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Scraping Indus Water Treaty; a water bomb waiting to explode?

Indus Water Treaty; High above controversial Baglihar Dam or also known as the Baglihar Hydroelectric Power Project in mountains of Kashmir

By Wahid Bhat
New Update
North India, including Kashmir might run out of freshwater by 2060

As the world faces the consequences of climate change and global warming, India is no different. The effects are visible across the country and the situation in the upper reaches is no different. The Himalayas are equally facing the brunt of the rising temperatures and a new study indicates that the glaciers that feed several rivers in the country could disappear by the end of this century.

India and Nepal are highly dependent on these glacier-fed rivers with over a billion people living on their banks. The intense melting of these glaciers could lead to rise in water levels, submerging several regions in the country. New satellite data has allowed researchers to measure changes in the volume of ice masses over a period of 40 years.

Kashmiri citizens on both sides of the border – on the Line of Control, as it is known – are caught in the middle of this water conflict. For more than 63 years, the Indus Water Treaty has prevented India and Pakistan from going to war over Himalayan rivers.

The agreement gave India exclusive use of the three eastern tributary rivers of the Indus (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej), and gave Pakistan exclusive rights to the three western tributaries (Indo, Jhelum and Chenab).

Indus Water Treaty

The treaty has prevented the development and construction of hydroelectric or irrigation projects in Kashmir itself. 

It also sets limits on how much Kashmiri land can receive irrigation water and sets strict rules on how and where it can be stored, making hydroelectric projects on the Chenab River - such as the Baglihar Dam - difficult to implement.

1960 Indus Water Treaty

The Indus Waters Treaty was signed by the two fledgling rival nations in 1960 after the independence and partition of the two countries. The treaty governs the distribution and use of the waters of the Indus River and its multiple tributaries. The treaty was signed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani President and Marshal Ayub Khan.

The Indus River begins its journey in the upper Himalayan ranges, with some glaciers also located in Tibet, although most of the water enters the system in the states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir.

The waters then flow through Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh. The Indus river system contributes a total of 113 million acre-feet (MAF) through six of its major rivers – the Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum.

Indus Water Treaty | Photo credit: unsplash

The treaty stipulates that the water of the "eastern rivers" - Beas, Ravi and Sutlej with 33 MAF - would be "controlled" by India while the "western rivers" - Indus, Chenab and Jhelum with 80 MAF - would be "controlled by Pakistan".

India is also able to utilize western rivers for power generation, navigation, property floating and fish farming in a non-consumptive manner.

Although a water-sharing treaty was drawn up in 1960, its provisions are beginning to give way in the face of the growing population of both countries and the consequences of climate change. 

Shortly before Pakistan troops entered the Kargil War, a then-unknown Pakistani general named Pervez Musharraf wrote in his doctoral thesis for the Royal College of Defense Studies in London that the distribution of Kashmir water between India and Pakistan "Was the seed of a future conflict.

Water, at the center of the problem

Because water is indispensable to both, many experts fear that one day the dispute over the Indus—already a constant source of diplomatic skirmishes—will push these nuclear-capable countries into all-out war.

Peter Gleick, an expert at the Pacific Institute said that conflicts over lack of water have increased in number in various parts of the world. However, Kashmir could be one of the most dangerous cases. 

According to a recent United Nations report, Pakistan's water resources have fallen from 5,000 cubic meters per person in the 1950s to 1,420 today, a figure that is dangerously close to the threshold at which water scarcity becomes an impediment to economic development and a danger to the health of the population.

India, with 1,750 cubic meters per person, is not in better shape either. And the huge population of both nations continues to grow. In addition, as much of the water comes from the glaciers -in the disappearance- of the Himalayas, they are countries that are very vulnerable to climate change.

"We already have evidence that climate changes water availability and quality," explains Gleick. "Kashmir is a place where water is perhaps not the worst problem, but like Sudan, or the Tigris, Euphrates or Nile rivers, it is a growing factor of concern in an already conflict-ridden situation," he adds.

Climate Change

Climate Change threatens Kashmir, In a 2012 interview, Kashmiri Scientist Dr Nazir Ahmad Masood said that "almost 1 lakh cubic feet of timber is smuggled from Kashmir valley every year, leading to the illegal felling of almost 10,000 adult coniferous trees in the Kashmir valley which could turn Kashmir into Ladakh in the next 40-50 years".

"Climate Change indicators are quite loud and clear in the region and have impacted the snow and glacier resources in the upper Indus," Glaciologist and author of several studies on glaciers in the Himalayan region and vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Kashmir Shakil Ahmad Romshoo said.

The Indus Supports about 90 per cent of Pakistan's agriculture. Scientists say a number of Glaciers in the area are rapidly receding due to climate change.

The large-scale Human intervention in the form of unorganized pilgrimages and mindless tourism too is upping the temperatures resulting in the fast melting of glaciers.

Indus Water Treaty | Photo credit: Unsplash

"The Stream flows emanating from the region have significantly decreased. It is pertinent to mention here that the IWT (Indus Water Treaty) did not have any clause on Climate Change impacts on stream flows", Romshoo says.

Mismanagement of existing water

The Interlinking of rivers or (LLR) projects in India and mismanagement of existing water supplies augments the pressure on both countries.

The Number in global temperatures and a significant number of dams as a glaciologist quoted by the Economist calls them 'Water Bombs' on the Indus in an earthquake-prone Zome Thus calls for a review of the treaty.

In fact, a top water expert who worked with the WB on a report about Indian Dams argues that 15 large Indian dams in the Himalayas are "dodgy Dams" and shouldn't have been commissioned at all.

"In its survey, two of these (Dams) were found adequate but not earthquake-proof. The other 13 should have never been built. It found a lot of corruption in the Indian Dam building system. The Bank didn't publish the survey thought", an expert in the UK said.

Beyond politics

Given the risks, Pakistan is more vulnerable as nearly 70% of the country's GDP depends on the Indus. All of its exports, whether Basmati rice or textiles, depend on the Indus basin. Islamabad must heed the call to address climate change and environmental issues.

Scientific knowledge should be the guiding factor rather than political considerations, said Shakil Romshoo, lead author of several studies on glaciers in the Himalayan region and vice-chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Kashmir.

"Based on current scientific knowledge, revision of the treaty should be considered to incorporate the many new issues that have had a significant impact on water availability and distribution," Romshoo said.

Increased water stress

Indus Water Treaty | Photo credit: unsplash

In June 2015, NASA ranked the Indus Basin as the second most stressed aquifer in the world. They said the depletion of groundwater in the Indus Basin could worsen the subcontinent's water crisis.

Many communities in the Indus Basin face water scarcity under current patterns of use and storage. According to NASA, the Indus Basin is the second most overloaded aquifer in the world (Buis & Wilson, 2015).

Unlike India, Pakistan relies almost exclusively on the Indus, with southern downstream areas especially vulnerable to stresses on the basin's water supply.

Aggravating effect of climate change

Although water scarcity in the Indus Basin is often attributed to poor water management, climate change also plays a role (Diamond, 2014).

The Himalayan glaciers, which feed the Indus Basin, are projected to shrink further in the coming years. This may increase water flow in the short term, but will also deplete groundwater recharge in the long term, thus reducing available water resources (Jayaram, 2016).

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