Water Scarcity and the India-Pakistan Indus Water Treaty

MIN READJan 12, 2018 | 17:55 GMT

Indus River Valley


Stratfor’s model of applied geopolitics always starts with geography.  We look at how mountains, plains, rivers and mineral resources constrain a nation’s political, security and economic imperatives.

In this episode of the Stratfor Podcast, we explore the increasing implications of water scarcity around the globe. Stratfor South Asia Analyst Faisel Pervaiz and Senior Science and Technology Analyst Rebecca Keller explore the nature of water scarcity and the challenge it poses to domestic and foreign policy with a particular eye toward India, Pakistan and the Indus Water Treaty of 1960.

Related Reading

Water Scarcity Series on Stratfor Worldview

A Familiar Dispute in the Indus River Valley

South Asia: A Bump in the Belt and Road

Stratfor’s 2018 Annual Forecast for South Asia

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Emily Hawthorne [00:00:00] I'm Emily Hawthorne, a Middle East and North Africa Analyst at Stratfor, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor Worldview, the world's leading geopolitical intelligence platform. Individual team and enterprise memberships are available at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe.

Rebecca Keller [00:00:28] Pakistan on the Indus River has the largest irrigation network in the world. That river is extremely vital to their economy and Pakistan is another country that's undergoing severe water stress because of overuse and increasing populations.

Ben Sheen [00:00:53] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast, focused on geopolitics and world affairs from strafor.com. I'm your host, Ben Sheen. When we approach analysis and forecasting here at Stratfor, we always begin with geography, how the mountains, plains, mineral resources, etc. shape or constrain a nation's foreign policy or its political imperatives. Then we build upon that model. One of the geographic challenges all countries must address is water; simply water sources, water quality and most importantly, water scarcity. In this episode of the podcast, Stratfor's South Asia Analyst, Faisel Pervaiz and Senior Science and Technology Analyst, Rebecca Keller, discuss the challenges of water security with a particular eye towards India, Pakistan, and the Indus Water Treaty. Thanks for joining us.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:01:46] Hi, I'm Faisel Pervaiz, a South Asia Analyst here at Stratfor. Today I'm joined by my colleague, Rebecca Keller, a Senior Science and Technology Analyst to talk about water geopolitics in South Asia. Becca, thank you for joining, I'm really excited about this discussion. This is one of those subjects when we talk about water, there tends to be a lot of misconceptions and there's a lot of words that gain a lot of traction in the press and I think that, you can help sort of demystify some of these concepts. Just a couple of things that I was thinking about is that, you hear water scarcity, water stress, droughts and then of course water wars. Can you kind of unpack what people mean when they're using those terms?

Rebecca Keller [00:02:28] Yeah, absolutely. Water stress and water scarcity actually have very technical definitions when you're looking at how to define how much water a country has per capita. It's just different levels of how much water is available. For instance, severe water scarcity, what you think about the desert, that's less than 500 cubic meters per person per year, which is kind of an abject random number that you can't really think of in your head. But the way I would think about it is anything that's stressed, so anything that has a limited amount of water and that doesn't mean that water is not available. It means that you're using more water than is available or renewed in a given year. It may look like water is coming out your well at home, or coming out of the well, but if it's not being put back into that groundwater source, or if that river isn't replenishing itself, that's overuse or mismanagement of water, and that's really what we're talking about.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:03:19] This is interesting because 71% of this earth is water. In a global sense, we have so much water and so then when you get to stuff like agriculture and farming, what are the sources of water that people use?

Rebecca Keller [00:03:33] That's a great stat that 70-ish percent of the world is water, but a very small fraction of that is freshwater. Saltwater isn't usable for agriculture or consumption. Not like the water that's coming out of the oceans, no. You need to desalinate it. There is desalination technology and cost wise, it's starting to become more usable in certain parts of the world, but for agriculture, you're really looking at groundwater, so wells, or surface water which is rivers, lakes or rainfall. And that's a very small portion. The small portion that is freshwater, a lot of that's still trapped in ice for now. In theory, the areas in the world that would grow stuff would be the ones that have the most water but that's not always where the populations are. It's this whole balance of resources where you're looking at how to feed populations and how to support these populations that sometimes outgrow the resources that are available. China and India are big examples of where the population is just trying to outgrow the resources. India, we think of as a lush green wet place at times, but it's one of the most water stressed countries in the world, in the sense that

Rebecca Keller [00:04:36] they are overusing the resources that they have.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:04:39] If we take the India example and say you're a policymaker, you get the note across your desk that water stress, we're using too much water, what are solutions and steps that can be taken?

Rebecca Keller [00:04:51] Water policy is one of the most controversial kinds of policy in the entire world, and it's funny, because it's a very domestic issue, it's a very local issue, but it's also a global issue. Every country in the world has some sort of water stress issue in one of its regions, but because water is almost universally viewed as a right versus a commodity, it's really hard to make policy where it's easier to treat it like a commodity, like price it to its true value. That would be one way to better manage it. You install different technologies, better irrigation systems, even dams are a way to regulate water and make it more reliable throughout the year, but they have their own political and environmental issues to look at as well. There's several solutions. There's different allocations of water to different regions, but all of that comes down to people view it as a right. It's hard to get the political and social will behind that in order to implement those kind of policies that would restrict water usage in any way.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:05:46] There's some societies in the world that still rely a lot in agriculture for employment. India and Pakistan are actually two good examples of that. Obviously, in a typical economic development you begin with agriculture, but then you sort of transition into factories, then eventually transition into services. And as you and I have talked about, India is an interesting case study there in that, they begin with agriculture, and although they tried industrialization, it's an incomplete success, and yet at the same time, they've built a robust services sector. Now, the agriculture part is very interesting because I know you and I have talked more about this in terms of the monsoons. And in these sort of societies, there seems to be an overwhelming dependence on rains. If you get good rains, then you get crops. But if you don't get strong rains, then you have a weaker crop output that year and that can really affect your economic growth. And so, what I'm wondering is that, many countries have overcome this problem. And you mentioned this other term, and some people maybe familiar but just to sort of sharpen the definition, irrigation, that's another term that I think is thrown out a lot.

Rebecca Keller [00:06:49] Right, so basically watering the crops with something other than rain, would be the simplest definition. You can use canals that bring water to your crops and those can be lined, they can be just dirt canals depending on what kind, different water will seep into the ground at different rates. You can have drip irrigation which is a much more modern advanced technology. For listeners, you would almost have this in your gardens sometimes, it's that little lines that bring the water directly to the roots of the plant. And irrigation is something India has associated with a first step in modernization of agriculture, and it doesn't make you as to the mercy of the weather quite as much. There's still some there, it's not perfect but you're not as reliant on the monsoon cycle. But that being said, irrigation in India is highly reliant on groundwater. There's a lot of government subsidization and support for the agriculture sector and for the fuel it costs to pump water up from the ground and all that support pushes farmers to use the water more and overuse the water. That's sort of where India has found itself. Rice in particular is one sector where they've really had a government push to grow rice but that's really upped the irrigation requirements as well and hurt the water resources.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:07:53] As you're talking about this, I'm also thinking about contamination.

Rebecca Keller [00:07:57] Especially with agriculture, the fertilizers will also seep into the ground. If there is a misuse of fertilizers, that can also contaminate the water. The Ganges River, I'm switching from ground surface but the Ganges River has a large volume of water, but it's not all consumable because of the pollution. Such is a major example of extremely large body of water where the volume numbers on paper don't correlate to the usable volume on the ground.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:08:20] That makes sense. You are mentioning the Ganges and this reminds me of a factoid about the India and Pakistan. That name India, it actually derives from the River Indus yet most of that river now is in Pakistan and that's where it exits. When you look at India and Pakistan, obviously, we recently had the 70th anniversary of the partition, hasn't been the best relationship. There's been wars. I mean we had, as soon as India and Pakistan gained independence, you had the first war over Kashmir and then in 1965, you had the second war over Kashmir. And then in 1971, a war in which the eastern wing of Pakistan became another country, Bangladesh. And then finally in 1999, a mini war, but again it was in Kashmir. There tends to be a lot of attention on the political part of that situation, and it was interesting to me to think about the water angle to this as well. And if you look in a map, you actually see that all of Pakistan's major rivers cross through India. And this is where maybe you can illuminate this concept of the riparian, the upper riparian state and the lower riparian state, what does that mean?

Rebecca Keller [00:09:22] Riparian just means the inclusiveness of the river basin. States that are higher up on the river flow, they basically control the start of the river. They have the ability to block the water from moving down to lower riparian states. That puts the lower riparian states in a naturally weaker position in terms of water use and water management. Now, India and Pakistan along the Indus River have had actually had one of the most functional water treaties, The Indus Water Treaty throughout history. It actually has survived numerous wars but we're seeing it being used as sort of a political tool right now, and Pakistan objecting to dams that India's building and the like.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:09:53] I was going to say that on the subject of dams, and again this, I think for some people might be a more technical topic. And just so I have a better understanding, what is the big deal if you are the upper state and you build a dam on a river that's going to the lower state, I mean why is that a big deal?

Rebecca Keller [00:10:09] It depends on the type of dam. One of the river dams in theory, should allow the river to continue going to the lower states. There doesn't have to be a cut off, but there can be a cut off. It gives you control and the ability to cut off water flow to the lower state. If it has a reservoir as well, there is always going to be a period of time where you slow the flow of the river to fill that reservoir and that's a particularly sensitive time for the lower state, because it's going to alter the flow of the river. Now, in the Indus Water Treaty, India is technically not using all of the water that's allocated to them. In theory, they don't have to violate the treaty to do something that could still hurt Pakistan. Now the other thing we were talking about irrigation before, Pakistan on the Indus River has the largest irrigation network in the world.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:10:56] Oh wow, yeah.

Rebecca Keller [00:10:57] And so that river is extremely vital to their economy, especially they're also a major rice exporter. And so for that, rice is a crop that requires significant levels of irrigation. That's definitely on the list of things that worry. And Pakistan is another country that's undergoing severe water stress because of overuse and increasing populations.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:11:16] Well, this is very interesting. There is something about the dam idea that I found very interesting. Is it possible to literally cut the flow off of a river entirely?

Rebecca Keller [00:11:26] Not entirely, but you can slow it to the point where it's not useful anymore. You'd have to have a reservoir honestly to cut it off entirely, and that would only be temporarily. There are limits of physics, you're going to have the pressure coming on like instant. But it does give you control over the flow of the water and it's that control, regardless of the technicalities of how the dam works, that's the politically threatening idea in all of this.

Ben Sheen [00:11:58] We'll get back to our conversation about water scarcity issues with Stratfor's Faisel Pervaiz and Rebecca Keller in just one moment. But if you're interested more in this topic, visit us at Stratfor Worldview. We dedicated an entire series of analyses on the issue of water scarcity around the globe. From South Asia to Saudi Arabia, the Great Lakes to South America and far beyond. We'll include a link to our water scarcity series in the show notes. And if you were not already a Worldview member, you can learn more about individual team and enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now, back to our conversation with Stratfor's Faisel Pervaiz and Rebecca Keller.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:12:42] Going back to this concept of water wars, I guess in theory the idea is that as a population and a region grows, and if that particular country does not institute the appropriate irrigation mechanisms that that stresses the water supply more and that therefore places a higher incentive on conservation and that can have certain costs. If the water stress is increasing, the populations are growing, I mean what is the long-term solution for these countries?

Rebecca Keller [00:13:14] Right, so that's actually what we're starting to see. So water wars is a term we actually are very cautious about using, there are very few areas in the world where two countries would fight over water. There are some, trust me, the Middle East is one of those places. But there are also areas in the world where it will be one factor in an ongoing conflict, but it's also countries that don't really have the monetary capability to do anything about it. Syria and Yemen are the two examples that come to my mind of wars or conflicts that have a component of water scarcity in them. It was a resource that the population just couldn't sustain itself and it brought about tensions that were already boiling for other reasons as well or it contributed to rising tensions. But as far as like fighting over water resources that still exist, Pakistan and India are still a place where that can contribute to ongoing tensions and that's the plates we're seeing tensions. You brought up Kashmir, but it's been a topic we've been talking about a lot lately on our team, the dynamic between India, Pakistan, Russia, China, the US, it's a real convergence point and I'd love to hear your opinions on that.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:14:21] The interesting thing about that is that when I think about India and Kashmir, Pakistan in particular, I think about that, you mentioned the political use and I remember last year that in September there was an attack in which India accused Pakistani militants crossing over into its side of Kashmir. And as India was mulling a response, one of the things they said was that why don't we revisit the treaty. And I think as you were saying, the revisitation of that treaty was not based on the idea of let's just shut the water off. What India was saying was that let's try to increase the amount of water we are legally allowed to use, and even that became a good point of contention, because as you were suggesting for Pakistan, any increase, and this is where I'm actually, and I'm asking you about this, this is like a zero sum thing, if India increases their water that Pakistan, that's all the water they don't get, right?

Rebecca Keller [00:15:09] In theory, yes. Again, it's this weird math. There's renewable resources but then there's reserves. It's a matter of sustainability as well. The zero sum thing can get tricky because you have different rainfall each year and whatnot. But it's stopping flow of water on a river that Pakistan uses, is the way to think about it.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:15:29] That makes sense. Going back to your question, as you and I talk about water issues, it just gives me another layer to always keep in the back of my mind as I'm stating the broader dynamics because as you were alluding to, if you look at South Asia region right now as a whole, there's some interesting confrontations that are happening, right? We've written a lot about this on the site in terms of India, China, having their standoff on the Doklam Plateau right now. Even more recently we were talking about the idea that India has at least floated the idea of building a road in Kashmir. A lot of times when we talk about Kashmir, that topic is dominated by India and Pakistan. But people forget that there's a third country that owns a small piece of Kashmir and that's China. China has a stake in that region as well.

Rebecca Keller [00:16:15] China is one of the best dam builders in the world. Yeah, absolutely, they're one of the technological leaders in dam building. It's a tool they've used elsewhere in the world, especially along the Mekong Delta in Southeast Asia. They've used dam building in those nations as a political tool as well.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:16:32] When you say that they're very good at dam building...

Rebecca Keller [00:16:35] The engineering aspect, that whole...

Faisel Pervaiz [00:16:37] Literally the technical sophistication of their dams is better than other...

Rebecca Keller [00:16:42] Yes.

Faisel Pervaiz [00:16:45] Well, again, that's a very important fact in my eyes just because it puts a bow on the conversation, which is that, when we're talking about water, when we're talking about dams you see this intersection of many, many different topics; natural resources which by definition implies scarcity, which also then implies money and cost, then as we talk about an India Pakistan context, those things then have to be considered against a backdrop of political long running rivalries that a lot of times erupted into war. And then talking about in the China example as well that again having the technical mastery over being able to build infrastructure like this can really give you a great advantage. So much more on this subject certainly to explore look forward to thinking and talking more about this. Rebecca, thank you very much for the conversation. I really appreciate it, thank you.

Rebecca Keller [00:17:37] It was great.

Ben Sheen [00:17:49] That's it for this episode of the Stratfor Podcast. To explore the issue of water scarcity and how it constrains nations further, be sure to visit us at Stratfor Worldview. We'll include some related links in the show notes. And if you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can visit us at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe to learn more about individual, team and enterprise level access. Worldview members can also contribute to this conversation in our members only forum. And if you have a comment or an idea for a future episode of the podcast, email us at podcast@stratfor.com or give us a call on 1-512-744-4300 extension 3917 to leave a message. And if you have a moment, also consider leaving us a review on iTunes or wherever you subscribe. We appreciate your feedback and it also helps others discover the podcast. Thanks once again for joining us. For more geopolitical intelligence, analysis and forecasting that brings global events into valuable perspective, follow us on Twitter @Stratfor.

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