The new normal

Updated March 17, 2019

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The writer is CEO, LEAD Pakistan, an Islamabad-based think tank focusing on environment and development issues.
The writer is CEO, LEAD Pakistan, an Islamabad-based think tank focusing on environment and development issues.

A ‘NEW normal’ in Pakistan-India water relations has begun to take definitive shape. We may deny it, but cannot wish it away. Both countries have failed to fully grasp its contours and dimensions, and continue to look at their water relations through the narrowly defined prism of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). They cannot limit their water relations to the conflicting interpretations of the treaty alone; doing so can be dangerous not just for Pakistan’s water economy, but also for the very foundation of the Indo-Gangetic civilisation as we have known it for thousands of years.

The IWT has divided rivers between the two countries. India has the exclusive right to water from the three eastern rivers — Ravi, Sutlej and Beas — a right that Pakistan has never disputed. Yet, the present Indian government has, in recent years, begun to give a new narrative to our bilateral water discourse. Building on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s earlier rhetorical articulation, an Indian cabinet member recently stated that India has stopped the flow of waters to Pakistan in the eastern rivers. Pakistan has dismissed the statement as driven by electoral considerations and downplayed it by saying that a) the water in these rivers was India’s, in any case and b) it is an insignificant quantity of approximately 0.5 MAF — a miniscule quantity for the Indus River System that has over 140 MAF of annual water.

While neither side may be technically incorrect, they are oversimplifying the actual situation. Granted, India has the right to all water from the eastern rivers under the treaty, but it does not have the right to the life of the rivers. Rivers — like all other living beings — have the right to life, as do the downstream riverine ecosystems, deltas, cultures and heritage.

Pakistan’s argument about the insignificance of water quantities is misplaced.

Both parties to the treaty can take as much water from the rivers as they wish to, but the rivers must continue to flow and provide ecosystem services to both upper and lower riparians. There is sufficient global experience on good practices in designing hydropower projects, particularly in transboundary river systems and basins, without compromising the rights and interests of future generations.

Pakistan’s argument about the insignificance of water quantities is misplaced. Pakistan on average receives about 3.5 MAF for the Kharif and a little less than 1 MAF for Rabi seasons in the Ravi and almost 2 MAF in Kharif and 0.5 for Rabi season in the Sutlej. This water is absolutely important for groundwater recharging, particularly the one received in Rabi — the non-monsoon period. Let’s also not forget that Beas, Ravi, and Sutlej rivers at times receive much higher quantities of water at Marala, Madhopur, and Ferozepur stations where the incoming water is first measured in Pakistan.

These quantities are important for recharging groundwater. The rapid decline of groundwater in Lahore, for example, is often attributed among other reasons, to the drying of the Ravi that together with monsoonal rains, was once the principal source of its groundwater recharging.

These meagre quantities are also needed for off-season flushing of heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants. These are added ruthlessly to the tributaries of Sutlej and Ravi through such seasonal freshwater streams as Nallah Aik, Nalluah Dek and Nalluh Hudiara as they enter Pakistan, and Shahdra and Babu Sabu that are polluted by local industries and municipalities. They need periodic flushing. Absence of minimum flows will increase the groundwater leaching of these pollutants to the groundwater aquifers and deny the system its natural ability to flush and cleanse itself.

In fact, the peak discharges in these rivers have been significantly higher and their contribution to overall water availability to the Indus basin system should not be ignored. These flows sometimes have been close to, or higher than, the discharge capacity at about 12 measurement sites that Pakistan has at the three eastern rivers. The absence of the ‘nominal flows’ will adversely affect the present government’s Recharge Pakistan project in some areas.

A chain of upstream infrastructural development in India on these rivers has resulted in a steady decline in flows. In the Ravi river, it has declined from 11 MAF in 1976-77 to less than 3 MAF in 2017-18 and from little less than 9 MAF in Sutlej to about 3 MAF during the same period. As Pakistan and India have rarely discussed significant infrastructural developments on the eastern rivers, the changes in trends in their peaking or base-loading and the important transboundary implications are not fully debated and analysed in either country. The overall impact has gone unnoticed and resulted in a steady degradation of the downstream ecosystem, habitat, and human settlements.

The declining water quantities are not merely a result of the recently erected infrastructure. It is also partially attributable to weaker monsoonal rainfall due to climate change in the northern and eastern states of India over the last 50 years. There is a very clear pattern of frequent droughts, heavy groundwater extraction and growing water scarcity in the Indian states of Haryana and Punjab. Add to this the heavy electricity subsidies.

These two states extract more groundwater than recharged by monsoonal rains, resulting in an increased pressure to divert water from the Indus basin to meet the immediate political needs of the electoral politics to woo the farming communities. The more inefficient the water usage is in these two states, the greater the pressure on the Union government to divert water from the basin.

It is perhaps easier for many governments to initiate new infrastructural development or promise out-of-basin diversions than to withdraw subsidies, introduce pricing mechanisms or to engage with the farming communities to conserve water, and price groundwater. In all, domestic politics, water usage practices, climate change, and electoral political imperatives are the contours within which the new normal has to be defined. Instead of measuring water in cusecs alone, can the two counties begin to also look at transboundary waters for their environmental services and redefine the new normal?

The writer is CEO, LEAD Pakistan, an Islamabad-based think tank focusing on environment and development issues.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2019