Water war with India the long-term threat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 September, 2010, 12:00am

This may not be the most tactful time to bring it up, with much of Pakistan under water and many millions homeless, but the nation's real problem is not too much water. It is too little water - and one day it could cause a war.

The current disastrous floods are due to this year's monsoon being much stronger than usual. But that is just bad weather, and it happens everywhere. The long-term threat to Pakistan's well-being is that the country is gradually drying out. The Indus River system is the main year-round source of water for both Pakistan and northwestern India, but the glaciers up on the Tibetan plateau that feed the system's various tributaries are melting.

According to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, some of the glaciers will be gone in as little as 20 years.

Fifteen or 20 years from now, the water shortage - and related food scarcities - will be a permanent political obsession in Pakistan. Even now, Pakistani politicians tend to blame India for their country's water shortage (and vice versa, of course). It will get worse when the shortage grows acute.

What turns a problem into a potential conflict is the fact that five of the six tributaries in the Indus system cross Indian-controlled Kashmir on their way to Pakistan. There is a treaty, dating from 1960, that divides the water between the two countries, with India getting the water from the eastern three rivers and Pakistan owning the flow from the western three. But the treaty contains a time bomb.

India's three rivers contain only about one-fifth of the system's total flow. To boost India's share up to around 30 per cent, therefore, World Bank arbitrators proposed that the treaty let India extract a certain amount of water from two of Pakistan's rivers before they leave Indian territory. The proposal was reluctantly accepted by Pakistan.

The amount is not small - it is, in fact, enough water to irrigate 320,000 hectares - and it is a fixed amount, regardless of how much water there actually is in the river. Now roll the tape forward 20 years: the glacial melt-water is coming to an end; but almost all of the loss is in Pakistan's three rivers, since the smaller Indian three do not depend heavily on glaciers.

As a result, India's total share of the Indus waters rises sharply (and quite legally) just as Pakistanis start to starve.

In these circumstances, would an Indian government voluntarily take less water than the treaty allows? Get real. Any Indian government that 'gave India's water away' would promptly be driven from power.

On the other hand, no Pakistani government, civilian or military, could just sit by as land that has been irrigated for a century goes back to desert and food rationing is imposed nationwide. That is the nightmare confrontation that lies down the road for these two nuclear powers.

Meanwhile, the homes of millions of Pakistanis are under water. But the future holds something much worse for Pakistan (and for India), unless they start revising this 50-year-old treaty now, before the crisis arrives.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries