MS Risk Blog

Are Water Wars Emerging?

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In the wake of the deadly Pulwama suicide terror attack of 14 February in which more than 40 Indian police officers were killed by a Pakistan-based insurgency group called Jaish-e-Mohammed, New Delhi has vowed to retaliate, among other measures, by cutting back on water flowing through its rivers to Pakistan. Indian Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari stated in a tweet that “Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” India has made this threat before when an Indian Army base was attacked in Uri in 2016, but in the end chose to use surgical strikes against targets in Pakistan. This time, however, India seems more determined about using water as a weapon.

Under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), brokered by the World Bank in 1960, India and Pakistan divided the rights to the enormous Indus river and its tributaries as follows: while the waters of the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi rivers flow to India, the waters of the West Indus, the Jhelum, and the Chenab rivers flow into Kashmir and beyond that into Pakistani territory. While the treaty has held even in spite of three wars between the two nations since 1965, it is increasingly being strained to its limit. Pakistan has accused India of throttling its water supply and violating the treaty by constructing dams over the rivers flowing into Pakistan from Kashmir.

Although both sides rely heavily on the water flows for hydropower and agriculture, it is Pakistan, for which the water of Indus is a lifeline: most of the country depends on it as the primary source of freshwater and it supports 90 percent of the country’s agricultural industry. While previously Pakistan was considered relatively plentiful with water, a mixture of mismanaged irrigation, water-intensive agriculture and climate change has reduced the water flow of Indus significantly. Now Pakistan is ranked as third among countries facing severe water shortages making it one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. It is facing challenges brought about by climate change which were not considered important during the negotiations for the IWT in 1960 and the access to water has become a matter of survival for the country. Therefore, a rhetoric suggesting a possible water war is alarming considering the fact that Pakistan is a country with nuclear weapons. If Pakistan were to be backed into a corner because its lack of access to water which is needed for growing food for its exploding population, it would be forced to use every means available to them.

In this dangerously evolving scenario the only thing that might keep India from shutting Pakistan off from the Indus waters is China. Because even India is dependent upon the mercy of China due to being even further upstream. As a result, if China were to pursue the regulation of water runoff from the glaciers in the Himalayas, it would have a similar effect on India.