Pakistan’s India Obsession Hides its Real Water Challenges

Are Indo-Pak tensions over water sharing shadowing Pakistan’s domestic water management issues?

Over the past few months, with the deterioration of relations between Pakistan and India, there has been a renewed interest in the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). Statements from India seem to indicate a shift in the approach regarding water sharing in the Indus basin. There has been extensive discussion and speculation on the implications of India’s ‘new policy’ and what it means for Pakistan’s water resources.

However, a proper sense of perspective of this problem, relative to Pakistan’s water resources, seems to be lacking in much of these discussions and commentaries.

Not only has the media coverage been disproportionately directed towards this issue, it has often been hyperbolic and misleading.

Take for example, the coverage of a speech where PM Narendra Modi said: “The fields of our farmers must have adequate water. Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan… The government will do everything to provide enough water to our farmers.”

This statement was portrayed in Pakistan as an aggressive threat by India to ‘divert’ or ‘stop’ water flow to Pakistan. Setting aside the fact that India doesn’t have the infrastructure to have any appreciable impact on water flows entering Pakistan, nor will it in the near future, what most of the coverage failed to acknowledge was that PM Modi was talking about utilising the flows on the eastern rivers that have anyway been apportioned to India under the IWT.

It is also important to remember that he was making these statements in the run-up to important elections. What was essentially electioneering was made out to be a threat to the sanctity of the IWT by many in Pakistan.

Missing the Important Points

It is this approach of viewing its problems from an India-centric prism that has prevented Pakistan from addressing its actual challenges. Valid Pakistani concerns regarding the hydropower infrastructure being built by India on the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) is what the media coverage should focus on.

Linking these genuine concerns with innocuous political statements made across the border only serves to distract from the main problem, and perpetuates the narrative of ‘India stealing Pakistan’s water’.

Not only is this narrative misleading, it also distracts political and public efforts in Pakistan from focusing on more pressing domestic water challenges that, if not resolved soon, may impact food and energy security in Pakistan significantly more than any upstream Indian hydropower projects can.

The political and administrative effort devoted to potential Indian violations of the IWT is disproportionate to its actual impact on water resources in Pakistan. Pakistan has several other water challenges that deserve significantly more attention. As a starting point, a much more fruitful endeavour would be to address the interprovincial water management conflicts that have significantly hampered much needed water resources development in the country.

No Focus on Internal, Inter-regional Water Sharing

Ironic is the only word to describe the current state of Pakistan’s water management, where Pakistan accuses its neighbour of violating a treaty while its own provinces feud bitterly over their own water sharing accord.

In the last few weeks alone, the chief minister of Sind held a press conference demanding control of the major reservoirs, Balochistan blamed Sind for not providing water, while the grievances of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) regarding not receiving its due share of water-related benefits from the federal government were aired.

On paper, there exists an agreement between the provinces regarding sharing of the country’s water resources, commonly referred to as the IRSA (Indus River System Authority) Accord. While it was celebrated as a sign of provincial unity when it was signed in 1991, it has proven to be anything but. Its imprecise language and lack of clearly stated rules of operation meant that discord began to brew soon after the Accord was agreed upon, with provinces trading allegations of breach of agreement ever since.

These allegations are as serious as they are predictable with the provincial bickering peaking every year in March and April with the start of the summer sowing season.

Often, discussions regarding major water management decisions in Pakistan (eg: sharing of water or benefits associated with water or construction of major water infrastructure) are hindered not due to technical or economic concerns, but political ones.

No Reliable Data

A related challenge plaguing water management in Pakistan is a lack of reliable measurements of the various components of the water budget such as rainfall or streamflow, and a lack of transparency regarding the ways this data is collected. In fact, one may argue that this lack of reliable data collection and sharing underlies many of the interprovincial conflicts.

Nonetheless, there is still an appreciable amount of data for flows and diversions at major barrages and canals that is recorded by the provincial irrigation departments of the respective provinces. Unfortunately, whatever data is available is often not shared, or is deliberately fudged by provinces, adding to the lack of transparency and feeling of mistrust.

Water allocation between provinces are made by IRSA based on water availability in a given year, which is determined by the inflows, storage and outflows from the Indus basin.

However, according to IRSA’s own figures (accessed by the author, but not in public domain), almost a quarter of the water inflows into the country are unaccounted for!

Pakistan’s inability to develop any major water storage infrastructure in the past 40 years is also partly rooted in this lack of reliable streamflow measurements, with the provinces not able to agree on basic facts such as the magnitude of streamflow into the Indus delta.

Many independent experts have argued that it is imperative that Pakistan establish a transparent and impartial system for water management between provinces. That can only be possible with the availability of transparent, easily accessible, and rigorous calibrated measurements of water inflows, storage and outflows.

There are signs that water management in the country is perhaps moving in the right direction. A new National Water Policy, dealing with the issues mentioned above and many others, has been devised and is in the process of being implemented. It remains to be seen how effective the policy is at improving interprovincial cooperation.

Solving Pakistan’s major water challenges requires concerted political effort and increased public awareness. It will be impossible to achieve this if we are constantly distracted by the hyperbolic smokescreen of ‘India stealing Pakistan’s water’.

(The author is a graduate research assistant at the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This article first appeared on The Third Pole on 27 April 2017.)