Managing Shared Basins: Managing Reduction in Water Flows in the Indus River System - The Emerging role of IRSA

October 19, 2017


The Indus River is the socio-economic backbone of Pakistan, providing livelihoods to more than 70% of the population, accounting for 20% of the GDP, and catering for 80% of the overall value of exports. Unfortunately, this precious resource is being threatened by rapid population growth, climate change, lack of cooperation and diplomacy between riparian countries, the trust gap amongst the provinces, and the compulsion of dependence on a single river source.

At the international level, Pakistan's rights within the Indus River System are well defined in the Indus Water Treaty 1960, while the Water Apportionment Accord 1991 guides distribution of available water amongst the provinces. Two independent institutions, Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters (PCIW) and Indus River System Authority (IRSA), are in a position to manage the above legal agreements. It is evident that the two institutions have to play a lead role in managing the effects of reduced flows in our rivers. This important role requires capacity building and an appropriate level of awareness to face emerging challenges.

Responding to this need, LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session and webinar with Engr. Shafqat Masood, a water resources expert and former Chairman of IRSA. Mr. Masood shared his insights on how Pakistan's water institutions can adapt in light of changing water dynamics in the region. The session was part of the LEADING Perspectives series aimed at bringing together a diverse group of experts to accelerate the thought process on water and environmental issues and generate an informed, pluralistic, and multi-sectoral analysis.

The Indus River Basin and Pakistan's economic survival

The Indus River Basin covers approximately 35,000 square miles. Most of the water supply is snow-fed and originates from Azad & Jammu Kashmir (AJK), while around 37 million acres of land in the Basin are irrigable. Out of these 37 million acres, 31 million fall within Pakistan and the rest are in AJK and India. However, historical errors and misjudgments during the negotiation of the Indus Water Treaty meant that the boundaries drawn up between India and Pakistan did not take into account the existing irrigation system. As more than half the country receives less than 300 millimeters of annual rainfall, the Pakistani economy is heavily reliant on the surface water provided by the Indus River and its tributaries.

Regional and national water agreements and creation of IRSA

There are two main water agreements governing use of the Indus waters. The first is the Indus Water Treaty (1960), which was signed by India and Pakistan through mediation by the World Bank. The other is the Water Apportionment Accord (1991), which governs distribution of water amongst the four provinces of Pakistan. The establishment of IRSA dates back to the latter agreement.

Regarding the historic agreement between India and Pakistan, the Indus Water Treaty provides a self-governing procedure for the settlement of water-related disputes and differences between the neighboring countries. To facilitate these efforts, each country also designated a respective Commissioner for Indus Waters. While India was given exclusive use of the three Eastern Rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej), Pakistan was allowed unrestricted, though not exclusive, use of the Western Rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). Under certain conditions, India was allowed to use the Western Rivers of the Basin (e.g., for non-consumptive uses, run-of-river projects, limited storage works etc.)

In addition, two storage dams, eight link canals and six barrages were constructed in Pakistan as replacement works. However, to date, replacement of water by the link canals from the Western Rivers has been inadequate. Consequently, vast areas of the downstream reaches of the Eastern Rivers falling within Pakistan remain dry for most of the year, river ecology has been destroyed because of the lack of environmental flows and groundwater levels have sunk.

Under the Water Apportionment Accord, the balance river supplies (including flood supplies and future storage) are allocated to the provinces as: Punjab - 37%, Sindh - 37%, Balochistan - 12 % and NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) - 14%. The Accord recognizes the need for minimum escapage downstream of Kotri Barrage to check sea intrusion, yet while IRSA - which oversees implementation of the Accord - is mostly free from political influence, there has not been any consensus on the amount for environmental flows downstream of Kotri. Hence, more studies are needed in this area.

Security of Pakistan's water resources

While India and Pakistan were negotiating the Indus Water Treaty, Pakistan lost around 16% (equivalent to 28 million acre feet) of its share of the River. Now, India partially regulates the Western Rivers that have been allocated to Pakistan. Although it must be taken into account that water measuring technology and devices have improved in the decades since, because of the ongoing tense political climate between India and Pakistan, and the fact that Pakistan is heading towards water scarcity, there is a need for diplomacy and proper governance of the River to manage the reduction in water flows.

Similarly, Pakistan has lost about one-third of its storage reservoirs due to siltation. Thus, in order to avoid further losses, we need to plan for suitable replacement infrastructure as soon as possible. There is also a need to resolve inter-provincial differences over interpretation of certain clauses in the 1991 Accord (such as those relating to storage capacity and current plans for dam construction) and to address gaps concerning seasonal demands and time lag within the System, as well as losses and gains.

In addition, climate change and environmental issues are also negatively affecting the security of our water resources and our share of flows from the Indus River. Firstly, Pakistan is highly vulnerable to climate change, which will impact the availability of water due to changing patterns of rainfall. Secondly, due to stoppage of water in the Eastern Rivers, the pumping of groundwater is exceeding the rate of recharge, resulting in depletion of aquifers.

Conclusion and Way Forward

The emerging role and capacity of IRSA to deal with current and future challenges, especially in terms of managing the reduction in water flows in the Indus River System, will require multi-stakeholder support. There are several steps that need to be taken, including:

Establishing a national think tank to deal with the transboundary water issues with both India and Afghanistan

Laying the groundwork for optimal development of available water resources, within the allowable jurisdiction of the Indus River Basin (this may be the best solution to cope with water scarcity and resolve transboundary water conflicts)

Enhancing artificial reservoirs through all possible measures (e.g. catchment management, flushing of sediments, etc.)

Constructing at least one major multi-purpose storage reservoir, to be taken up on war footings (to emphasize that dams do not consume water, but rather improve the regulatory capacity of a river system)

Reducing the trust deficit between the provinces (it may be appropriate for technical experts to analyze contentious and publicly release their findings)

In addition, a reliable system of water measurement and transparency is essential if all relevant stakeholders are to have confidence, while capacity building of water institutions at the federal and provincial levels needs to take place. Similarly, academic and research institutions can make significant contributions in terms of technical assistance and designing programs and coursework on transboundary water. Moreover, law schools and legal institutes throughout the country should incorporate International Water Law in their curricula.

Key Messages

    There is a need for improved diplomacy in order to build trust between riparian states and a need to resolve inter-provincial differences within Pakistan.

    IRSA must remain free of any political influence.

    Further studies and analysis are needed to check sea intrusion downstream of Kotri Barrage and analyze water flows