Managing Water Inside and Out - The Practical Aspects of Transboundary Water

March 07, 2018


Pakistan is heading towards a major water crisis. All stakeholders, including government, academia, civil society and the general public, are apprised of the impending challenges pertaining to water scarcity, but still have not made productive efforts to combat it. The breadth of Pakistan's water challenges calls for a systematic assessment of water-related risks and opportunities and an in-depth re-evaluation of its transboundary water policies. Usually, when we use the term 'transboundary water' we take it to mean the sharing of surface water between two or more countries. In fact, this term has several different meanings and aspects. We should not only be looking at transboundary issues between or among countries but among provinces, districts and lower levels of administrative units, where water is actually managed. In the Pakistani context, it is equally important, if not more so, to look at how water is being used within the country itself, the basis of sharing, and how to move forward in this area. Similarly, when we refer to 'managing transboundary water' it should not be about river water or surface water only. Rather, the concept of transboundary sharing should refer to all sources of water, including groundwater, as well as sharing the benefits of water resource development. In this context we need to look at water policy dialogue in Pakistan and the current situation vis-a-vis the Pakistan Water Accord, Indus Waters Treaty and emerging engagement on the Kabul River Basin.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session on 'Managing Water Inside and Out: The Practical Aspects of Transboundary Water' as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. The expert speaker for this session was Ms. Simi Kamal, a water expert and Senior Group Head Grant Operations at Pakistan Poverty Alleviation und (PPAF). During the session, she expounded upon how robust and fair water sharing and water benefit sharing arrangements within Pakistan are incumbent for the country to make a strong case in regional transboundary agreements.

Pakistan's Current Water Situation

Presently, our water diplomacy is Indus Waters Treaty centric, but it requires a more holistic approach. There are a number of geographic and transboundary dimensions of resource conflicts in the Indus Basin that need to be tackled head on, such as upper and lower riparian issues, tension between agricultural and industrial sectors, and the encroachment upon water bodies and conserved lands. Pakistan must adopt a more practical approach towards water management based on global perspectives, and strive towards controlling water resources in the context of demand for energy and food, balancing the equation between water-for-food, water-for-energy and water for other uses, and lastly, more energy requirement for exploiting groundwater, as surface water is being affected by pollution and effluents.

Key Lessons from the Indus Waters Treaty & Indus Water Accord 1991

The Indus River is one of the largest river basins in the world and the heart of Pakistan's economy. Due to its vital economic value and potential, the sharing of the Indus River is a chronic source of dispute between India and Pakistan. In 1960, the enactment of the Indus Waters Treaty was an effort by both countries, and the World Bank as a mediator, to establish a mechanism for cooperation and information exchange between the two countries regarding sharing of the Indus waters. Drawing on historical lessons from the Treaty will enable Pakistan to improve its water diplomacy.

The Treaty shows that shifting political boundaries can turn intra-national disputes into international conflicts, exacerbating tensions over existing issues, and that unequal power between two parties can delay the process of negotiations. However, involving a third party can help to reduce any tension or conflict. Similarly, coming to the table with financial assistance can provide sufficient incentive for a breakthrough in any agreement. The Treaty also shows that being sensitive to each party's particular hydrologic concerns is crucial in creating a successful solution.

Following the Indus Waters Treaty, the Indus Water Accord 1991 is also a significant piece of water legislation in Pakistan - an agreement based on the sharing of waters of the Indus Basin between the four provinces. However, the Accord is not without its problems. Its clauses and terminologies are ambiguous and often interpreted in different ways. The Accord demonstrates that water sharing between provinces can become highly politicized and intractable. We must also shift our focus from supply-oriented to demand-oriented ways of overcoming water distribution problems. Most importantly, downstream riparian rights must be implemented, and we must design a comprehensive national water law.

Groundwater - the Forgotten Part of the Equation

Groundwater is a highly vital freshwater resource and its increasing demand for agricultural, domestic and industrial uses has provided it with strategic importance. However, the politics of water in Pakistan is still built around access to river water for traditional methods of irrigation that will not disturb the status quo of feudal land relations. Within Pakistan, the main groundwater resource is in the irrigated areas of the Indus Basin. An estimated total annual groundwater potential of 66 MAF exists in Pakistan, and the Indus Basin has fresh groundwater reserves of about 55MAF. Groundwater is a flexible resource that can be utilized whenever required, and also has the added benefit of incurring no evaporation losses. Presently, groundwater accounts for half of all on-farm irrigation requirements, and this supplements the 34 MAF of surface water that actually reaches the farm lands. The conjunctive use of surface and groundwater has been hailed as a momentous step forward, and we must ensure that all sources of water are considered when allocating water for defined regional use. Surface water and groundwater must be licensed and valued for productive use, and in regions where there is sufficient groundwater, snowfall and rainfall should have reduced share from surface water.

The Way Forward

(I) Strengthening Transboundary Cooperation on Shared Water Resources

It is the need of the hour for Pakistan to address its water crisis and take viable steps towards improving transboundary water management. As a starting point, Pakistan must strive to strengthen national security through transboundary cooperation on shared resources. Concentrated efforts should be made to shift the paradigm of thinking about transboundary water resource management from competing for scarce resources to cooperating and benefit sharing. Secondly, more sincere efforts need to be made to refine its Indus Basin Treaty with India, which has a number of loopholes. Pakistan must also explore opportunities to develop a treaty with Afghanistan on the sharing of the Kabul waters. Lastly, it must forge cooperative ties with China on the Indus and garner its support. The signing of the MoU on the Indus River Cascade in May 2017 is an example of how China can aid us in maximizing our water potential.

(ii) Developing Leadership

Apart from strengthening transboundary cooperation, the Pakistani government must also provide robust leadership on water insecurity issues. It must put up a well-resourced permanent water commission led by people of integrity and knowledge who can deliver the intent of rational use of water in the country. This water commission can either empower an existing water institution or create a new one. Furthermore, it must also undertake action at federal, provincial, and local levels to ensure that water efficiency is maximized to its full potential.

At the federal level, the Government of Pakistan must ensure the physical sustainability and integrity of all water bodies. It must also expand the scope of IRSA by implementing water sharing among all provinces and regions, not just amongst countries. Other efforts such as building water infrastructure, implementing water regulations, and developing national conservation plans and campaigns must also be undertaken at federal levels to ensure its strong commitment to water resources.

Provincial governments must also own their responsibility in the water crisis. Provinces must be allocated water for each district and run irrigation and drainage systems in a sustainable, equitable manner. Provincial governments must also develop their own water policies and ensure that the Irrigation and Drainage Departments are financially autonomous. Among cities and districts, steps should be taken to manage municipal water in a sustainable and equitable manner, with a system for harvesting and storing water. Also, the mayor or city in-charge must ensure efficient water supply for all household, industrial, municipal and recreational purposes.

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 organisation.