A Dispute in Kashmir Troubles the Waters of the Indus River Basin

4 MINS READOct 14, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
A Dispute in Kashmir Troubles the Waters of the Indus River Basin
The waters of the Indus River, seen at its confluence with the Zanskar River in India, are a growing source of dispute between India and Pakistan, made worse by their discord over Kashmir.

The latest flare-ups in Kashmir are troubling the waters between India and Pakistan. Since 1960, both countries have abided by the Indus Waters Treaty, an agreement developed by the United Nations to govern the use of water along the Indus River and its main tributaries. In that time, the treaty has weathered three wars, numerous disagreements and plenty of threats to nullify or breach it. Now, the treaty has come under fire once again. In the wake of an attack on a military base in the Indian-administered area of Kashmir, and a subsequent cross-border raid into Pakistan's portion of the territory, disputes over the Indus River basin have resurged. Pakistan disagrees with India's plans for hydropower projects along the Indus, while the government in New Delhi is threatening to review the terms of its arrangement with Islamabad. Still, the odds that the treaty will be formally dissolved — or even violated — are low, though the sound and fury over the agreement could obscure a far graver danger.

Despite the rising tension over Kashmir, India has neither the impetus nor the ability to abolish the Indus Waters Treaty overnight. To officially abrogate the agreement, as some commentators have suggested might happen, would require a second ratified treaty according to the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Laws of Treaties. Beyond the legal hassle, India does not need to overturn or even formally violate the treaty to turn its shared water supply into a negotiating tool in the dispute over Kashmir. Under the treaty, India is allowed the use of 20 percent of the basin's western rivers (the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum) for agricultural and nonagricultural purposes, including navigation and hydropower projects. As it stands, however, India uses only a fraction of its allotment and could leverage plans to expand its activities on the Indus River Basin without breaking its agreement with Pakistan.

A Greater Threat

Meanwhile, the conflict in Kashmir has had little effect on Pakistan's plans and grievances in the Indus River Basin. Islamabad has objected to many of India's proposed hydropower projects over the years, citing the potential to disrupt Pakistan's water supplies. Pakistan has even taken its latest disagreement to The Hague, but this is nothing new; the Indus Water Treaty prescribes neutral arbitration to settle disputes, a provision Pakistan has exercised several times over the past decade. Three years after the International Court of Arbitration ruled in New Delhi's favor, Islamabad is still pursuing the claim that India's Kishanganga Dam project threatens its Neelum-Jhelum hydroelectric project. The country's own infrastructure plans in the Indus River Basin rely heavily on foreign financing and expertise, particularly from China. Maintaining Beijing's support and interest in this sector will remain crucial for Islamabad, and the current political climate in Kashmir is unlikely to prevent Pakistan from doing so. 

But Pakistan faces a far greater threat to its economic livelihood than India's hydroelectric ambitions: water scarcity and stress in the Indus River. Pollution and a large (and growing) population have conspired to diminish Pakistan's per capita water supply, which fell below the official line of water stress in 2009. At the same time, demand for water is expected to surge by as much as 30 percent there by 2025. Hydrological stations in Pakistan indicate that the country's supply of water from the Indus River dropped by 5 percent between the treaty's enactment and 2014. Because of limited storage along the Indus River Basin, Islamabad has a cushion of only about 30 days' worth of water to fall back on in the event of a disruption to the river system. What's more, the country is losing what little storage it has to sedimentation, making this an even more urgent problem.

Long-Term Concerns

This bodes ill for Pakistan's agricultural sector and, in turn, its economy. Cotton is Pakistan's top export by value, and the Indus River, which supplies the largest contiguous irrigation network in the world, supports more than 75 percent of Pakistan's total irrigated acreage. All cotton, rice and sugar cane fields in the country depend on irrigation, as do most wheat fields. India's activities and actions along the Indus River Basin are unlikely to permanently interfere with Pakistan's irrigation capacity, but water management and scarcity, on the other hand, pose a serious threat to Pakistan's economy in the long term.

Though the recent incidents in Kashmir seem to have renewed discord between India and Pakistan over the Indus Water Treaty, the agreement will almost certainly survive. After all, in the more than 50 years since its signing, it has withstood several other flare-ups between its rival signatory countries. The war of words over Kashmir will continue, as Islamabad and New Delhi try to avoid a larger conflict, and it may well continue to spill over into the Indus River Basin. Nevertheless, water scarcity will continue to be the far greater danger looming over the Indus basin.

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