THE arid world is in the throes of a water crisis. In Pakistan, where virtually all surface water comes from one river, it is natural that water anxieties revolve around the Indus River.

The Indus is a transboundary stream governed between Pakistan and India through the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. Celebrated by two generations of policy experts as a model of water diplomacy, the treaty has been subject to much acrimony, doubt and expert and lay speculation in the past decade. The underlying issue is that, for a number of reasons, water scarcity in the region has increased significantly over the past decade.

In irrigation-dependent agrarian Pakistan and northwest India, where millions of small farmers toil in their nations’ respective breadbaskets, water scarcity is closely linked to water security, which is in turn inextricable from food security. The Indus is the lifeblood of the region, a flowing oasis in an otherwise dusty desert, and this is why the distribution of its waters rightly arouses passions and interest.

Reactions to Indus scarcity in Pakistan can be grouped into three camps. The first I call the chauvinistic camp, represented best by the shrill cries of the Difa-i-Pakistan Council. The response of this group to every international issue, from drones to dams, is to posit a binary that holds up Pakistan as violated, and external actors (mainly the US, Israel, and India) as the violators. The solution they propose is all-out war in defence of the motherland, or at least making the threat of all-out war.

In the second camp are the techno-utopians, who see technology as the cure for all social ills, who are represented by engineers, bureaucrats and some development professionals. Their proposed solutions include improving the efficiency of water delivery by lining canals and introducing drip irrigation, building more dams and drilling more wells.

Finally, there are the optimistic managers, who believe that most international misunderstandings are a result of miscommunication and poorly designed institutions. This group is composed of economists, lawyers and some development professionals. Their solutions include the generation and sharing of better-quality data between Pakistan and India on Indus water flows, participatory water management and market-based reforms.

All three camps fall into what political geographer John Agnew has called the “territorial trap” — mistaking borders on maps for boxes that neatly partition and contain social and economic dynamics within the recognised territory of states. But, like the Indus River, social and political-economic relationships can and do transgress borders, even while being shaped by them.

A second, and not unrelated, trait of the three camps, which I call the hydrologic trap, is that they treat water as something separate from the land on which it flows. But a river is not just water; it is the dynamic relationship between water and the land it drains. How does our understanding of the Indus waters dispute change if we steer clear of the territorial and hydrologic traps?

The most striking effect of looking at the distribution of Indus waters sans a state-centric lens is that the issue becomes one not of state rivalry, but of class and access to land. If we keep in mind that the vast majority of Indus waters are used for irrigation, it becomes clear that the distributional tussle is between the landed and the landless on either side of the border, not Pakistani and Indian across the border. At least since the Green Revolution, a technological transformation of agriculture that swept North India and Pakistan in the 1960s, rates of landlessness and farm consolidation have been skyrocketing. The seed technology the Green Revolution introduced to the Indus plains dramatically increased the amount of water needed to produce crops, and in this part of South Asia, at least, access to water is closely linked with ownership of land.

About half of the rural households in Pakistan are today landless, while the top five per cent of households own more than a third of the cultivated area. A recent article on smallholder agriculture in Indian Punjab tells a similar story: about 200,000 small farmers have sold or leased their land to larger farms and have joined the ranks of landless agricultural labourers, migrated to cities, or even taken the desperate recourse of committing suicide. In other words, the people who need water the most are unable to get it because of uneven property and class relationships.

Clearly, it’s a very complex issue, and we haven’t even touched on the problems faced by downstream Sindh, Haryana and Rajasthan, or the elephant in the room, Kashmir, through which the majority of Indus waters pass before reaching Pakistan. But if the Indus dispute matters to us because of its implications for food security, analysing the situation in terms of Pakistan vs India simply will not do.

As decades of social science research from around the world teaches us, there is no reason why throwing technology or (ostensibly) apolitical policy solutions at a problem won’t actually increase insecurity and vulnerability of the poorest. I do not reject other types of analyses in their totality: technology, policy and diplomacy are of course very important. But even the most inspired solution will fall flat on its face, and possibly exacerbate the situation, if we close our eyes to political economy and geography, and thereby fall prey to the territorial and hydrologic traps.

The writer is visiting faculty at Beaconhouse National University and is conducting doctoral dissertation research on the history and geopolitics of the Indus Waters Treaty.



Walking a tightrope
29 May, 2022

Walking a tightrope

The prime minister should be ready to take strict measures where necessary.
29 May, 2022

Twisted notions

THERE is a sickening sense of déjà vu about the crime and, even worse, the certainty that this will not be the ...
29 May, 2022

Hockey disappointment

IN the space of about two hours, the disappointment of a narrow 3-2 loss to Japan turned into sheer anguish for the...
Updated 28 May, 2022

POL price shock

The state must look into exactly how much of an impact POL hikes have had on the prices of everyday items.
28 May, 2022

Changed laws

THERE will be much noise made over bills passed in the last two days by parliament to amend election and National...
28 May, 2022

Causing damage

FORMER prime minister Imran Khan’s remarks that he called off his protest, not because he had reached a deal but...