Is the Historic Water Agreement Between India and Pakistan Sustainable?

For over six decades, the Indus Waters Treaty, mediated by the World Bank, has maintained peace between neighboring rivals India and Pakistan by regulating the use of the Indus River and its tributaries.

While this treaty has weathered three wars between the two nations, it faces a new challenge in the form of climate change. As climate-induced droughts and floods pose heightened risks to both countries, questions arise about the treaty’s ability to endure in its current form.

The treaty divides control of the Indus River system, allocating the three eastern rivers to India and the three western rivers to Pakistan, with both China and Afghanistan sharing the basin’s waters. Rapid population growth and escalating demands for irrigation and energy in both nations have intensified the strain on water resources. Groundwater supplies are dwindling, and climate change is exacerbating hydrological extremes.

India and Pakistan, while confronting similar climate change impacts, are competing for increasingly scarce water resources. Both countries have turned to dams for irrigation and hydroelectric power, harnessing water from the same river system but at different points. The current dispute revolves around the design of two dams in the disputed Kashmir region, challenging the treaty’s language and its capacity to address dam-related issues.

Pakistan has raised objections to India’s dams, arguing that certain designs could allow India to control water flow to Pakistan and potentially unleash uncontrollable floods during monsoons. India, on the other hand, asserts that its dam plans fall within the treaty’s framework, granting non-consumptive rights to upstream water on the western rivers allocated to Pakistan. A neutral expert, commissioned by the World Bank, is currently hearing the case in the Hague.

As the Indus Basin’s rivers undergo changes due to shifting rainfall patterns and extreme weather events, the challenge of regulating water resources becomes even more critical. The Indus Basin aquifer ranks as the second-most overstressed aquifer globally, with heavy groundwater reliance for agriculture contributing to the problem.

Some experts argue that the Indus Waters Treaty may no longer be suitable for addressing the evolving challenges posed by climate change. They contend that the treaty should shift from strictly dividing water resources to viewing water as a shared commodity. However, India and Pakistan’s strained relations make such a transition challenging, as climate change becomes another point of contention between them.

While climate change may drive cooperation, the trust deficit between the two nations remains a significant hurdle. Disputes over the appropriate mechanism for resolving water-related issues have also emerged, with each side preferring different approaches. India has even indicated its intention to modify the treaty.

Recognizing the impact of climate change on hydrology is essential, but translating this acknowledgment into cooperative water-sharing strategies is a complex endeavor. Effective dialogue is crucial, as climate change further complicates the Indus Waters Treaty’s resilience.

Communities in both countries are already demanding more from their leaders as climate change and water infrastructure projects alter their rivers and threaten livelihoods. Improved communication between India and Pakistan is vital for addressing emergency situations related to water flow. Building resilience into the treaty necessitates bridging the trust gap and acknowledging climate change as a shared risk.

In conclusion, the Indus Waters Treaty faces a new test in the era of climate change. While it has prevented conflict between India and Pakistan for decades, adapting it to the challenges of climate change requires continued dialogue and cooperation. Both nations must recognize that mitigating climate-induced water scarcity is a shared responsibility and that collaboration is essential to finding sustainable solutions.

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