When the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was signed by Pakistan and India, mediated by the World Bank; Pakistan was to give up its right of the three eastern tributaries to the River Indus, thereby losing 33 million acre feet (MAF) of water to its neighbour. Over the years since, there has been a consistent and worrying decline in the water originating from across the border estimated at approximately 10.25 MAF. Pakistan is now officially a water-scarce country (with a per capita availability less than 1000m3) surpassing the likes of Ethiopia and is said to be heading towards one of the most serious water-based disasters. But who is really at fault?
Although the instinctive reaction is to blame India, we have to consider our own failings as well. Excellent irrigation development projects meant that despite losing the three eastern rivers to India; Pakistan with its extensive network of canals and storage facilities provided water for one of the largest irrigated (26 million acres) areas for any one river system in the world. Since then however, we have undertaken the tragic decision of demoting water policy as a priority. In the years that have followed, the lack of maintenance have ensured that our irrigation system has suffered, and our water storage capacity has plummeted to 30%. With a rapidly decelerating per capita availability of water (down to 964m3 from 1947 levels of 5650m3) and the population set to double over the next 2.5 decades, the situation is a dire one. It will also be further exacerbated by climate change, and an overexploitation of water which has caused the levels of ground water to drop. The politicizing of Kalabagh Dam, only serves to highlight our inherent lack of foresight, which has proven so costly already.
Of course, India’s disregard and manipulation of the IWT has also played a major part in the devastating water crisis. Although allowed some development projects as a part of the IWT, they have expanded upon these by diverting water supply and continuing large scale hydroelectric projects as well as the river-linking initiative. Through the invocation of legal loopholes, the International Court of Arbitration may have awarded India a diplomatic victory in the recent case of the Kishenganga Project; but for a country that we are supposedly about to grant the Most-Favoured Nation status, the move to deprive us of water is a demonstration of hostility.
For Pakistani officials, the time for introspection has long passed. Their short-term policies and general ineptitude have ensured that we are on the cusp of a national disaster, and a holistic effort needs to be undertaken accounting for not only new water projects, but also a serious re-reading of the IWT.