Why India and Pakistan Need to Review the Indus Waters Treaty

With the failure of July 14-15 talks held between India and Pakistan to settle concerns raised by the latter over the former’s dam projects (Kishenganga and Ratle) over the Western rivers (Jhelum’s tributary and Chenab respectively) of the Indus Basin (allocated to the latter under the Indus Waters Treaty), Pakistan has now decided to take the matter to the International Court of Arbitration (ICA), based in the Hague. While the political and legal battles over the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) continue to create headlines in the region, and across the world, there is another time bomb ticking beneath the surface.   

The IWT clearly lays out the rules for the use of surface water (including arbitration procedures in the event of differences or disputes), but when it comes to groundwater management and governance, there is a big policy vacuum. Although the issue has been brought up in various discussions involving policy and scientific communities of the two countries, no joint strategy has so far been adopted. Similarly, the treaty tends to disregard environmental and climatic factors, whose impacts on the Indus Basin are unravelling gradually.

Both India and Pakistan, being agrarian economies, are heavily dependent on agriculture. India and Pakistan are the first and fourth largest users of groundwater in the world respectively. 60 percent of India’s irrigated area is groundwater-dominated; and groundwater utilisation is extremely high in the states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan – two of which share a border with Pakistan. If one takes the case of the Punjab province in Pakistan that produces 90 percent of the country’s food, groundwater caters for more than 40 percent of the total crop water requirements. The Punjab province of Pakistan shares a border with both Punjab (Indian state) and Rajasthan.

As far as the Indus Basin is concerned, it is the second most overstressed on the planet, as indicated by a NASA survey – falling by 4-6 millimetres per year. Groundwater levels have fallen dismally in the above-mentioned states of India and moreover, short-sighted policies (such as free or subsidised power supply) have ensured that farmers continue to abstract groundwater, well beyond its recharge capacity. Pakistan too has developed the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system to divert waters of the Indus Basin to its farms (especially after the IWT was signed), leading to depleted groundwater.

Excessive groundwater abstraction on either side of the border is bound to have serious repercussions for both the countries. A report of International Union for Conservation of Nature (Pakistan) brings out the disastrous impacts of current rates of groundwater abstraction in India – including depletion of aquifers in Pakistan’s border regions. The report also pins the blame on India’s projects, which according to it, could induce groundwater recharge in India, thereby restricting the surface water flow to Pakistan owing to “seepage losses in lakes and reservoirs”.

The list of challenges is long – “a declining reservoir storage due to sedimentation; water logging and salinity, loss of productive agricultural land, land degradation, contamination of surface and groundwater resources; an increase in environmental flows to sustain ecosystems within the rivers and the Indus delta, but also to prevent further salt water intrusion in the delta.” The IWT should account for various such environmental factors that could potentially affect water availability in India and Pakistan, considering the per capita availability is on a steep decline in both the countries. This becomes all the more important for Pakistan as the country is entirely dependent on the surface and ground waters of the Indus Basin for its survival. For India too, waters of the Indus Basin have a key role to play in ensuring the country’s food security, as they feed the most critical agricultural region of India.

Climate change is another issue that both the countries need to incorporate in bilateral discussions for long-term water security and stability in the region. The Indus river system is said to have maximum dependence (151 percent) on glacial meltwater. Although in the short-term, increased temperatures and glacial retreat in the Himalayas could result in increased water availability, in the long run water availability (and groundwater recharge) is expected to decrease dramatically, especially in the spring and summer seasons. A reduction in water availability could even raise political and socio-economic demands for renegotiating or reviewing the IWT. The Indian government has been facing flak over the current distribution of waters with the state governments of Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and others lying in the Indus Basin alleging that the treaty was signed without an assessment of the future availability of water in the Indus system. In certain instances, even compensation for the agricultural losses incurred on account of the treaty has been sought. These issues were not addressed, envisaged or understood when the IWT was brokered, but better late than never.

Despite previous and ongoing tussles over India’s dam projects (under construction), the IWT has been hailed as the biggest and most successful confidence-building measure between the two countries. India has maintained that even when the two countries were at war, it has abided by the principles of the treaty (as the upper riparian) and provided the rightful supply of water (43 million acre feet every day) to the other side of the border. Pakistan, too has sought to settle disputes over “faulty designs” of Indian dams through legal means – either bilaterally or by moving the ICA or a third party. It is a different matter that certain elements within Pakistan Army have sporadically threatened to employ the nuclear option, if India jeopardises the flow of water to its territory under any circumstances.

Now that the treaty has withstood major and minor hiccups, it is time to revisit it and provide impetus to it by putting within its ambit issues such as groundwater as well as environmental and climate change. The first step should be to exchange reliable and foresighted data on groundwater and not just surface water. But cooperation should not be limited solely to the exchange of data. Through diplomatic initiatives, the two countries should work towards a plan for integrated basin management by implementing groundwater recharge programmes and joint hydroelectric production projects – building a strong sub-regional hydro-economy. Pakistan, being an energy and water starved country, would only benefit from such initiatives. On the climate change front, not only can the two sides engage in joint technical studies on the impacts of climate change on the basin, but they can also have joint action plans for mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Since the Indus Basin comprises not only India and Pakistan, but also China and Afghanistan, there needs to be regional coordination among all the four countries – although geopolitically this seems a far cry. Water is an existential issue and countries need to go beyond politics to cooperate on Indus Basin management.

[This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.]

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India