Climate-proofing the treaty

Published April 24, 2022
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.

CLIMATIC change has created many new issues for India-Pakistan water relations, and they go beyond the scope of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). These issues reflect an epochal shift in the economic, social and ecological health of the Indus basin.

Since Pakistan gets almost all of its surface water from its neighbours, it is important to explore policy options and determine implementation mechanisms for the future water security of the federation and all federating units to ensure that the shared water resources are climate-proofed to serve as a source of cooperation.

Read: Pakistan’s watershed moment

The IWT is now exposed to several climate change-induced stresses. It poses a wide range of threats to freshwater resources — the county’s lifeline — by threatening water quantity, quality and system operations as well as creating new governance complications. The challenge is how to integrate information on future hydro-climatological conditions into the politically complex system of a transboundary water agreement. The treaty presently lacks important tools for dealing with the changing social, economic and climate conditions, but, mercifully, Article 7 of the treaty has provisions to deal with the issues that have emerged in recent years.

India and Pakistan are not the only states to share transboundary water resources with their neighbours. Nearly half the global population is believed to rely on transboundary waters. Political borders and boundaries are rarely defined by water bodies; innumerable rivers, lakes and groundwater aquifers are shared by two or more nations.

A UN assessment mapped 214 such shared basins. A registry, prepared by Prof Aaron Wolf in 2003, identified over 260 major transboundary river basins shared by not less than 145 countries. In this otherwise conflict-ridden world, well-managed water agreements are the anchors of stability — an estimated 300 agreements govern multi-state transboundary water rights. Some riparian countries have begun to revisit their accords in order to find mutually beneficial responses to climate-induced challenges. Are there any lessons for the IWT signatories?

The Indus Waters Treaty between Pakistan and India is exposed to many climate-induced stresses.

Globally, most water agreements and treaties are extremely diverse in their approaches and solutions. Unlike IWT that has divided rivers between India and Pakistan, almost all water agreements share waters based on fixed or flexible volumetric allocations.

Some accords have also covered groundwater or aquatic resources while others, like the IWT, have not. Many transboundary agreements have provisions for floods, some for droughts, and fewer for both. The Ganges Water Treaty between Bangladesh and India, for example, has provisions to share water during drought periods. The Joint Water Commission supports their bilateral treaty with studies and reports on sharing of waters, irrigation and flood and cyclone control. Likewise, the Permanent Joint Technical Commission on the Nile basin can make recommendations for new water allocations in response to drought. In other words, the need is to gear up for managing the anticipated scarcity rather than just dividing water that is presently available.

Read: Revisiting the Indus Waters Treaty

Extreme weather events (EWEs) have become increasingly frequent and fierce, overly exposing countries like Pakistan to high risks and damage. Instead of signing new agreements, the experts have favoured building upon the existing instruments to respond to EWEs, hoping that this would, over time, improve the scope of existing water agreements and make them climate-smart. At the heart of such endeavours is the desire to cope with changing climatic conditions by crafting flexible water-management strategies.

For India and Pakistan, climate-induced hydrological and hydro-climatological variabilities are upsetting historical trends. As climate change alters the monsoon system, past climate conditions are a less reliable predictor of the future. But the IWT is based on the assumption that future water supply and quality will not change. Adapting to climate change will require changes in the institutions and policies that have been put in place since the signing of the treaty. It has become a matter of common knowledge that where change exceeds the institutional capacity to absorb it, the situation is rife for conflict.

Experts recommend many mechanisms that can be incorporated into existing systems to allow for flexibility in the face of climatic changes. Four main global trends merit a closer review: i) devising response strategies for EWEs — floods, drought, tropical storms or cloudbursts, ii) reviewing water-quality standards to arrest water degradation that has become particularly detrimental for the existing and future infrastructure, iii) exploring changes in monitoring and review procedures to jointly deliberate over shared climate concerns to enhance the effectiveness of the IWT, and iv) strengthening joint management institutions, particularly the India-Pakistan Permanent Indus Commission. The commission barely meets twice a year, and then primarily to exchange Pakistani objections and Indian rebuttals on the proposed infrastructural projects. This zero-sum approach cannot keep the treaty alive.

It is important for both India and Pakistan to view the IWT in its historical context and take a leap forward towards the contemporary context. This was a post-partition gift and an opportunity to make the new country a viable entity for an agrarian economy. There was no time, scientific knowledge or expertise available to discuss the importance of e-flows for sustainable ecosystems, watershed protection, or groundwater and aquifer management. We know now that cheaper solar and wind energy has diminished the need for India to construct a chain of dams to allow the free flow of the Indus. In fact, if the two countries cooperate, the existing upstream reservoirs in India can serve as water banks for drought periods in Pakistan.

Policymakers in Pakistan are generally apprehensive and dismiss climate change as a dangerous distraction rather than see it as an opportunity that can add to the life and vitality of the IWT. It is in our interest to ensure that the Permanent Indus Commission meets more frequently than the minimum required in the treaty; it should constitute ad hoc expert groups and sub-committees to table climate-smart options. An otherwise robust water treaty should not become hostage to weak institutions and an unimaginative treaty implementation strategy by either side. Both countries need to consider a ministerial-level commission to revitalise the IWT by formulating a refreshed bilateral water agenda. The present period of poor relations is probably the best time for such an initiative.

The writer is an expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, April 24th, 2022

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