecosystem maintenance do not necessarily coincide.  Multiple works on the same river cannot be effectively managed in isolation; the operations of those upstream also affect those downstream.  But the IWT restricts the types of dams, and caps the amount of storage India can install on its tributaries, thereby limiting the type and amount of benefits – flood protection, hydropower – that more coordinated management of the river could offer.

In the wake of continuing controversies, voices in both countries have suggested revisiting the IWT terms – or even scrapping the accord and starting over. Ultimately, some mutually agreed alterations to the IWT might improve the scope for effective international cooperation and integrated resource management across the basin.  Presently, though, moves to renegotiate the IWT would almost certainly prove more contentious than current confidence levels between the parties could bear. Before seeking to revise or reconstruct the accord, India and Pakistan could make better use of collaborative mechanisms it already offers.  Article VII requires the countries to share hydrological data, but neither India nor Pakistan publish information on the Indus’s flows, making it that much more difficult for public interest groups, academic analysts, local stakeholders, or even decision-makers in other policy departments in either country to constructively participate or contribute to policy formation. Similarly, Article VII expressly envisages the two states could undertake cooperative engineering works, a possibility they have never pursued. 

Under the IWT, “East is East and West is West.”  Contra the poem of Rudyard Kipling, however, the ‘twain must meet if they are to effectively manage their shared water resources.


[1] V.M. Tiwari, J. Wahr, and S. Swenson, “Dwindling groundwater resources in northern India, from satellite gravity observations,” Geophysical Research Letters 36, L18401 (2009).

[2] Walter W. Immerzeel, Ludovicus P.H. van Beek, and Marc P.F. Bierkens, “Climate Change Will Affect the Asian Water Towers,” Science 328, no.5984 (2010).

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