India believes that Pakistan’s bid to hoist the water issue on the bilateral agenda would be misplaced because the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) has stood the test of time in resolving differences. IWT Commissioners have met over a 100 times since the treaty was signed half a century ago to exchange information and iron out irritants, which means that the mechanism has been working well.
In fact, Islamabad’s desire to bring the water issue on the table on the eve of this week’s foreign secretary talks is a change from its stand in 2002, when the “Pakistan Water Sector Strategy” argued for thwarting any “attempt by India” to scrap the treaty. It anticipated an adverse impact on the river water flows if the treaty was scrapped and argued for building storage capacities to meet requirements in times of shortages, which Pakistan has failed to do adequately.
Experts say that instead of accusing India of reneging on the IWT provisions, Pakistan should pay attention to building storage capacities because climate change is impacting the quantum of water in the six rivers that flow from India to Pakistan.
Under the IWT, Pakistan has the right to utilise the upper three “western” rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — and India has the right to use the water of three “eastern” rivers — Ravi, Sutlej and Beas — as it thinks fit.
Under the treaty, India is allowed to store 3.6 million acreage feet (MAF) of water of the western rivers, but it has not built any such facility so far, allowing unimpeded flows into Pakistan. Since the water level in the Chenab varies wildly during winter and summer, a better strategy would be for both countries to build a joint storage project which would serve the farmers of both countries during the lean periods, some experts aver.
Silting at dams
Pakistan’s water woes are compounded by silting at the Tarbela and Mangla dams, with an internal official assessment admitting that it has lost 32 per cent of its storage capacity due to the problem.
Islamabad should also not doubt India’s plan to put up projects that do not impede water flows on the western rivers, because Article III of the IWT allows it the use of western river waters for domestic, non-consumptive and agriculture purposes, besides the generation of electricity.
Within Pakistan itself, there is a debate about the need for the government to improve its management of water.
While framing the IWT, the irrigable area of India and Pakistan was assessed at 26 million acres and 39 million acres respectively, while the waters available to them are 32.8 MAF and 135.6 MAF respectively. This means that only about 1.26 feet of water is available to India for its agriculture on eastern rivers, while about 3.5 feet of water is available to Pakistan for its agriculture.
Pakistan has a large surplus of unused water. Its documents show about 30 MAF as “available surplus” with a very high escapage to the sea.
Pakistan’s irrigation efficiency is also understood to be low, at an estimated 40 per cent. Virtually all of the municipal and industrial wastewater is returned to the rivers, nullahs and streams untreated, which results in deterioration of water quality.
The Pakistan document also suggests that canal capacities are not sufficient to provide the share of each province as per their allocation. The inefficient system aggravates the problems.
As a result of the IWT, Pakistan was assisted by India financially (£62.06 million) and by the IBRD fund to build replacement works, including link canals for transferring waters of the western rivers to eastern rivers. This network of link canals could be used by Pakistan to properly distribute the water.