Water Crisis in Pakistan: How to Avoid an Impending Catastrophe



By Areeba Khan.

Over the last decade, water security has emerged as an important topic of discussion both in policy and scholarly discourse. Generally speaking, water security involves protection of vulnerable water systems, protection against water related hazards such as floods and droughts, sustainable development of water resources, and safeguarding access to water functions and services. But this is not an easy task and very difficult to achieve. More recent definition of water security has focused on, “the availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for heal the, livelihoods, ecosystems and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks to people, environments and economies.”

“In ancient times, conflicts among nations were over land. In the present times, nations are fighting for greater access to more energy resources and power. In the future, these conflicts will be about water.” To quote Mark Twain, “Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It has been widely recognized that water is, and will become a major source of conflict in coming years. The future of the world is dependent on how water is equitably managed and distributed among the nations in coming years.

In our contemporary times water security is rapidly becoming a major concern not only for Asia, but for the entire world.  There is a large and significant threat to the water resources at regional and global level, most particularly in Asia as it is hosting approximately 60% of the world population. South Asia is not an exception when it comes to water security.

“Pakistan is at a limbo of Water scarcity and according to reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) there will be no water in Pakistan by 2025”

The major issue is between the two archrival states India and Pakistan. The water issue between India and Pakistan was broadly resolved through the Indus Water Treaty brokered by the World Bank in 1960. But, ever since Modi has come into power, this issue has been reignited. Modi has given various statements at various occasions, for example in 2016; he stated that “Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan.” Under these circumstances, the potential for a war over water between India and Pakistan becomes a reality. Responding to the threats of revoking the IWT by India,  the former Foreign Affairs Advisor, Sartaj Aziz,  said that this “can be taken as an act of war,” thus furthering the concerns of a looming water war.

In another meeting with the concerned ministry officials on Indus Waters Treaty which was held in 2016 he also stated that “blood and water can’t flow together at the same time.”

Furthermore, recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi has inaugurated the 330MW Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project in Jammu and Kashmir. Following the inauguration, Pakistan lodged a complaint with the World Bank alleging that by building the Kishanganga dam, India violated the Indus Water Treaty of 1960. The World Bank has advised Pakistan to forego its demand of referring the Kishanganga Dam dispute to the International Court of Arbitration and accept India’s offer of appointing a neutral expert.

“there are forces at work to make the Kalabagh Dam project controversial and prevent it from being constructed as it could make Pakistan a powerful agricultural power”

This is an opportunity for the two countries to begin to resolve the issue in an amicable manner and in line with the spirit of the treaty rather than pursuing concurrent processes that could make the treaty unworkable over time. I would hope that the two countries will come to an agreement by the end of January,” World Bank president Kim said. Although this decision of The World Bank shows some kind of more tilt towards the Indian side but still there are certain options for Pakistan to take this opportunity on hand and get maximum benefits out of it.

Because at this time Pakistan is at a limbo of Water scarcity and according to reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as well as the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), there will be no water in Pakistan by 2025 and a large number of deaths due to food shortage caused by non-availability of water will become a norm within a decade by country-wide failure to grow crops, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan. This could lead to a more antagonistic situation between India and Pakistan – because of India diverting Pakistan’s water flow by constructing dams – resulting in millions of deaths on both sides of the border. Time is running out, and Pakistan must act now.

“a clear water policy is needed along with a government that is determined to implement it”

In fact, Pakistan has gone backwards in the last 30 years because of the failure of our governance system and feeble policies of the government. There are forces at work to make the Kalabagh Dam project controversial and prevent it from being constructed as it could make Pakistan a powerful agricultural power. The cheap electricity produced through it would also jump start the country’s dying industry and enable establishment of industrial clusters all along the CPEC route.

In order to deal with the scarcity of water in future the Supreme Court can play a decisive role; Firstly, the land on which the Kalabagh Dam will be built will no longer be a part of Punjab but be legally owned by all the four provinces; secondly,  the control over flow of water would be vested with all the four provinces and not with Punjab alone; and finally  not more than 30 percent of water or electricity from the dam will go to Punjab for the next 50 years, till a new formula is reached by mutual agreement.

In addition to the construction of the Kalabagh Dam, we must complete the Bhasha Dam and construct hundreds of smaller dams all along our rivers. A clear water policy is needed along with a government that is determined to implement it. Where are the resources to build these dams? The cost of construction and waterways should be deducted from the funds being passed on to the provinces under the 7th NFC Award, and the 18th Amendment for after all it is the provinces that will benefit from these dams.

The construction of the Kalabagh Dam has now become an issue of national survival. The SC should form a commission comprising key provincial representatives and subject experts. We must build these dams with a sense of urgency, or risk suffering a famine.

About Author:

Areeba Khan is a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. She can be reached at areebakha@issi.org.pk.

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