Indus: Connecting the drops
12 July 2012
The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has played a critical role in deciding the use of the Indus by India and Pakistan. With growing evidences of variability in water flow in the Indus, especially the western tributaries allocated to Pakistan, concern over water availability is growing. To discuss the critical challenges thrown out in the light of scientific and empirical data available, professionals, policy makers and academicians from various disciplines were brought together for a roundtable discussion titled "Connecting the Drops", jointly organised by Stimson Center, USA, Observer Research Foundation, India and Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan from 26 to 28 June, 2012 in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Key issues that were discussed under various themes are summarized below:
Variability of water flow
Empirical studies on Himalayan region, including Hindu Kush Himalayan range and parts of Tibetan plateau, suggest that these regions are warming up at a rate which is higher than the rate for the world in general. While results are still inconclusive, more in-depth analysis and prolonged studies based on direct monitoring and assessment of snow cover and glaciers in the region is required. Change in glacial melt may not mean reduced water, but there will be temporal and possibly irreversible hydrological changes. The more immediate challenge is to address the shift in monsoon precipitation patterns which affects both countries.
Water, food and energy security
Promoting sustainable water use is a challenging endeavour in view of the close inter-relationships among key economic, social and environmental sectors. This is made more complicated by growing demands, impacts of climate change and transboundary water sharing. For instance, agriculture is increasingly impacted negatively by changed precipitation patterns and variability of river flows. As production targets are met through expanded irrigations and multiple cropping, water systems in both the countries are further stressed out. Besides water availability, water quality is deteriorating as a result of increased fertilizer/pesticide usage and seawater intrusion, which in turn is affecting the water demand.
Increasingly, the Indus region is relying on hydro-potential for the energy security as well as storage. Augmentation through dam storage capacity is believed to cause change in seasonal distribution of the flows, along with increase in siltation, decreasing ecosystem productivity and other downstream ecological impacts. The conflict between economic and environmental flows is complex and difficult to mediate. Joint monitoring and assessment of hydropower development on shared rivers, including socio-ecological impacts, will ease tensions between the countries.
The definition of a river and the distinction between need and demand for water must be clarified. Water pricing may have to be considered seriously but given the question of affordability in both countries, water demand at different price levels based on ’willingness to pay’ principle could assist in policy formulation.
Impacts of climate change
Although the science of climate change is likely to remain fairly inexact, impacts of climate change in the form of shrinking habitats, floods, desertification, and damage to aquatic ecosystems are real and have increased vulnerabilities to the society. To better deal with climate change adaptation must become a part of mainstream development planning. More research on interactions between climate change, ecosystems degradation and environmental governance needs to be established.
Diversity in flood events in the past few years have put disaster management approaches in both the countries under scrutiny. Changing demographic spread, lack of disaster management knowledge and expertise, poverty and encroachments have led to further ineffectiveness of the agencies responsible for disaster management on either side of the border. This is an area that is politically benign and therefore facilitates regional cooperation. With 50 million environmental refugees expected in the Indian sub-continent within the coming decade, efforts need to focus on social impacts of the current policies and practices of disaster management. Data gathering, information management and knowledge sharing can be beneficial for both India and Pakistan to mitigate environmental disasters.
Suggestions and recommendations
• Given the dependence of Indus River on glacial melt extensive joint studies on the complex and unique Himalayan systems must be conducted and data must be shared openly.
• Exclusive dialogue on water is no longer possible and in this light, an inclusive discourse needs to be prepared to tackle issues related to sustainable ecosystems and livelihoods. Community participation in decision making, recognition of the utility and applicability of traditional rules of water management at local levels must be revived and sustained. How communities respond to top-down policy interventions must be studied critically.
• The NGOs and other citizens working groups seldom realize the amplitude of the problems related to food, energy and water that the government has to deal with, in its capacity to balance out politics of negotiations and national security agendas. A balanced mix of stake holders in decision making in the field of natural resources is of critical importance.
• There is a need to build parallel frameworks around the IWT to address issues that were non-existent at the time of formulation of the treaty (for instance, climate change). There is ample scope for future regional cooperation within the ambit of Article VII of the IWT.
• There is growing international interest on the perceived crisis on water, food and energy in South Asia. There is a need to bench mark best practices and ’harmonize’ activities to limit duplication. A bibliography of water-related studies and dialogues must be created.
• Hydrological data must flow freely across border. At the same time, control measures should be taken to restrict information based on ’unsustainable knowledge’, especially in the popular media. Dependable information must be shared with the media so that inaccurate information is not circulated.
• Institutional mechanisms need to be strengthened and efficient agricultural practices must be emphasised. Strategic planning at multi-levels should be informed by enhanced participation from all the stakeholders.
In a nutshell, cooperative rather than competitive approach to sharing water was emphasised.
The three-day conference was attended by B.G Verghese (Centre for Policy Research), M.H Wani (University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology), Mehendra P. Lama (Sikkim University), K. Srinivasan (Centre for Security Analysis), Ahmad Raza Sarwar (National Institute of Disaster Management, Pakistan), David Molan (ICIMOD), Shafqat Kakakhel, Aziz Ahmad (former Pakistan ambassadors), Salman Haider (former Indian foreign secretary), Khalid Mohtadullah (IWMI), I.A Khan (University of Agriculture, Pakistan), Samir Mehtan (International Rivers Organization), Simi Kamal (Hissar Foundation, Pakistan), Basanta Shrestha (ICIMOD), Ghazanfar Ali (Global Change Impact Studies Centre, Pakistan), Arshad Abassi and Shakeel Ramay (Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan), David Michael and Russel Sticklor (Stimson Center, USA), Lydia Powell and Sonali Mittra (Observer Research Foundation).
(This report is prepared by Sonali Mittra, Junior Fellow, Centre for Resources Management, Observer Research Foundation)