Pakistan: Water Wars, Climate Change and Geopolitics

Umer Ahmed is a second-year BA International Relations student. His latest article explores the interrelationship between Water Scarcity, Climate Change and Geopolitics in Pakistan and the implications this has for broader Regional Security in South Asia.

The World Economic Forum in its report “Regional Risks for Doing Business” listed Pakistan as a country which is likely to face a major threat from water crises in coming decades. Likewise, the IMF ranked Pakistan as third in the countries likely to face a water shortage in years to come. This is corroborated by the United Nations Development Programme and Pakistan Council of Research in Water and Resources which predict that Pakistan will “run dry” by the year of 2025.[i] Why this is the case, what Pakistan is doing to address the problem and will this precious commodity lead to conflict between neighbouring countries is what this article seeks to answer.

Looking at the South Asia region from a geographical perspective, many rivers running through Pakistan originally start in India (Indian-administered Kashmir) or China. This raises a huge geopolitical and geostrategic problem for Pakistan. For example, what is often called the artery of Pakistan – the Indus River – has an approximate 800 km of its 3180 km length residing in Indian-administered Kashmir. The region of Punjab, named so for the 5 rivers flowing in the area: the Beas, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Sutlej, all of which are tributaries of the River Indus are split between Pakistan and India as a result of the 1947 Partition on British India.

For Pakistan, the Indus River and its tributaries play a vital role to its economy. The main river itself forms an ideal transport route for Pakistan, from the Karakoram mountain range in Gilgit-Baltistan down to the plains in Sindh and eventually emptying out into the Arabian Sea. Furthermore, Pakistan’s energy mix consists of 30% energy generation through the hydroelectric plants in the north of the country, thus heavily relying on the Indus and its tributaries for electricity generation.[ii]

This geographical problem posed by transboundary waterways led to the signing of the monumental Indus Water Treaty in 1960. The treaty which dealt with the 6 major transboundary rivers – Beas, Chenab, Indus, Jhelum, Ravi, and Sutlej, is seen as one of the most successful water treaties in history. Categorising the 6 rivers into two blocks – the “Eastern Rivers” incorporating the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej which would have their control given to India and the “Western Rivers” incorporating the Chenab, Indus and Jhelum rivers would have control given to Pakistan, the treaty marked a remarkable success for two nations with such a turbulent history. [iii]

As of yet, the treaty has been highly successful in preventing the escalation of water conflicts between the countries, however due to the fact that the Western Rivers are larger than the Eastern Rivers and have a greater mean flow of 80 million-acre feet (MAF) as compared to the 33 MAF of the Eastern Rivers, India has been allowed to use the Western Rivers for limited irrigation, storage and electricity generation. In 2007, India therefore started building a hydroelectric plant on the Kishanganga (Neelum) river in the state of Jammu & Kashmir in northern India. As the Kishanganga river is a tributary of the larger Jhelum river, Pakistan took the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague citing that it would affect change the course and flow of the river downstream. The court however ruled in favour of India in 2013, clearing the country of any wrong-doing, but asking for India to maintain a minimum flow of 9 cubic metres per second (cumecs). The dispute shows as water scarcity becomes a larger threat to the South Asian countries, more disputes are likely over smaller rivers. Furthermore, although this dispute was dealt with efficiently, future disputes may take a more violent turn, resulting in either violent unrest against the Pakistani state or terrorism against neighbouring states.[iv]

The reason for using the plural – neighbouring states and not the singular – state is owing to fact that the threat for Pakistan does not simply loom from its eastern neighbour but also its western neighbour – Afghanistan. Kabul, the largest and capital city of Afghanistan lies on the banks of the Kabul River, which in itself is a tributary of the Indus River.  The Kabul River is for India, which sees Afghanistan a key aspect of its sphere of influence, a great site for dam construction and asserting its influence. India will soon start work on the US$236million Shahtoot Dam, having been showcased by Indian PM Modi and Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani.[v] Pakistan argues that the building of the Dam will affect the already water-stressed area of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (a western province of Pakistan) by decreasing the water available to be used for irrigation, in addition to the effect it may have on the power generation of Pakistan’s Warsak Dam which lies on the Kabul River. Moreover, Pakistani media claims that India is aiming to support Afghanistan in building 12 more hydropower plants which could cause a drop of 16-17% drop in water flow to Pakistan. With considerable population growth in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the decreasing rainfall over the recent years, the water in the Kabul River is certainly depleting and the dam may well further the problem posed by water insecurity for Pakistan. India and Afghanistan remain adamant that the projects will have a minimal effect on the river, arguing that the reason for Pakistan’s concern is more to do with the growing strategic partnership between New Delhi and Kabul rather than water flow. [vi] If more dams and hydropower plants are built on the Kabul River which affect the flow of the river further downstream, the South Asia subcontinent may well see itself embroiled in a large-scale water conflict.

Pakistan’s water problem is not helped by its population which is increasing at an alarming rate. The country’s birth rate currently stands at 3.5 births per woman (one of the highest outside of Africa) and the population growth is a staggering 2.0% of the total population. Thus by 2050, the population of Pakistan, currently at around 200 million is set to reach approximately 335 million.[vii] Therefore for Pakistan, the requirement to provide the population with enough water to ensure sustainability will be rather difficult. Moreover, Pakistan, which percentage-wise at 36% is the most urbanised country in South Asia, is set to face a further rise in its urban population to 50% in 2030. This will certainly creating difficulties over the construction and updating of the poor infrastructure already in place, something which has worsened the water scarcity situation for Pakistan.[viii]

The Water Management schemes in place to make sure that the water reaches from the hydroelectric plants to the consumer are highly inefficient. It is estimated than an approximate $21 billion worth of water is wasted due to inefficient water systems. Management of water in rural areas of the country is especially poor, the infrastructure in place is underfunded and thus leads to a high percentage of water loss. Furthermore, two of Pakistan’s main crops, rice and sugarcane, are heavily water intensive so therefore require plenty of irrigated land. This problem is augmented due to the population growth in Pakistan, therefore the quantity of crops increases and more land and water is required to grow them. Both these crops have shown good economic return for Pakistani farmers which only serves to worsen the situation. This has thus led to a 7.4% increase in sugarcane production and a 6.4% increase in rice production in 2017-2018 as compared to 2016-2017.[ix] The water-intensive requirement of these major crops will only further aggravate the water problem in Pakistan. Unfortunately, this situation is worsened still. Pakistan, due to the lack of education in good irrigation methods, much of the precious water available to the countryside is wasted. Pakistan will not only need to invest in updating its infrastructure and canals but enable the public to receive education on more sustainable farming techniques and management techniques.

In addition, the effects of global warming should not be underestimated. According to the 2018 Climate Risk Study Index (by Germanwatch), Pakistan is 7th on the 10 most affected countries by global warming.[x] With the already present water scarcity in the country, the increasing temperature (of which there is a prediction of a 4 degree rise by the year 2100) will only worsen prospects for Pakistani citizens. This problem manifests itself to a large extend in Pakistan’s largest city- Karachi. Karachi, with a population of approximately 20 million has over the past few years faced a crisis in terms of water supply. It is reported that in the summer of this year, an approximate 40% of Karachi was without a water supply for 15 days, meaning citizens had to wait lengthy periods of time to acquire water as well as ration the limited amount of supplies in availability.[xi] Furthermore, an estimated 69%-85% of water available in Pakistan is said to be dangerous to health, according to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources which only exacerbates the situation. Pakistan has traditionally been a big supporter of global efforts to combat climate change, however the problem of global warming is an international problem and therefore Pakistan will need action on a worldwide basis.

Unless Pakistan does something about the pressing issue of water insecurity, the future looks bleak. Water scarcity has always been a problem in Pakistan, traditionally to combat this Pakistan has built dams. The Tarbela Dam, which was built in 1978 is the largest earth-filled dam globally, in addition to the Mangla Dam, which is the 7th largest earth-filled dam in the world. Dams are however, a very expensive project to undertake by any country and Pakistan with a GDP per capita of just US$5,400 will find it immensely difficult to fund another large-scale project.[xii]

However, this has not stopped Pakistan from doing so. In fact, Pakistan has long been proposing on opening a new dam as the previous largest dam – the Tarbela Dam, has lost 35% of its water storage capacity due to silt trapped in the reservoir. Silt building up in the reservoir cannot be prevented as it is a natural phenomenon, it can however be cleaned to ensure that the dam reservoir is restored to its original capacity.  The de-sedimentation process itself would not only require large funding but also may cause some trouble downstream, by increasing sediment load downstream therefore causing changes in the river bed but also causing larger sediment load in canals. Thus, it was decided that it would be better to not intervene in the de-sedimentation process but aim to build another larger dam.[xiii]

The Kalabagh Dam, which is set to be built on the River Indus in western Punjab, was the original large dam project proposed, the original plan being drafted in 1979. This plan was however replaced by the plan to build the 892ft tall Diamer-Bhasa Dam on the River Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan (northern province of Pakistan). The new dam proposed has had huge backing from not only the government of Pakistan but also has had massive support from the Pakistani public. For (the newly-elected Prime Minister) Imran Khan, the building of the dam will be at the forefront of how Pakistan aims to tackle the water scarcity problem in the country. As mentioned previously, building the dam will require funds which are currently unavailable. Thus, the government of Pakistan has encouraged the public to fund the building of the dam, this includes getting support from the Pakistani diaspora. Owing to the wealth accumulated by the Pakistani disapora, PM Khan has suggested that he hopes every overseas Pakistani is able to donate at least US$1000 (£780) to the building of the dam.[xiv] It was only 2 weeks ago that my parents were in attendance at a fundraising event, which was organised by the local Pakistani community in Stoke-on-Trent but sponsored by the Pakistani government. Although asking the public to support a project which will cost the country US$14 billion may be far-fetched, it does still aim to alleviate the burden of costs. The Prime Minister has said that he, himself may oversee the project due to the urgency in need for action to be taken.[xv]

In conclusion, the future of water in Pakistan looks very dangerous unless the state is serious about facing up to combating climate change. PM Imran Khan’s government does have the support of the public behind them in trying to alleviate the problem by building the colossal Diamer-Bhasa Dam ( although some may argue that there may be better techniques in combatting the problem). The role of Afghanistan and India on Pakistan’s water availability is certainly set to become a more important topic and may result in further conflict between the countries. Afghanistan’s friendlier relations with India may well enhance the threat of conflict, although it is unlikely that Pakistan would aim to target Afghanistan knowing the repercussions from India as well the International community. Furthermore, if the new dam is as successful as planned then Pakistan will not face the tremendous doom predicted and although Pakistan will certainly keep its eye on its neighbours’ hydro-schemes, Pakistan will likely use a pen rather than guns in retaliation.







[vii] World Bank

To cite this article: Daanish Mustafa & Amiera Sawas (2013) Urbanisation and Political Change in Pakistan: exploring the known unknowns, Third World Quarterly, 34:7, 1293-1304

To link to this article:


[viii]To cite this article: Daanish Mustafa & Amiera Sawas (2013) Urbanisation and Political Change in Pakistan: exploring the known unknowns, Third World Quarterly, 34:7, 1293-1304

To link to this article:








[xv]Imran Khan (@imrankhanpti), Twitter  6:15AM GMT 10/09/2018

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