Pakistani man transporting bottled water
Pakistani man transporting bottled water Reuters

Since their mutual formation in 1947, India and Pakistan have engaged in three major wars and countless other skirmishes and diplomatic rows. With at least 100 nuclear warheads in each other’s arsenals, the prospect of a South Asian atomic holocaust casts a dark shadow over the entire region. However, the most important issue that divides these longtime enemies is not necessarily nuclear arms nor territorial disputes over Kashmir nor a hundred other contentious subjects -- rather, the dominant overriding conflict between India and Pakistan lies with the simplest, but most crucial, necessity of life: water.

And with the concurrent factors of rising populations and global climate change, the scarcity of water could make all other problems and disagreements between India and Pakistan seem quite irrelevant. Indeed, the lack of access to clean, safe drinking water not only poses a threat to hundreds of millions of people’s lives on the subcontinent, but could conceivably lead to another war.

For Pakistan, the numbers are extremely grim. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) released a report earlier this year which declared Pakistan as one of the most “water-stressed” countries in the world, not far from being classified, “water-scarce," with less than 1,000 cubic meters of water per person per year (the same level as parched Ethiopia), down from 5,000 cubic meters in 1947. India itself is projected to become “water-stressed” by the year 2025 and “water-scarce” by 2050. Due to increased demand and dwindling supplies, Pakistan is drawing too much water from its existing reservoirs, placing the country in grave danger of future shortages. ADB estimated that Pakistan's water storage capacity -- that is, the volume of water it can rely upon in case of an emergency, amounts to a 30-day supply -- far lower than the 1000 days that are suggested for nations with similar climates, The Atlantic noted. (For comparison sake, India’s storage capacity is 120 days.)

On a per capita basis, the availability of water in Pakistan has plunged by almost 75 percent over the last 60 years, Reuters reported, largely due to soaring population growth. The World Wildlife Fund-Pakistan project estimates that by 2025, the country will have 33 percent less water than it will need at that time.

Some officials in Pakistan hold India responsible for its grave predicament. Chaudhry Abid Sher Ali, Pakistan's state minister for water and power, recently specifically blamed the country's water shortage on neighboring India for having constructed dams and hydropower projects on rivers that flow between the two countries. Such a shortage, Sher Ali warned, will spell catastrophe for Pakistan -- a nation already burdened by myriad other woes, including terrorism, political corruption, widespread poverty, and chronic power outages. He has urged Islamabad to build its own dams. “If Pakistan [does] not think seriously about [the] construction of dams, its soil will become infertile in [the] future,” he told reporters in Islamabad.

The federal minister for water and power, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, believes Pakistan could be facing an Ethiopian-type drought catastrophe within just 10 to 15 years. “We are on the verge of facing a life and death situation,” Asif said at a press conference. He also laid part of the blame on India for restricting water flow to Pakistan. “They [the Indians] are not giving [us] our rightful share of water,” he said. “We have lost a lot of water over the past 50 years. Now we need to make a plan for [the] future. We need to control our population and construct new water reservoirs.”

India is indeed constructing dams and hydropower projects at a feverish pace to meet its own surging energy demands. Time magazine reported in 2012 that plans by India to build a dam structure at the mouth of Wular Lake, on the Jhelum River in Kashmir, to increase the flow of water to its farms during winter angered Pakistan. But India's Indus water commissioner G. Aranganathan denied that the dams and hydro projects on its side of the border prevents Pakistan from receiving any of their rightful water. "There is absolutely no question of interrupting or reducing Pakistan's water supply," he told Time.

Under terms of the historic 1960 water accord between India and Pakistan, the Indus Waters Treaty (an extraordinary treaty that has lasted and remained largely intact for more than half a century through periods of recurring turbulence, even war, between the two signatories), India received control over the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej rivers, while Pakistan gained control over the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers. However, from Pakistan’s perspective, India holds the upper hand since all these rivers flow through India first, meaning New Delhi has first dibs on where and how to irrigate the rivers and enjoys control over establishing transportation and hydropower projects on them. "Given the mutual hostility between the two countries, it is not surprising that there is a tendency in Pakistan to believe that the scarcity it is experiencing or fearing is partly attributable to [India]," Ramaswamy Iyer, the former secretary for water resources in India, opined in a column in the Hindu newspaper.

Nasim A. Khan, former secretary of Pakistan’s Alternative Energy Development Board, is greatly concerned about India's rapid development of dams and how it relates to territorial disputes over Kashmir. “The roots of the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus [rivers] are in Kashmir, and any foul play can create tremendous differences,” he told Reuters. “The Sutlej and Beas [rivers] are already dry, and the Ravi [river] is partially dry. All water is being stopped in India.” Khan suspects that by building dams on the Jhelum, India is diverting water meant for Pakistan. “India continues to violate this [1960] treaty by consuming more water and building dams. Pakistan has raised this concern with the World Bank,” he said.

However, some Pakistani officials do not blame India for the country’s water woes. Shamsul Mulk, the former chairman of Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority, places the culpability squarely on incompetence and negligence by Islamabad. "Pakistan has acted like an absentee landlord vis-a-vis water reserves," he told UPI, adding that Pakistan has only constructed two large dams over the past 40 years -- and those are damaged by sedimentation. In contrast, China has built 22,000 dams during that period, while India has constructed about 4,000.

Plans to construct new dams in Pakistan have been frustrated by provincial disputes. "It is our mismanagement and criminal negligence of our successive governments which would lead us towards starvation and draughts and war with India," Mulk added. "No specific evidence [is] brought forth so far that India is actually obstructing the flow or is diverting the waters," said Ahmer Bilal Soofi, the former caretaker law minister. Mulk proposed that Pakistan needs to build many more dams and manage them properly, estimating that the country lost some 18 million gallons of water in 2011 alone simply by run-off to the sea.

Poor planning is also a problem. "There is no groundwater recharge scheme in Pakistan due to our ill-planning," said Muhammad Javed, of the Punjab Irrigation Department, to UPI. "There are 1 million tube wells in Punjab alone, but there is no planning and regulation for farmers vis-a-vis water usage. Factories are also polluting our groundwater, and sweet pockets of waters are being contaminated. This situation, if it continues, may bring a disaster of high magnitude in Pakistan. The same treatment is being meted out to surface water."

A severe water shortage and the drying up of irrigation sources would, of course, doom Pakistan's agricultural sector and condemn millions of people to starvation. Pakistan's agriculture-dominated economy depends heavily on water flowing from the Indus River and its tributaries. Agricultural enterprises (both big and small) employ about one-half of all Pakistanis and represents a sizable chunk (about 25 percent) of the country’ annual GDP. According to media reports in Pakistan, the nation receives 70 to 75 percent of its water flow for only three months a year to irrigate crops.

Pakistan’s water woes are exacerbated by other factors as well, including the government's erratic water management policies, poor infrastructure and wasteful farming practices. “Requiring and enforcing updated, modern farming techniques is a start [to alleviating the water crisis],” wrote Aziz Nayani, an independent consultant advising businesses on South Asian social trends, in the Atlantic. “Pakistan's agriculture industry is notorious for its inefficient irrigation and drainage processes, which have contributed to the scarcity.”

Akmal Hussain, an economics professor at Beaconhouse National University in Lahore, said that water should be Pakistan’s number-one foreign and domestic policy concern. "First, we should realize that water is a lifeline for Pakistan," Hussain told UPI. "Water sense should be increased among citizens. Then, we should hold meaningful dialogue with India over water because agriculture is [the] backbone of our economy, which is heavily dependent on water flow from India.” Munawar Sabir, a Punjab University geography professor, laid out in stark terms what the water crisis has already done and will continue to do to Pakistan. "Our agricultural input has decreased; annual floods have become routine, and in 2013 alone, more than 178 people have been killed. The infant mortality rate is high because of contaminated water," he told UPI. "Water resources of both [India and Pakistan] are eventually sharply depleting, amounting to dangerous levels.”

Water also plays a role in geo-political maneuvers between the two hostile states. In early December, Pakistan's water crisis even prompted it to ask India to remove its troops from Siachen, a glacier in the disputed region of Kashmir, over fears that their presence would further damage the local environment and pollute one of Pakistan's principal water sources. The Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan's adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs, accused Indian military forces stationed in Siachen of posing a "serious threat" to Pakistan's environment by damaging the "virgin snow" of Siachen.

For the record, India has stated that it will withdraw from Siachen only if Pakistan reveals its exact troop positions on the glacier, which Islamabad has rejected. Both India and Pakistan have maintained troops on Siachen since 1984, with a ceasefire in place since 2003. However, soldiers on both sides have since perished from adverse weather conditions on the glacier.

Any hope of resolving the water dispute lies at the highest levels of government in Islamabad and Delhi, something even Sartaj Aziz has advocated for. In October 2013, Pakistan said it wished to ask India to review terms of the Indus Waters Treaty. Pakistan's water and power minister Asif reiterated that the treaty favors India by allowing it to block water and construct dams on rivers allocated to Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan would receive far less water than India.

Additional Indus Waters Commissioner Sheraz Memon said Pakistan had expressed his objections to seven projects undertaken by India. On the whole, Memon alleged that India is building 53 power projects and seven dams -- all of which, he claims, threatens the flow of water to Pakistan. Pakistan has vowed to take the issue in front of global bodies like the United Nations for mediation. But Aziz also recommended that Pakistan must take pre-emptive actions internally to prevent a future water crisis, including conservation and the construction of new reservoirs.

Some factors though may be beyond the scope of human intervention. In conjunction with global climate change, Asif warned that Pakistan may face a very bleak waterless future. Illegal logging and deforestation have laid waste to the nation's rangelands, triggering devastating annual flash floods. Environmentalists are gravely concerned that the presence of humans on glaciers in the Himalaya and Karakoram mountain ranges has accelerated glacial retreat in recent years. A recent survey by three Dutch scientists (Walter Immerzeel, Ludovicus P. H. van Beek and Marc F. P. Bierkens) warned that water flow in the Indus river valley will be reduced by 8 percent by the year 2050 due to shrinking glaciers.

Haris Gazdar, a development economist who also works for the Collective for Social Sciences, a Karachi-based independent think tank, believes conservation and technology upgrades are critical in preventing a long-term water crisis. "In theory there is no reason why more water cannot be made available,” Gazdar said. “[But] conservation and management require not only investment but changes in social and political organization and technology.”

If all that wasn't enough to worry about, much of Pakistan's water is not clean -- thousands die every year from water-borne diseases like dengue and diarrhea, which millions more are exposed to. UPI reported that Pakistan has too few dams of its own to capture rainwater, leading millions of people to have no access to clean drinking water. A lack of adequate storage reservoirs leads to enormous wastage of rainwater. In August of this year, the government released a report admitting that an astounding 80 percent of water samples taken from across the nation were deemed unsafe to drink.

Salman Yousaf, deputy secretary of housing, urban development and public health engineering in Punjab province, said water was polluted by excessive groundwater pumping as well as by the presence of untreated wastes in tandem with aging water and sewage pipes. In addition, unregulated pesticides from farms are seeping into streams and groundwater.

In the teeming coastal capital city of Karachi (population at least 18 million and already racked by endless sectarian violence), millions have no access to clean water, forcing many people to consume contaminated water. "In Lahore, groundwater pollution -- which causes typhoid, cholera, dysentery and hepatitis -- is a major issue because of fertilizer, pesticides and industrial discharge," Iqtidar Shah, deputy managing director of the Water and Sanitation Authority in Lahore, told UPI. "The scarcity of clean water may [also] hit Lahore hard like Karachi. There is more pumping but no dumping of water, plus water pollution. The water level is decreasing constantly every year.”

General Farooq Hameed Sheikh, director of the Punjab Environment Protection Department, said groundwater pollution presents immediate danger to existing water supplies -- and he blamed the politicians. "The negligence of successive governments resulted in contamination of water in the River Ravi in Lahore,” he told UPI. “The entire human waste of Lahore has been poured into it. It has become the most polluted river [in] the world. It is now badly affecting groundwater in the Lahore City."

Pakistani consumers further exacerbate the shortage by wasting water. The National reported that many people leave their taps running, while the utility companies’ practice of applying 'fixed charges' encourages such wastage. The government also lacks a regulatory framework to prevent the wasting of water.

In total, nearly 90 percent Pakistan's total water use goes for agriculture (versus an average of 75 percent for the developing world). This means that only 10 percent of Pakistan's water is available for household, sanitation and industrial usage. As a result, one-third of the country’s whole population have no access to safe drinking water.

Moreover, within the vast agricultural community of Pakistan, two-thirds of their water is wasted through inefficient and archaic practices. Dr. Qamar-uz-Zaman, the former chief of Pakistan's metrological department, told The National that wealthy landowners who either have connections to powerful politicians (or are lawmakers themselves) can resist modern agricultural and irrigation techniques. As a result, Pakistan has one of the world's lowest agricultural productivity rates in terms of units of water and per unit of land.

Pakistanis already contend with marathon electric power outages, some of which can last up to 16 or 18 hours a day, resulting in anger and frustration, often in street demonstrations, and damaging the economy even further. The Atlantic posits that recurring water shortages would only worsen the public’s immense discontent with its leaders, intensifying an “already unstable situation in the country.”

Not surprisingly, some extremist groups in Pakistan have exploited the water shortage to upgrade their violent rhetoric against India. Hafiz Saeed, who founded Lakshar-e-Taiba (LeT), the militant group that perpetrated the 2008 attacks in Mumbai which killed nearly 170 people, squarely accused the Indian government of committing acts of "water terrorism" to deny Pakistan its own access to the precious natural resource. Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, noted that there is a risk that Pakistani terror groups such as LeT could use water as a pretext to again attack India. “LeT has often threatened to attack India in retaliation for India's ‘water theft,’" Kugelman said in an interview. “Because of LeT's ties to the Pakistani security establishment, such a scenario could certainly raise concerns about conflict--and especially if India is led by a more hawkish government [after next spring’s elections] than the present one.”

Adding to the fears of social chaos, Pakistan faces a future of too many people and too little water to service them. Already bursting with 190 million people (two-thirds of them under the age of 30), Pakistan’s population is expected to reach 256 million in 2030 and double from current levels by the year 2050. But there will be less water available to these teeming masses of people.

Some analysts worry that competition of diminishing amounts of water may actually culminate in another war between the two South Asian countries. “They [India and Pakistan] need to regard water as a precious resource and a human right that has to be shared between nations,” said Paul Brown, a British journalist who has written extensively on climate change to Reuters. “If supplies run low for irrigation or drinking water, local populations are likely to take the law into their own hands and grab what water is available. This could lead to serious local tensions getting out of control.”

A joint study by researchers from the Stimson Center, a U.S-based think tank; the Observer Research Foundation in India; and the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Pakistan determined that ‘‘water shortages could hit the subcontinent in a few years because growing populations and increasing development are placing rising pressure on the Indus Basin, to the point that water removals from the Indus are outpacing natural rates of renewal.’’ A report issued by the CIA also determined that "the likelihood of conflict between India and Pakistan over shared river resources is expected to increase."

Pakistan's water scarcity threatens peace in the region, wrote Sajjad Ashraf, an adjunct professor at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and an associate fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, “Instead of passing blame Pakistan needs to look within to prevent waste and devise better management methods to reverse this looming crisis. The situation, if not tackled, will fan discord with India and exacerbate inter-provincial disharmony in Pakistan.”

But Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Center, does not believe water tensions could spark a war between India and Pakistan. “Bilateral relations, while still tense, have softened a bit in recent years,” he said in an interview. “One of the consequences of this slight warming pattern in relations is that Pakistan's government no longer states as a matter of policy that India is ‘stealing’ Pakistan's water.”

Dawn, an English language Pakistani daily, urged the country's leaders to find a solution to the water dispute with India lest it risk a complete collapse of society. “This [water crisis] has led many -- from farmers to opposition politicians to ministers to jihadi [Islamic fundamentalist] groups -- to blame India… for Pakistan’s water crunch,” Dawn said in an editorial. “It isn’t without reason that some experts have warned of water wars in South Asia, one of the world’s most water-stressed regions.” The paper further warned: “More worrying is the fact that water stress is fast developing into water scarcity…The country’s population is predicted to double by 2050, meaning that the people will have access to just half the water in 2050 they have now even if they start using the available resource efficiently and climatic changes don’t reduce flows in the Indus river system.”

Largely blaming the Pakistani government for inaction, Dawn nonetheless offered some semblance of hope. “The situation can still be salvaged. But it’ll require efficient use of water, the development of more storage capacity, resolution of provincial water disputes as well as engagement with India to find a peaceful solution to trans-boundary water-sharing,” the paper editorialized. “Unless effective actions are taken now, the future appears grim.”

Other voices also expressed their grave concerns. Without any meaningful action, the future looks alarming, Nayani soberly warned. “A growing population without the resources it needs to survive, let alone thrive economically, will throw the country into a period of instability that may be far worse than anything we see today,” he declared.

Kugelman concluded that both India and Pakistan are equally culpable for their water crises -- and the problem is not quite as dire as others have stated. “The root of the problem in both countries is that existing water resources are not used judiciously,” Kugelman said. “Water is often misallocated and wasted. This all gives the illusion of scarcity. In both countries, better demand-side management would resolve the water crisis.”