Considering Climate Risks and the Indus Waters Treaty in the 2019 India-Pakistan Showdown (Part 1)

By Nadia B. Ahmad

In the early hours of February 26, 2019, Indian air forces crossed the Line of Control into Pakistan and conducted a series of coordinated air strikes against a “Jaish-e-Muhammad training camp” in the area, saying “a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for [suicide] action were eliminated.” These air strikes occurred as a result of terrorist attack on a security convoy in the Pulwama district, which killed 40 Indian law enforcement officials on February 14. Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for that attack.

As a result of the Pulwama incident, the Indian government sought to cut off some of the downstream water flows to Pakistan.  The two countries have fought three wars based on the disputed region in Kashmir since Partition in 1947.

Al Jazeera reported following a visit to the site of the recent air raids that “four bombs hit a forest and a field in a remote area outside of the northern Pakistani town of Jaba, about 100km north of the capital, Islamabad.” (“Splintered pine trees and rocks were strewn across the blast craters, and there was no evidence of any building debris or casualties. Metal shrapnel from the bombs was visible in four distinct craters.”)

Due to climate change, increase competition for essential natural resources, including water and energy, has occurred between nations. In fact, many world conflicts are couched along religious and communal lines, but are instead based off of natural resource scarcity. While the origins of the current conflict on based less on water resources, these water resources will become tools in negotiating for peace and brokering geopolitical stability in the region.

Climate scientists Michael Mann and Lee Kump foresee the increase of these types of conflicts worldwide: “An optimist might hope that the global threat of climate change will unite the international community as never before, spurring a coordinated campaign among nations to save humanity. Unfortunately, conflict experts foresee the possibility of a different scenario. As nations around the world exceed their capacity to adapt to climate change, violence and societal destabilization could ensue, leading to unprecedented levels of conflict both between and within nations.”

Worsening conditions of drought, displacement by monsoon disaster and dam-building, and increased energy insecurity have served as threat multipliers for conflict. So while these natural conditions will not necessarily create the conflict, they will make it worse. More so, the most poor and vulnerable are susceptible to recruitment by the ranks of terrorist groups as result of famine, hunger, and the lack of economic and educational opportunities.

The Indus River is the point of contention between the neighboring nations, but it is also the key to peace and prosperity of the two nations. The choice to construct a dam on the Ravi River, whose waters are allocated to India by treaty but a portion of which had been allowed to flow through to Pakistan, is a point of dispute.

The Indus River irrigates the Indus Basin through its major tributaries, which flow through valleys parallel to the mountains of the High Himalayas and into Pakistan’s plains, eventually leading to the tidal delta near the Arabian Sea. The Indus River System consists of the Indus River, Kabul River, Jhelum River, Chenab River, Ravi River, Setluj River, and Beas River.  In Pakistan, future water needs surpass the total potential energy supply, so the need to reduce the water losses can be accomplished through improved irrigation efficiency, construction of water reservoirs, and the adoption of artificial ground water recharge techniques to integrate the rain and excess flood water into depleted aquifers. Relations between India and Pakistan impact the hydroelectric development because of access to the Indus River. This current situation between the two neighboring nations further illustrates the need for both countries to seek alternate forms of energy sources. To sustain agriculture, public health, and economic development, access to river water is crucial.

The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 divided six major river systems between the two nations. However, allegations of India diverting water upstream fuel tensions between the countries because half of Pakistan’s population is involved in agriculture and more than ninety percent of the country is dependent on water from the Indus river. The long-standing water dispute between Pakistan and India can be resolved amicably through the Indus Waters Treaty once India, the holder of the upper riparian rights, recognizes Pakistan’s water crisis. Given such high stakes, there is a high potential for water-based conflict in the future if water becomes scarce. While some Indian officials have made threat to walk away from the Indus Waters Treaty, broader economic and environmental concerns teeter toward maintaining the status quo.

Nadia B. Ahmad is an Associate Professor of Law at Barry University School of Law. Professor Ahmad’s research explores the intersections of energy siting, the environment, and sustainable development and draws on international investment law and corporate social responsibility.