It is a commonly held view that future wars in the world will be fought over that most basic of necessities, which is fast becoming scarce: Water. Only 2.75 percent of the world’s water is fresh - and soon to be the most sought after (and fought after) commodity in the world. The last century saw 37 violent conflicts over water. Pakistan, which has a large agrarian economy, has gone from roughly 5,600 cubic meters per-capita surface-water availability for irrigation, in 1947, to 1,200 in 2008, projected to be below 600 cubic meters by 2017. To compare, current surface water availability in sub-Saharan Africa is 700 cubic meters. Thus, news reports and editorials, often branded hysterical, which claim that Pakistan is looking at a future as a desert, are not really that far off the mark. Pakistan’s dependency on the Indus Basin for its water needs hovers around 77 percent. This access is controlled by the Indus Waters Treaty, negotiated between Pakistan and India through the World Bank, in 1960.
With Pakistan and India’s growing populations, their water needs are becoming more acute and consequently the stress on the treaty and adherence to it from both sides, has assumed critical importance. As the upper riparian, it makes sense that India has stressed on the permissive clauses in the treaty, while Pakistan as the lower riparian, emphasises the restrictive. Over the years, Pakistan’s internal mismanagement and carelessness have not only cost us dear in terms of opportunities, delays and goodwill lost, but have also been cited as examples of why Pakistan is incapable of using the treaty to its best effect, thus falling to the ‘tactic’ of blaming India for all its water woes. This criticism is not unreasonable. Pakistan, as it flails around in every direction for the world to see, behaves much the same where its water scarcity is concerned.
While the treaty provides remedies and safeguards, those remedies and safeguards unless invoked, will be of no use to us. Our internal management of water is poor and getting worse due to various disconnects. Other than receiving our full share under the Indus Waters Treaty and ensuring that we as brilliantly deflect rather ingenious Indian strategies to hoard a further share of water than it is strictly entitled to, we must place equal, if not greater, stress on managing the water that we do get. A frequent Indian criticism of the Pakistani side is that we seem almost allergic to building up our storage capacity, all the while screaming foul play.
Currently, our storage capacity per person is a paltry 150 cubic meters, compared to India’s comparatively better 900 cubic meters and America’s awe-inspiring 9,000 cubic meters per person. If Pakistan hopes that its current storage capacity will be enough to provide to its exploding population - it is tragically deluded. The issue is worsened, the more it is spread out between various ministries, which all operate on a line they assume is best, without any synchronism or long-term planning on a platform which all ministries are involved in, which would be the safest bet to yield results for a secure water future.
We don’t have far to look for an excellent example of this. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs does an exemplary job of acting as the sole ‘bottleneck’ through which all such issues must pass, so that their strategic impact can be assessed in one place, which thus accumulates information, as well. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s internal disconnects are costing it more than any Indian efforts in the long-run. Global warming, resulting climate change, an aggressive timber mafia, deforestation…….these are all much greater dangers, that need to be immediately addressed. However, no one seems to be talking about this at all. Any effort to discuss conservation is met with, “Pffftt, what silliness,” and it is exactly this mindset that will end us.
No external pressure is so effective that it cannot be dealt with. In fact, the treaty itself is the most useful document that Pakistan has. Were it to be properly utilised, it provides quite well for us. Unfortunately, the tool is only as good as the person whose hands it is in. And at the moment, the Indians are wielding it with a skill that is making us green with envy. Their projects are meant to be started after suitable intimation to the Pakistani side, but this never happens. We end up learning about it from satellite intelligence. By the time we get to lodging a complaint in international arbitration (which again, due to our own incompetence and at times genuine lack of expert and legal opinion, is usually delayed for years after the issue comes to light), the matter is a fait accompli. No court in the world will order a demolition of a half-built dam, all it can do is address the grievance and provide some remedial compensation.
What Pakistan urgently needs is to itself engage with the treaty more than ever before, to use the clauses that are available to benefit it, effectively, just like the Indians do. We must set our house in order and establish a coordinated effort to not just extract maximum benefit from the treaty, but also to plan for solutions where we ourselves are going wrong, i.e. storage and conservation efforts. Our canal system needs improvements, which are unplanned for at present.
Pakistan must also work to dispel the image that we are a country that continuously cries wolf and is reluctant to recognise its own faults. The international community, if it sees ‘bad things happening to bad people’, will not be able to sympathise with us. India has an exceptionally sharp grasp, that perceptions count more than reality in this day and age, and as far as that battle is concerned, they are winning it. The worse Pakistan looks, the better they look by comparison. Their economic clout, image and diplomacy have combined to give them results they are reaping the benefits of. It is only natural that the Indians would doggedly pursue their self-interest. It would be ridiculous and naïve for Pakistan to expect them to ‘do right by us’, because after all, given the same situation, we would behave with equally selfish intent.
Simple economics describes it best: There are unlimited needs and wants in the world and limited resources. If someone makes a better deal than you, you can’t blame them for it. They deserve that win, just as you would deserve it if you had outsmarted them. So in the end, it’s up to you, Pakistan. Don’t expect the world to bend over backwards to be fair to you, pursue a cause of honest, selfish interest and try and win that case. That’s good enough.