Managing Shared Basins - Opportunities & Challenges in Implementation of the Indus Water Treaty

February 23, 2018


The Indus Basin is an important shared resource for Pakistan and India. Currently, it is under stress due to environmental degradation and climate change impacts as well as a rising population and increasing agricultural, industrial and domestic uses. In addition, the accelerated pace of upstream hydropower development by India on the Western rivers of the Indus, allocated to Pakistan with exclusive rights under the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, is causing anxieties in downstream Pakistan. This upstream construction of dams has led to several controversies regarding compliance with the provisions of the Treaty. Furthermore, climate change challenges were not factored in when the Treaty was signed in 1960.

These issues call for closer cooperation between India and Pakistan to preserve the hydrology and ecology of the Indus Basin within the broad parameters of the Indus Water Treaty. This can be done through various means including capacity building of the Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters (PCIW) and trust-building measures such as knowledge sharing to strengthen policy engagement.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session on 'Opportunities & Challenges in Implementation of the Indus Water Treaty' as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. The guest speaker for this session was Dr. Shaheen Akhtar, Associate Professor at National Defence University in Islamabad.

Pakistan's Dependence on the Indus River

The Indus River accounts for 20% of the national GDP and provides livelihoods for a majority of the country. It also contributes to more than 60% of Pakistan's exports, including cotton and rice. Given that Pakistan is one of the world's driest countries, with more than half the country receiving less than 300 millimeters of annual rainfall, the population and economy are heavily dependent on an annual influx of flows into the Indus river system. Given Pakistan's dependence on the Indus and the need to preserve the ecology and hydrology of the Indus Basin, the recent actions taken by the upper riparian, India, regarding construction of large dams on the Western rivers, is a cause for concern. In some cases, these hydropower projects are polluting and poisoning the waters; hence, there is a need for India and Pakistan to overcome their differences and work together to preserve the ecology and hydrology of this important water source.

The Impact of Climate Change in the Indus River Basin

There are several drivers of stress in the Indus River Basin, including a growing population and subsequent rapid urbanization as well as industrial and climatic threats including receding glaciers, rising temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns.

In terms of water availability, the increasing population is resulting in higher water demands to meet domestic, industrial and energy needs. Between 1947 and 2010, Pakistan's per capita water availability dwindled from 5,600 cubic meters per person to just 1,066 cubic meters person. Further projections indicate that by 2050, this will reduce to just 700 cubic meters per person (National Academies of Science, 2013).

In addition, climate change is likely to increase the variability of monsoon rains and enhance the frequency and severity of extreme events like floods and droughts. Climate change is also likely to impact river flows, further intensifying water scarcity in arid and semi-arid parts of the country that are already under heat and water stress. At the same time, increased upstream intrusion of saline water in the Indus delta will adversely affect coastal areas that are under threat from a rising sea level and increased cyclonic activity due to higher sea surface temperatures.

These changes are leading to severe degradation of the Indus River Basin. Environmental degradation in the upper reaches of the Basin are negatively impacting downstream flows in the Western rivers and much of the forest cover in the Basin has been lost. At the same time, construction of dams and other hydropower projects are adding to the problem. As per the Indus Water Treaty, India is allowed to construct run-of-river and hydroelectric plants on the Western rivers. These are not really a problem for Pakistan as they do not involve permanent storage and therefore do not affect the river flows, but the larger dams are an issue, and the lack of information and data sharing about such developments remains a challenge.

The Indus Water Treaty and Institutional Framework for Cooperation

The Indus Water Treaty is the definitive water sharing agreement between India and Pakistan. The Treaty sets out conditions for access to and use of the waters of the Eastern Rivers (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) and Western Rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) of the Indus River.

For example, as per Article II of the Indus Water Treaty, all the waters of the Eastern Rivers (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) shall be available for the unrestricted use of India. In addition, except for domestic and non-consumptive uses, 'Pakistan shall be under an obligation to let flow, and shall not permit any interference' with the Sutlej and Ravi rivers.

Similarly, according to Article III (1), 'Pakistan shall receive for unrestricted use all those waters of the Western Rivers which India is under obligation to let flow under the provisions of Paragraph (2). Article III (2) thereafter states that 'India shall be under an obligation to let flow all the waters of the Western Rivers, and shall not permit any interference with these waters', except in the case of domestic use, non-consumptive use, agricultural use and generation of hydro-electric power.

In light of new challenges posed by climate change, population growth and rapid urbanization, India and Pakistan should strengthen and expand the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC).

The PIC was initiated by Article VIII of the Indus Water Treaty. It is comprised of a Commissioner appointed by each country and it serves as regular channel of communication and dispute resolution on all matters pertaining to the implementation of the Treaty. There is a need to expand the scope and mandate of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) in order to minimize referrals to Neutral Experts and the Court of Arbitration. Moreover, there is a need to align the role of the PIC with current realities so that it can maintain its relevance.

To support the PIC, an Indus Water Consultative Group consisting of international water experts and representatives from India and Pakistan can be formed to provide technical assistance and input, taking into account issues like environmental degradation and climate change.

The Way Forward - Establishing a Framework for Sustainable Management of the Indus River Basin

In addition to strengthening the PIC, India and Pakistan should agree on a framework for sustainable management of the Indus River Basin.

A framework for sustainable management of the Basin should include joint monitoring of climate change impacts in the Basin, more scientific studies and research on lakes and the behavior of Himalayan glaciers, and adherence to the principles of integrated water resources management (IWRM).

Technological solutions like high resolution remote sensing data coupled with frequent field observations, installation of monitoring and forecasting systems in glacial regions and catchment areas of the Basin, and increased information sharing can help to overcome key knowledge gaps on climate change impacts.

There is also a need for a paradigm shift in water management, from a technocratic approach that looks almost exclusively to engineering solutions towards a more sociological approach emphasizing local knowledge and human resources management.

Both countries should also follow the principles of IWRM and share best practices in water conservation techniques for agricultural, industrial and domestic uses. This should include maintenance of transboundary aquifers and groundwater management.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Update are intended to capture the discussion and debate generated by the speaker. They do not represent the opinions of LEAD Pakistan or any other organization.