Afghanistan-Pakistan Transboundary Water Relations: Engaging with an Estranged Neighbour

November 22, 2017


A trajectory of population growth, combined with the melting of glaciers in the Hindukush ranges and a drought that has continued for more than three decades in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, is creating a crisis in the Kabul River Basin. While mutual cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan would be an ideal solution, the tense political climate threatens to thwart any progress made on joint water resources management in the Basin.

Given the importance of the Kabul River Basin for both countries and the increasing threats to the region from climate change, there is an urgent need to come together for a dialogue on the use of the KRB waters. This will require significant contributions from policymakers, civil society and academia in terms of research, public debate, and information-sharing to build trust.

LEAD Pakistan, as part of its ongoing LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins, held an interactive session with Mr. Khalid Aziz, a distinguished former civil servant and now Chairman of the Regional Institute of Policy Research & Training. During the session, he shared insights from his professional experience and observations from working closely with Afghans on peace, diplomacy and the environment.

The Possibility of an Agreement on Joint Usage of the Kabul River Basin

The asymmetry of power between Afghanistan and Pakistan is the main stumbling block in getting an agreement on the Kabul River Basin. Due to Afghanistan's history of conflict and unrest, Pakistan appears to be in a relatively advantageous position in terms of its institutional and technical capacities, specifically its hydrological and meteorological data collection and monitoring systems, human resources in engineering and scientific areas, and expertise in negotiations and policymaking. Another prevalent issue is the trust gap between the two countries; given the volatile situation in the region, there is a tendency for each side to blame the other for various issues - be they political, social, environmental, or economic.

The Environmental Situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, 85 percent of the population is dependent on agriculture. According to the UN, the total population is around 35 million and at the current growth rate it will be approximately 60 million by 2050. At the same time, Central Asia, being an extremely arid region, is plagued by persistent droughts. Climate change could exacerbate the severity of such droughts, possibly leading to reduced levels of precipitation. Multiple scientific and social research studies further show an adverse ratio of water availability to populations in the Kabul and Indus River Basins. The absence of viable opportunities for sustainable livelihoods for these people could lead to social and economic collapse in affected areas. Tribal rivalries between landholding elites and rural communities in Afghanistan have also played a role in creating the current situation, showing how a degrading environmental situation (a prolonged drought that has gone on for more than a century) can have far-reaching social and economic consequences.

Pakistan could face similar challenges in the future, with climate change bringing numerous unforeseen threats. By 2040, global warming will reduce the Himalayan glaciers and the flows of the Indus River Basin to about 60 to 70 MAF, from the current flows of 97 to 104 MAF (a 30 percent reduction). Meanwhile, agriculture accounts for 25 percent of Pakistan's GDP and 55 percent of its labour force. Figures from 2005 show that Pakistan once had 45.2 million acres of irrigated land, but by 2050 the population is expected to reach 290 million and there will only be about 28 million acres of irrigable land. This is a strong case for improving water management by building more dams and reservoirs and cultivating a mutually advantageous water relationship with Afghanistan.

The Hydrological Situation and Pakistan's Dependence on the Kabul River

According to the FAO, in 2003 Afghanistan had 58.7 MAF of water availability. Surface flows from rivers accounted for 46.19 MAF and groundwater and spring water accounted for 12.5 MAF. Agriculture used about 16 MAF, leaving around 30.18 MAF for further development. While development of this sector would be beneficial, Afghanistan's priority is power generation. Although this is shortsighted, it provides the maximum benefit from the lowest investment in a shorter amount of time. Thus, Afghanistan is currently developing six hydropower storage schemes on the Kabul River.

Overall, 16 percent of Pakistan's total water supply comes from the Kabul River. A marginal reduction such as that represented by the abovementioned schemes could be potentially devastating for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. With a combined population of 27 million people, FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are particularly dependent on four specific rivers flowing from Afghanistan - Kabul, Kurram, Kaitu and Gomal - and on a civil canal system in Peshawar that also springs from the River and amounts to approximately 1.2 MAF. Thus, factors such as climate change and a reduction in the flows of the Kabul River would be damaging to Pakistan. It is also important to remember that so far, Pakistan has been making up its water shortfall by using groundwater and extending irrigation facilities. Now, , water from the Gomal River in Ghazni, which flows into D. I. Khan, is being harnessed and developed as the Gomal Zam Dam. The Dam serves D. I. Khan, Kulachi and Tank - the poorest directs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In addition, water from the Kurram River is being stored in Kurram to conserve around 1.1 MAF, provide premium flows for the Bannu canal system and irrigate new lands in the plains of North Waziristan and Bannu.

Important International Conventions on Transboundary Water

Before the two countries can move forward on a water treaty, it is worth reviewing earlier instruments on joint watercourses in international law. Two important ones are the 1911 Madrid Declaration (the Declaration) and the 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (the Convention):

The Declaration was a landmark international agreement on joint watercourses. It laid down several principles, such as discouraging unilateral alterations in the use of transboundary basins and the creation of joint water commissions to settle disputes between two or more riparian states.

The Convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly with 27 abstentions including both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moreover, Pakistan has not ratified the Convention, which has open-ended terms and phrases such as 'equitable use' that do not have an agreed upon legal definition and which are multidimensional in nature. For example, a less socioeconomically developed riparian may argue that that it needs a larger share of water.

Conclusion and Way Forward

International river basin management includes complex physical, human and political aspects. In the case of Pakistan and Afghanistan, there have been many ups and downs. In order to overcome some of the more challenging aspects of the relationship, Pakistan should recalibrate its interaction with Afghanistan by sidestepping the asymmetry of power. Allowing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to take a more active role in negotiations, for example, could significantly alter the dynamic between the two countries for the better (because of the shared language and history between Pashtuns of Pakistan and Afghanistan). In any case, Pakistan must be kind and forbearing in its relations with Afghanistan. It must also take into account the principles of earlier international conventions, accords and agreements and become a signatory to these where possible. Pakistan and Afghanistan should keep up diplomatic efforts and exchanges, including people-to-people contact, regular stakeholder consultations and Track II diplomacy measures, to ensure trust-building as the first step towards more comprehensive negotiations on the prospects of mutual benefit-sharing.