Climate crisis and water diplomacy

Being a lower riparian state, Pakistan feels threatened by Indian projects on the western rivers

Climate crisis and water diplomacy


everal scientific studies have shown that the climate change crisis is real. The recently released Global Food Policy Report 2022 has warned that “summer heat-waves are projected to increase at a rate of 0.71 day per decade in the country [Pakistan]. In India it is estimated to triple or quadruple by 2100…water scarcity in Pakistan is projected to worsen with climate change. Himalayan glaciers, an important source of rivers in South Asia, have lost more mass since 2000 than in the entire Twentieth Century… Of the world’s five basins where water scarcity-led GDP losses are projected to be the highest, three (Indus, Sabarmati and Ganges-Brahmaputra) are in South Asia. In the Indus Basin alone, GDP losses by 2100 are expected to exceed $5,000 billion.”

Pakistan has diverse ecological regions, ranging from mountains in the north to a coastal zone in the south. Its glaciers are melting rapidly due to rising temperatures leading to the formation of 3,044 glacial lakes in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Of these, 33 glacial lakes have been assessed to be prone to glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF). According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), more than 7.1 million people in GB and KP are vulnerable due to their low economic status. Also, Pakistan’s water resources are under tremendous pressure.

The rapidly growing population has made Pakistan a water scarce country. This can result in food insecurity for the marginalised communities. According to the National Water Policy (2018), per capita surface water availability declined from 5,260 m3 per year in 1951 to about 1,000 m3 in 2016. This is predicted to further decrease to 860 cubic metres by 2025 marking Pakistan’s shift from a water-stressed to a water-scarce country. 1,000 cubic metres per capita per year water is required to avoid food and health implications.

Currently, Pakistan’s freshwater resources amount to 176 million acre feet (MAF). The freshwater is available through the Indus River system consisting of five main rivers: Indus (44 percent), Chenab (19 percent), Jhelum (16 percent), Kabul River (16 percent), and others (5 percent). Snow melt and monsoon rains feed freshwater into the Indus River and its tributaries. The Indus River is the primary source of irrigation for 80 percent of the agricultural land, covering an area of 21.5 million hectares. Pakistan stands fourth among countries with the largest irrigated area. Its contiguous irrigation network is the largest in the world.

Pakistan is predominantly an agrarian economy. Most of its freshwater (95 percent) is used in irrigated agriculture. The remaining serves domestic and industrial uses. Operationally, however, less than 40 percent of the water is actually used for irrigation. The rest is lost in conveyance and field application. Exponential population growth and urbanisation, water intensive agriculture practices, unsustainable groundwater extraction and irregular rainfall owing to regional climatic changes are among the major factors in Pakistan’s water stress.

It is time Indian and Pakistani authorities took the Indus Waters Treaty seriously and sat together to find workable solutions under its framework.

India has conventionally relied on water sources originating in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir for irrigation in its northern states, including the Punjab.

When India stopped the flow of water into Pakistan in May 1948, the latter not only protested but asserted ownership over the Indus Basin on the basis of “prior appropriation.”

The water crisis attracted global attention and the United States interacted with India and Pakistan in the early 1950s. Consequently, the two countries signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in 1960. The IWT went beyond the Linienthalian cooperative framework and instead divided the rivers in a manner that the water from three eastern rivers came under Indian suzerainty though Pakistan was to use these waters for irrigation purposes for initial 10 years. The three western rivers came under exclusive Pakistani control though India could use these waters for hydroelectric power generation as long as the water flow remained uninterrupted. Despite opposition by nationalist lobbies in both the countries, the arrangement was applauded globally.

The treaty has survived hostility and wars between India and Pakistan but failed to deter India from interfering in the Indus Basin flows. In 1999, the steady period of waters management was disturbed when India announced plans to construct Baghliar Dam on the Chenab. Pakistan registered its concerns with the Permanent Indus Commission but its members (drawn from the two countries) were unable to reach consensus.

In the end, Pakistan approached the World Bank which ruled in favour of the dam. India has started building more works including the Kishanganga project, Ratle, Sawalkot Dams and Wullar Barrage on the Western rivers, i.e., Chenab and Jhelum, in the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan has objected as the dams can impact water flow in Chenab and Jhelum Rivers. Pakistan approached the International Court of Arbitration against the Kishanganga project. The court partially ruled in favour of Pakistan; however, it allowed the construction of the dam, urging India to abide by the IWT requirement of minimum water flow in the concerned river.

India is reportedly working on more hydro projects, including Pakal Dul Dam. India’s unilateral actions in the Indus Basin are not only worsening water relations between the two countries but also eroding mutual trust. The other day, India-Pakistan waters bureaucracies held a meeting in New Delhi to discuss the concerns relating to the Indus Waters Treaty.

Being a low riparian state, Pakistan is threatened by India’s plans for projects on the western rivers. Pakistan is a predominantly agrarian economy. Almost 80 percent of its irrigation water comes from the Indus River System. About 45 percent of the population is employed in the agriculture sector. Pakistan’s irrigation system consists of canals and barrages fed by water in the western tributaries. Any action by India to disturb the flow of water in the said rivers ultimately impacts the availability of water in the barrages and canals system of the country.

It is time Indian and Pakistani authorities took IWT seriously and sat together to find workable solutions to the issues under its framework. If the trust deficit and inflexibility between the neighbours is not reversed, it will further exacerbate regional security challenges.

Prof Dr Muhammad Fahim Khokhar holds a PhD and three post-docs in environmental science from Germany and France. He has worked on various European climate projects such as NOVAAC, GEMS and MACC. Currently, he heads the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) Islamabad and a research group called C-CARGO (Climate Change and Atmospheric Research Group). He can be reached at

Dr Ejaz Hussain has a PhD in political science from Heidelberg University and a post-doc from UC-Berkeley. He is a DAAD, FDDI and Fulbright fellow and an associate professor at the Department of Social Sciences, Iqra University, Islamabad. He can be reached at

Climate crisis and water diplomacy