Troubled Waters: The Indus River Crisis

Image by Deepgoswami

Climate change has the capacity to radically transform the international order. This is particularly true in South Asia, where fresh water resources from the Himalayas are dwindling rapidly. As tensions rise between India and Pakistan, it is vital to focus on the environmental and political factors at play, and to consider the potential implications of continued animosity between these riparian neighbours.

The consequences of climate change are exacerbating water security concerns to the North and South of the Himalayas. Glacial recession from the Himalayas is increasing the magnitude and annual variability of rainfall, causing catastrophic floods and droughts throughout South Asia. Simultaneously, coastal areas surrounding the Indian Ocean are under threat as rising sea levels deteriorate the quality of ground water and cause mass migration.

Demand-side dynamics are equally valuable to this analysis. The exponential growth of the South Asian population is fuelling an increase in demand for water that greatly exceeds waning supplies. The issue of water security is uniquely problematic in that, unlike food and energy, too much water is as big a threat to society as too little. In this sense, the extreme abundance of water can be considered a double-edged sword: states must attempt to harness its productive capabilities while limiting its destructive potential.

To complicate matters further, 20th century colonial borders have created trans-border rivers, such as the Indus River. The impending effects of climate change are likely to escalate existing tensions over these shared water resources as upper-riparian countries seek to mitigate domestic pressures and satisfy their own water needs at the expense of others.

The national destinies of India and Pakistan are intimately linked by the Indus River, whose waters they share and rely on for economic development. Agricultural production is pivotal to these economies, particularly for Pakistan; more than 95% of irrigation in Pakistan is located in the Indus basin. Moreover, its agricultural sector comprises 21% of the country’s GDP and employs about 45% of its labour force.

Although water is a renewable resource, fresh water supplies are not unlimited. Hydrologists argue that the Indus has become a “closed” basin, as water withdrawals for agricultural, industrial, and domestic purposes increasingly outpace natural rates of renewal. In fact, the Indus River no longer reaches the shores of Pakistan year-round.

Waterflow projections for India and Pakistan are daunting. In the last 50 years per capita availability of water in India has declined by roughly 60%, with an equally precipitous drop possible in the next 50 years. Meanwhile, Pakistan is nearing the ‘water stress’ limit of 1000 cubic meters per person per year, below which serious economic and social consequences are likely.

This grim forecast regarding water stress does not bode well for a region that has one of the highest rates of terrorism in the world. The 20th century in South Asia was plagued by political violence, including instances of terrorism, insurgencies, civil war, and interstate war. The apparent link between resource stress and political violence suggests that this trend will continue.

This month’s escalation has sparked fears of a nuclear confrontation. India and Pakistan had not launched air strikes in each other’s territories since they last went to war in 1971. The Partition of British India in 1947 led to constant territorial disputes and subsequently the formation of the Line of Control (LOC) separating (Indian-administered) Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) from the Pakistani-administered territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. However, despite the LOC, neither territorial nor religious conflicts have abated in this Muslim-majoritarian state of Hindu-majoritarian India.

For the past three decades two forms of political violence have been most pervasive in the Kashmir valley: non-state and state terrorism. After two unsuccessful military interventions in 1947 and 1965, Pakistan has largely refrained from making direct attempts at challenging control in J&K. Instead, Pakistan has deployed unconventional assets to upset the regional order.

In retaliation, the Indian government pursued an aggressive counter-terrorism strategy, using paramilitary forces to extinguish political dissidents. Anyone thought to be supporting the armed movement, including both civilians and terrorists, was subject to state terrorism and other forms of oppression.

India’s strategy has failed spectacularly. Rather than quelling terrorism it has fomented political violence and set in motion a vicious cycle of mistrust, hatred, and aggression between Kashmir’s Muslims and Hindus. An often-used quote from Indian author B.G Verghese states that “water is the latest battle cry for jihadis […] they shout that water must flow, or blood must flow.”1

The bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan, which increasingly pivots on the issue of water, remains highly unstable due to the countries’ high economic dependence on water supplies over which they have only limited control. Climate change may well precipitate conflict in the coming decades. In the meantime, innocent people are increasingly suffering, both from terrorist violence and intimidation on the one hand, and the inevitable government repression that is generated by way of response.

Image courtesy of  Deepgoswami. [CC BY-SA 4.0 via Flickr]

  1. Kreamer, D. (2012). The Past, Present, and Future of Water Conflict and International Security. Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education, 149(1), pp.87-95
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About Eduardo Gomez

Eduardo studies International Relations and Economics at the University of St Andrews. Throughout his degree, Eduardo has been involved in several research projects at the university, including undergraduate research assistantships for the School of Economics and Finance and the Global Challenges Project, organised by the Handa Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence. His areas of interest consist of Latin American democracy, state terrorism, and global environmental politics.

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