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Indus River ;

Will There Be a Water War between India and Pakistan by 2025?

Forward Thinking series
Siwat Varnakomola

MSc Global Affairs

15 August 2022

On Valentine’s Day in 2019, there was a suicide bombing in India-administered Kashmir by a Pakistan-based militant, known as the Pulwama attack. Following the incident, India declared an attempt to suspend its share of river waters flowing into Pakistan. In response, Pakistan has accused India of deteriorating its agricultural economy and violating the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), a water-sharing agreement signed by both countries in 1960. This event is part of the lingering water conflict between India and Pakistan since the partition in 1947, which has raised concerns from scholars about whether it would potentially escalate into an armed conflict or even a water war between the two countries by 2025.

Whilst it will probably not escalate into a full-scale armed conflict by 2025, this dispute between India and Pakistan over the Indus River is unlikely to be solved soon due to the deep mistrust between the two countries.

The Indus River

Originating in Tibet, the Indus River flows through India and Pakistan respectively. It has six main tributaries comprising the Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Jhelum, Chenab, and the Indus itself. The western rivers run through the India-controlled Kashmir, then enter Pakistan-controlled Kashmir (PoK) before emptying into the Arabian sea. This classifies India as an upstream country while Pakistan is a downstream country.

Pakistan’s geography makes it solely dependent on the Indus River for its irrigational and consumptive uses as research indicates that 90 percent of the Indus river’s water resources are allocated to Pakistani agriculture. Therefore, any of India’s dam-building activities over the Indus River would threaten Pakistan’s economy.

Brief history of the conflict

The origin of the water conflict can be traced back to the period before the partition in 1947. Initially, there was an agreement between the two countries, but this expired on 31 March 1948. However, since the partition the conflict over the Indus River has intensified.

For example, claiming its legal rights, India suspended the water flows to the Pakistani West Punjab canals on 1 April 1948, deteriorating the water supply in many areas, including the city of Lahore. After then, this Indo-Pak conflict emerged in the form of international legal fighting before they reached the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) on 19 September 1960 with the help from the World Bank.

Under the treaty, three eastern rivers (Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi) were allocated to India meanwhile other three western rivers (Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus) were provided to Pakistan. Both countries have absolute rights over their allocated rivers.

However, the IWT has been criticised as it fails to manage the river effectively. This can be seen from the construction of India’s Baglihar dam, Salal-I, and Salal-II on the Chenab River which is given to Pakistan under the IWT, not to mention the Kishanganga-Neelum Project (KHEP) which has been under construction since 2009 on a tributary of Jhelum River in northern Kashmir.

Before the Pulwama attack in 2019, the conflict had already continued to intensify in May 2018, as India opened the Kishanganga hydropower plant despite protest from Pakistan. This led Pakistan to warn India that “water issues with India can lead to a dangerous situation.”

The following year this worsened with the Pulwama attack, as well as India’s decision to abrogate article 370. This article provides the state of Jammu and Kashmir with autonomy to establish its own laws. Revoking this article has integrated the disputed state with the rest of India, further deepening the enmity in its relationship with Pakistan.

Today, the conflict remains unsolved. We have even recently seen further disagreement between the two countries on the technical design features of the Kishanganga and the 850-Megawatts run-of-the-river Ratle hydroelectric power station built on Chenab River, which has led to the World Bank stepping in to mediate the conflict.

Why the 'water war' could happen sooner rather than later

The contexts behind the potential water war can be classified into domestic, regional and global.

Domestically, India and Pakistan are facing a freshwater shortage coupled with a growing population and an increase in energy consumption. For instance, it is estimated that India’s population will reach 1.67 billion people by 2050.

Regionally, the freshwater scarcity has intensified year by year. The 2022 IPCC report warns that the international transboundary river basins, including the Indus, are predicted to encounter severe water shortages by the middle of the century, with climate change as a catalyst. Furthermore, the ongoing hydropolitical competition between India and Pakistan has fuelled a concern of the potential water war in the region as can be seen by Baglihar Hydroelectric Power Project and the Kishanganga-Neelum Project (KHEP).

Globally, the climate crisis has worsened the water shortage across South Asia, seen with the ever-increasing melting of Himalayan glaciers. In fact, the 2022 IPCC report indicated that the glaciers across the Himalayas are likely to disappear by nearly 50% by the end of the 21st century. As a result, it would undermine people’s access to freshwater resources in many South Asian countries.

Together, these contexts highlight how both countries have an increasing need to have access to more water. Hence, both countries might employ any ‘necessary’ actions to preserve the resource for their own uses.

Is there a possible way forward?

As cooperation seems unlikely, is desalination an effective way to prevent further escalation of the conflict?

Desalination technologies can turn seawater – an inexhaustible resource - into fresh drinkable water. As a result, this would strengthen water security in both countries by preventing them from relying heavily on the shared river.

Several studies support this claim. For example, Manju and Sagar (2017) argue that desalination would be a possible way to preclude water insecurity in India, with the southern states such Tamil Nadu as a tidal wave and wind energy powerhouse. Similarly, Sadiqa et al. (2021) propose that desalination will improve the water security in Pakistan, with the amount of desalinated water over 1.2 billion cubic metres a day in 2050.

Considering the current contention over the Indus River, relying on seawater may be one of the most pragmatic ways to be able to bring a long-term peaceful end to the disagreement.

School of Global Affairs Student Conference

This article is based on Siwat Varnakomola’s presentation at the School of Global Affairs Student Conference, which won the prize for Best Speaker at the conference. The presentation was based on a longer version of this essay - contact Siwat to read the full version.

The School of Global Affairs Student Conference took place on 16 March 2022.

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