Opinion and Editorial

South Asia’s water equation

Syed Iqbal Hasnain
Filed on August 8, 2010

After independence in 1947, the use of the Indus and its five tributaries became a major dispute between India and Pakistan. The World Bank brokered a treaty in 1960, which gave India control of three eastern-most rivers of Punjab (the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi), while Pakistan gained control of three western rivers, (the Jhelum, the Chenab, and the Indus). India retained the right to use those western rivers for non-irrigation projects such as run-of-the-river power projects.

India has more than 20 hydropower projects on the three western rivers (allotted to Pakistan) in its part of Kashmir. Now, India is planning to complete 10 more projects in the region, including a diversion of water from the Kishanganga (Neelam in Pakistan) to the Jhelum River before it enters Pakistan-held Kashmir. The Indus treaty is very robust and fully safeguards the interest of Pakistan as the lower riparian — in fact, the Treaty has withstood three Indo-Pakistani wars. The Treaty lays down a number of restrictions on India: for example, ‘storage’ is not permitted but ‘pondage’, for a short duration, is allowed.

The International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu has reported that snow and glacier melt contributes to almost 45 per cent of the Indus River’s annual flow. Recent calculations by Dutch scientists suggest that the snow and glacier melt index for the Indus is more than 151 per cent, implying that the mountains contribute more water to the river than do downstream regions. The global and regional warming in the Himalayan mountains above 2000 meters are reducing seasonal snow-cover and shrinking those mountains’ glaciers.

About 40 per cent of the river headwaters lies in Indian and Pakistani-held Kashmir and is located in the dry region of the Hindu-Kush Himalayas. The glaciers cover an area of 2.2 per cent of total mountain area above 2000 meters. The compounding impacts of global climate warming and the rising emissions from black carbon aerosols are accelerating the melt of ice and reducing the accumulations of snow on these glaciers, leading to significant loss of ice mass cover over large portions of the Indus catchment. In view of the overarching impacts of regional climate change, the World Bank should revisit clauses in the Indus Treaty and make revisions that can allow for the rivers’ current high flows and the likely low flows in the future. The emerging scenarios posited by climate and glacier mass balance modeling will help policy makers in both countries to comprehend the scope of the problem.

But Pakistan’s internal politics and policies are complicating the management of these major international rivers. Pakistan’s two major reservoirs — the Tarbela on the Indus and the Mangla on the Jhelum — are located in the upper Indus basin and are fed predominately by glacier melt water. That melt water is charged with huge sediment loads and, as a consequence of such high sedimentation, the storage capacity of both the reservoirs has gone down substantially. Present high flows caused by accelerated glacial melting are being mismanaged by Pakistan — this is due to a lack of infrastructure and poor regulatory mechanisms. An example of such mismanagement: Pakistan is diverting the water of Chenab River and putting it into the Ravi River in order to irrigate the west Punjabi hinterland. And though the government of Pakistan is intentionally diverting water to please Punjabi farmers, it is blaming India for its water shortages in south Punjab.

Nor is India blameless. Currently, the government of India is officially denying that the glaciers are melting and, in November 2009, the Ministry of Environment & Forests released a report on the state of the glaciers that is contrary to recent published papers. Notwithstanding the government’s claims, there is compelling scientific evidence that the glaciers are shrinking at a rapid pace and that a huge amount of that water is flowing down to Pakistan. In order to ensure water security, India has to both acknowledge the impact of climate change on glaciers and also must reconsider its 60-year-old policy of not putting hydrological data in the public domain. Perhaps most importantly, all parties must understand that the current high river flows will not be sustained for long as the Himalayan glaciers continue to melt.

The leaders of 193 nations at the 2009 Copenhagen negotiations emphasised that “we underline that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our time” without agreeing to substantial binding targets for CO2 reductions.

The growing global and regional emission levels are adversely affecting the Hindu Kush-Himalayan glaciers. Nevertheless, regional cooperation on the coordination of scientific research (such as the Arctic Council) is needed in the South Asian region — only through such cooperation can scientists and policymakers obtain a holistic perspective on the actual and anticipated changes in the Himalayan cryosphere.

Syed Iqbal Hasnain is a visiting fellow at the Stimson Center

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