Dehydrating Indus: India and Pakistan Need to Set Future Agenda


Thinking about a majestic river as the Indus River in South Asian set up attracts more perspective and more situation room strategies than a possible benefit sharing solution. From countless war strategies to suing each other in legal battle, from instigating to investigation, from hydro-phobia to hydro-politics, from misinformation to deliberately uninformed, India and Pakistan have been engaged in myriad exchanges and wasting time and opportunity. The exception could have been only during ancient Indus Civilisation where settlements at both sides of the river respected Indus as one. The massive 4500 Megawatt (MW) Diamer Basha Dam Project (DBDP) would be the next in recent memory.


When mooted the idea of supporting DBDP by multilateral development banks (MDBs), the Indian representatives never obstruct financial support for the project reflecting a good-will gesture. Despite the said project is on the shared river between India and Pakistan flowing through disputed area, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is seriously considering the project. The large media reports in Pakistan blaming India’s uncalled and unwanted intervention rupturing the ambitious BDDP Project is not true. The DBDP is stationing in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region with estimated population of 0.9 million (1998 census), bordering Indian State Jammu and Kashmir as well as China and Afghanistan. 


It’s rather not a coincidence that Latin word rivalis from which word rival comes originally referred a person who uses the same stream as another. Off late, reciprocity has been the atmosphere between two rival countries. From dropping the lawsuit against India’s 45MW Nimoo Bazgo hydropower by Pakistan to supplying 5000 MW electricity to Pakistan by India, the time is set for looking into a more constructive cooperative hydro-diplomacy and lead the examples with other neighbouring countries over shared water for mutual benefit. 


BDDP Itself has many issues to be settled including cumulative impact assessment as well as proper feasibility study before the ADB will release loan amount for the construction. A decision on latter’s financial support has postponed once earlier. The controversial project has been facing number of difficulties since it’s conceptualisation in 1980s. However, without proper assessment of project’s social including gender and environmental impacts with cumulative impact assessment, public hearings/consultations as per the ADB Safeguard Policy Statements, the project can’t move forward. Meanwhile, ADB has been facilitating energy and power sector policy reform and enabling capacity of concerned agencies in Pakistan for assessment, implementation and monitoring. The short term economic benefits of such dams have always been dazzling but always ignore its environmental costs. 


Hard to be optimistic against such backdrop of complex South Asian manoeuvring on various issues especially on shared river water to forge a common benefit sharing goal. However, the Indus River Basin in general and BDDP in particular can set for a new era of regional environmental governance in South Asia. 


Before plunging into any conclusion, let’s decipher contextual arguments. The Indus River which is mostly feed with glacier and precipitation is beyond India and Pakistan’s military and political control as it originates in Tibetan Platue. The recurring floods in Pakistan destroyed lives and settlements as well as arable lands, displaced hundreds of thousands with a damage calculated as $ 10 Billion. The Pakistan depends on Indus water to produce 94 per cent of its farm product which contributes nearly 25 per cent to its GDP and employing half of Pakistan. Power generation by both countries are squarely depending on Indus and its tributaries. Several studies are pointing towards nearly 8 to 10 per cent reduce flow in Indus by 2025 due to climate change. 


The Indus is the only shared river in the world which has been witnessing massive exploitation and extraction of its water for agriculture, power generation, drinking water and industrial use by both the countries. These unilateral measures which are very much within the power and legitimacy of each country to harness water resource have actually depleted the river. While Pakistan as a country solely depends on Indus for its survival, same goes with Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir as well as other northern States. To maintain sustain life of Indus is very much strategically important for both countries. 


Both countries have been exchanging vegetables, cereals and sugar across Attari-Wagah trade route. After the Most Favoured Nation (MFN), this exchange will go higher with items like orange, rice, wheat, sugar, onions and textiles. While Pakistan is largely depending on water from Indus Basin including ground water to produce such items, India has various options to produce. Pakistan should avoid exporting water intensive fruits or sugar or textiles even for high profit margin to its neighbour’s market. While competing to receive unhindered flow of Indus for its agriculture, Pakistan must value the embedded water in its crops which are in line for trade. The lucrative export market in India must not deplete the Indus in Pakistan. Don’t repeat Indus as the Aral Sea in South Asia by unwise resource extraction drive. 


The moral torchbearer of global environmental heritage should look inside and beyond their political boundaries. India has no provision of assessing transboundary environmental impacts of its unilateral projects for instance on shared rivers. All development projects over Indus River Basin must take into consideration of transboundary environmental and social impacts including climate change. The fear of losing number of unilateral projects looms large for both countries if they attempt to do so. The carrying capacity of the Indus has already been at threshold. Both countries leaders must step forward to plan jointly the development of Indus River Basin with transparent process of cumulative impact assessment of past, present and future targeted programs. 


The bilateral suspicion on sharing water has always been the norm of river bank politics. To minimise such suspicion, regular timely sharing of basic information on projects coming up on Indus Basin by India and Pakistan beyond Indus Permanent Commission would be the first step in right direction. Neither India nor Pakistan will lose their so called 65 years of strategic antagonistic advantage mind-set. If both countries will address jointly the development of Indus River Basin with prime focus on saving Indus would benefit beyond the conditional attached perks given by MDBs or World Bank or power centres in the world. The 1960 Indus Basin Treaty has been working with ups and downs. It needs to accommodate new challenges and new opportunities now.

Author Note
Avilash Roul, Senior Fellow, Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi.