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Water conflict and cooperation between India and Pakistan

Type of conflict main
Intensity 3
Region
Southern Asia
Time 1947 ‐ ongoing
Countries Pakistan, India
Resources Water
Conflict Summary Water disputes between India and Pakistan are deepening. For almost sixty years the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) survived diplomatic tensions but recent...
Water conflict and cooperation between India and Pakistan
Water disputes between India and Pakistan are deepening. For almost sixty years the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) survived diplomatic tensions but recent upstream water infrastructure projects have rekindled conflicts. Meanwhile, the territorial conflict over Kashmir threatens to undermine the treaty. The worsening effects of climate change on the Himalayan glaciers could increase the likelihood of disasters and threaten the long-term water security of communities. These factors all have implications for future interstate cooperation and regional developments.
Conceptual Model

Climate Change

Although water scarcity in the Indus Basin is often attributed to water mismanagement, climate change also plays an important part. The Himalayan Glaciers, which feed the Indus Basin, are predicted to diminish further in the coming years. This may increase water flow in the short term, but it will also deplete groundwater recharge in the long run, thus reducing available water resources. Meanwhile, heavy rains during the monsoon are predicted to become more irregular, bringing further challenges to address potential flood risks.

Intermediary Mechanisms

Pakistan struggles with water shortages in the dry season. Its downstream position to India makes it inherently vulnerable to upstream alterations to the Indus’ water flow.

Fragility and Conflict Risks

India and Pakistan’s upstream-downstream position has been the source of tensions between the two countries, in particular in response to upstream dam projects in Indian-administered territory. Pakistanis also fear that India will use its upstream dams to control how much water flows down into Pakistan via the Indus. It is this inherent suspicion and mistrust between the two states that has also been used to provoke anti-Indian sentiment in Pakistan, providing fertile ground for further hostility and conflict.

Climate ChangeEnvironmental ChangeIntermediary MechanismsFragility and Conflict RisksSocial and Economic DriversChanging climate leads to decreased water availability.Infrastructure development changes the allocation of water.Freshwater becomes scarce as an essential resource. Reduced availability of/access to natural resources leads to tensions between states.A slow change in climatic conditions, particularly temperature and precipitation.Gradual Change in Temperature and/or PrecipitationAn increase in the scarcity of clean water and/or an increased variability in water supply.Increased Water ScarcityConstruction of major infrastructure, such as dams, canals or roads.Infrastructure DevelopmentReduced availability of essential natural resources, such as land and water.Change in Access / Availability of Natural ResourcesTensions between states that may but need not escalate into overt violent conflict.Interstate Tensions
Context Factors
  • Water-stressed Area
  • History of Conflict
  • Power Differential
Conflict History

For over a half century, rivalry over river resources has been a source of interstate tension between India and Pakistan (Wirsing & Jasparro, 2006). During the partition of British India in 1947 and the formation of the two states, border lines were drawn following what was defined as the “Indus watershed” (Gardner, 2019). The position of the lines meant that India gained control of upstream barrages, which regulated water flow into Pakistan (TBL, 2014). As the boundary between India and Pakistan cut across many of the river’s tributaries, an upstream-downstream power structure emerged, which has been the source of tensions between the two countries, particularly in response to dam projects in Indian-administered territory (see Kishanganga Dam conflict).

The Indus’ transboundary course
Glaciers and tributaries originating in the high mountains of the Ngari Prefecture in western Tibet, the Himalayas, Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and the Karakoram feed the extensive Indus river system. Its floodplain, where most of Pakistan’s population live, is one of the largest agricultural regions in Asia. Around 90% of Pakistan's food and 65% of its employment depend on farming and animal husbandry, which are sustained by the Indus (Pohl & Schmeier, 2014).

The river system is split primarily between India (39%) and Pakistan (47%) with small sections in Tibet and eastern Afghanistan (FAO, 2011a). In the mountains, the courses of its tributaries played a key role in the definition and contestation of the “Line of Control” (LOC), a land boundary splitting Indian and Pakistani territory (Gardner, 2019). Many tributaries run through and along the LOC, which separates the Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir from the Pakistani-administrated regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Asad Kashmir.

Increasing water stress
Many communities in the Indus Basin face water scarcity under current usage and storage patterns. According to NASA, the Indus Basin is the world’s second most over-stressed aquifer (Buis & Wilson, 2015). Unlike India, Pakistan relies almost exclusively on the Indus, and southern downstream areas are especially vulnerable to strains on the basin’s water supply. This makes Pakistan one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, although there are significant disparities in how this is experienced (see Kalabagh Dam conflict).

Over-extraction of its finite groundwater resources is a major challenge in the Indus Basin (Kugelman, 2016).  In the long run, groundwater recharge is expected to significantly decline (Jayaram, 2016), reducing water availability for the whole basin (Diamond, 2014Dharmadhikary, 2008).  Meanwhile, total water demand in Pakistan is projected to increase from 163 km3 in 2015 to 225 km3 in 2050 (Amir & Habib, 2015).  In northern India where the Indus tributaries flow, irrigation is particularly intensive, and groundwater depletion may increase by up to 75% in 2050, putting further pressure on the upstream portions of the Indus River (Dhawan, 2017).

Compounding effect of climate change
Although water scarcity in the Indus Basin is often attributed to water mismanagement, climate change also plays an important role (Diamond, 2014). The Himalayan Glaciers, which feed the Indus Basin, are predicted to diminish further in the coming years. This may increase water flow in the short term, but it will also deplete groundwater recharge in the long run, thus reducing available water resources (Jayaram, 2016). At the same time, heavy rains during the monsoon are predicted to become more irregular, bringing further challenges to address potential flood risks (Stolbova, et al., 2016). This is likely to aggravate tensions around issues of water distribution and flow management (Diamond, 2014).

Strains on diplomatic relations
Fears of future water shortages due to the construction of dams are causing diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan. Divisive political narratives in both India and Pakistan are generally seen to increase the likelihood of conflict. In India, a narrative of Pakistani-affiliated Islamic terror cells attacking civilians has been used to justify backing away from diplomacy and even threatening to reduce Pakistan’s water supply (Al Jazeera, 2019; Roy, 2019). Meanwhile, nationalist media in Pakistan have blamed floods in the country on poor water management in India (Mustafa et al., 2017).

Pakistanis also fear that India will use its upstream dams to control how much water flows down into Pakistan via the Indus. It is this inherent suspicion and mistrust between the two states that has also been used to provoke anti-Indian sentiment in Pakistan, providing fertile ground for further hostility and conflict (Katchinoff, 2010).

Opposition to upstream dam projects
Over the past two decades Pakistan has launched multiple attempts to prevent India from building dams on both the Chenab and the Neelum rivers (see Kishanganga dam conflict). The Neelum is a tributary of the Jhelum River and Pakistan has opposed both projects on the grounds that they contravene the Indus Waters Treaty signed by the two countries in 1960 (Gupta & Ebrahim, 2017).

Resolution Efforts

The Indus Waters Treaty
Water issues in the Indus Basin are mainly regulated through the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). It was signed in 1960, and mediated by the World Bank to avoid water conflict between India and Pakistan. The treaty defined the principles for interstate water sharing from the Indus (The Indus Waters Treaty, 1960). It has generally been considered a success, surviving multiple interstate tensions. The United Nations, the World Bank as well as other Asian countries have some power to force compliance with the treaty (Abas et al., 2019). Under the IWT, control over the three eastern tributaries of the Indus River—Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas—is granted to India before they flow into Pakistan, and the three western tributaries—Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab—to Pakistan (FAO, 2011b).

Although its framework regulating water distribution between the two states was generally accepted by both parties, the treaty came under increasing tension as the conflict in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir deepened. The allocation of control over the tributaries of the Indus is still contested, and certain ambiguities have allowed India to build infrastructure legally, which Pakistan claims undermines its water security and the treaty itself. This ambiguity has led to polarised interpretations on both sides.

How the treaty works
Under the IWT, a permanent Indus Commission was established, composed of equal numbers of representatives from both India and Pakistan (Wolf & Newton, n.d.). All developments along the Indus must be reported to the other party. Any differences in opinion with regards to interpreting the application of the treaty is first referred to the Commission.

Should a disagreement emerge, an independent third party may be approached. If the difference in opinion is regarded as a dispute by the neutral party, a court of arbitration can be established to resolve the issue (Wasi, 2009). This process of conflict resolution has been invoked only once since the signing of the treaty. It was successful in settling the disagreement over the Baglihar dam. However, Pakistan continues to express its dissatisfaction with the IWT and has suggested that the treaty be reviewed (Kokab & Nawaz, 2013). Others have also claimed that the treaty is no longer fit for its purpose as it only covers surface water but not groundwater (Jayaram, 2016).

International mediation
The World Bank was instrumental in brokering negotiations for the IWT. As an incentive for both states to sign, the World Bank supported both Pakistan and India with aid to build storage and conveyance facilities to provide water supplies that were supposedly lost by the agreement (Mustafa, 2010).

As the World Bank backed up India’s plans to develop infrastructure on the river’s tributaries, Pakistan appealed to other potential mediators. Among them was the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Meanwhile, bilateral talks have fallen into difficulty due to the ongoing Kashmir conflict. Pakistan also turned to its ally China through the development of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), with China seeking greater economic influence in the region through the enactment of economic projects with Pakistan, while at the same time supporting Pakistan’s independent sovereignty and territorial integrity (Woo, 2019).

As the influence of the United States through the World Bank has waned (Akhter, 2015; Gupta & Ebrahim, 2017), new dynamics could redefine the importance of the landmark treaty. Pakistan has been unable to prevent projects which could threaten its water, energy and internal security. Further, the internationalisation of decisions over dams may have detrimental consequences to principles of local participation. Current mediation by the World Bank under the IWT has been state-centred rather than pertaining to the inclusion of affected local communities in the decision-making process (Akhter, 2015).

Shortcomings
Observers from both sides have criticised the treaty as outdated and for being an obstruction to effective exploitation of the Indus River’s resources, as it limits possibilities for storage (Jayaram, 2016). Furthermore, the IWT does not promote collaborative development of the Indus Basin between the two states, and considers neither the effect of climate change on overall water availability nor regional distribution beyond the national level (see Kalabagh Dam conflict). It has also been pointed out that there are no restrictions on how many dams India can build in the Indus Basin, nor does it provide any quantitative measure for water distribution, thus creating a “loophole” allowing for potential over-exploitation by India (Kokab & Nawaz, 2013).

Outlook
The treaty is increasingly strained as both sides pursue hydro-development projects to mitigate water and energy shortages. The shortcomings of the IWT arguably highlight the need for the development of international laws to govern transboundary rivers and lakes, comparable to the United Nations Law of the Sea (Abas et al., 2019). Further, in the context of climate change, arrangements will likely need to take pre-emptive action against natural disasters such as flooding or drought, which are becoming more frequent and intense.

The wider political context also affects water cooperation. In the aftermath of the killing of 18 Indian soldiers by Pakistani insurgents in Kashmir in 2016, the Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson hinted that India may withdraw from the IWT (Kugelman, 2016). This has put the treaty in a fragile position, where it must either be backed up, updated, or provided with a viable alternative to maintain cooperative relations.

Intensities & Influences
conflict intensity scale
Intensities
International / Geopolitical Intensity
Human Suffering

Influences
Environmental Influences
Societal Influences

Diplomatic Crisis Note of diplomatic crisis in case history, conflict purely verbal
Fatalities
0
Violent Conflict No
Salience within nation National
Mass Displacement None
Cross Border Mass Displacement No
Resources
Water
Resolution Success
Reduction in geographical scope There has been no reduction in geographical scope.
Increased capacity to address grievance in the future The capacity to address grievances in the future has increased.
Grievance Resolution Grievances have been partially addressed.
Causal Attribution of Decrease in Conflict Intensity There has been no reduction in intensity
General opencollapse
Country Data in Comparison
ConflictNoData Created with Sketch.
Fault Lines Defining Conflict Parties
Purely Environmental | Cultural   ♦   Occupational   ♦   Economic   ♦   Urban / Rural   ♦   National / International conflict   ♦   Sub-national political


Actors
Participation Conflict Party     Conflict Resolution Facilitator
Indian Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal International
Pakistani Government
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleInternal International
World Bank
Functional GroupPublic
Geographical ScaleExternal
Entry Points for Resilience and Peace Building
0 Dialogue Tensions over water resources in the Indus river system are currently driven by both India and Pakistan’s pursuits in gaining territory and resources from one another in the name of perceived national interests. Improvements in regional cooperation and diplomacy would therefore be possible responses to the conflict. This is unlikely to be possible through the IWT alone, meaning that political structures that address the threat of climate change and potential ecological and economic shocks caused by melting glaciers may play a more vital role in conflict de-escalation.
2 Mediation & arbitration The IWT established a permanent Indus Commission consisting of representatives from both India and Pakistan to broker any disagreements between the parties. Negotiations around the IWT are brokered by the World Bank, while Pakistan in particular has appealed to additional bodies such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
3 Treaty/agreement The IWT of 1960 defined the principles of sharing water from the Indus River. The treaty has been criticised for being outdated, for not specifying the use of the river’s resources within its possible limits, and for neglecting the effects of climate change. Pakistan has suggested that the treaty be reviewed because it facilitates exploitation by India.
Further Details opencollapse
Conflict Characterization
Character of the contested good Common-pool resource: No one can be excluded from use but the good is depleted.
Structure of decision-making power / interdependence Asymmetric: The power to affect the environmental resource is unequal.
Broad conflict characterization Resource capture is not present.
Ecological marginalization is not present.
Data of involved Countries
Resources and Materials opencollapse
References with URL
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Topics

Adaptation & Resilience

All countries will need to adapt to some of the environmental, social and economic impacts of climate change that are already unavoidable. Food security, livelihoods, water resource availability and public health are some affected areas. People living in poverty are more vulnerable, having a lower capacity to adapt. Thus, it is essential to promote resilience building. The adaptation and resilience aspects need to be mainstreamed into planning by policy makers and the private sector as well as integrated into development strategies.

Biodiversity & Livelihoods

Nature protection is most sustainable if it essentially contributes to the long-term stability of human needs. Today many regions around the world are confronted with increasing destruction of the natural foundations of life. The consequences of wide-ranging resource destruction are no longer regionally limited, but rather represent a global threat. Those affected are mainly rural populations, who find the sources of their income and the foundations of their way of life swept away. The depletion and destruction of natural resources goes hand in hand with decreasing agricultural yields and increasing poverty, which in turn forces the affected populations to deplete the remaining resources.

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Capacity Building

On the one hand, conflicts are caused by structural factors, such as economic and social inequality or environmental destruction. On the other hand, conflicts are fuelled by a lack of democratic structures, deficient mechanisms of non-violent conflict settlement, inadequate rule of law, the destruction of social and cultural identity and the disregard of human rights. Against this backdrop, development policies have been dedicated to a broad concept of security, which comprises political, economic, ecological and social stability. As a consequence, development cooperation agencies and actors have developed a broad spectrum of approaches for conflict prevention and transformation as well as for sustainable use of natural resources.

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Cities

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Civil Society

Civil society is the first victim of environmental pollution, under-development and conflicts. Economically disadvantaged and politically marginalized population groups are particularly affected by violent conflicts as well as increasing resource degradation. Simultaneously, civil society is a fundamental pillar for implementing sustainable development. It contributes in many ways to strengthening conflict prevention and plays a significant role in the peaceful and democratic development of states. It must be supported to strengthen civil rights, adherence to human rights in general and democratic participation.

Climate Change

Climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases represents one of the vital challenges for international environmental policy. Flooding, droughts, shifting of climate zones and increasingly frequent and intense extreme weather events will have serious economic and social consequences for entire regions. The climate problem is also directly linked to the question of future energy generation.

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Co-Benefits

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Conflict Transformation

In order to overcome the structural causes of violent conflicts and thus bring about an improvement in the framework conditions for peaceful and fair development, it is essential to have long term and broadly planned peace development and peace advancement. Various governmental and non-governmental, national and international actors and groups are involved in these processes.

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Early Warning & Risk Analysis

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Gender

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Land & Food

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Minerals & Mining

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Private Sector

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Security

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Sustainable Transformation

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Technology & Innovation

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Water

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Regions

Asia

The environment in Asia is already under tremendous pressure as a result of the unsustainable use of land, forests, water and even air in many regions. Climate change will only exacerbate these challenges. Rising sea levels will likely endanger densely populated areas, changes in the monsoon patterns can strongly impact agriculture, melting glaciers will increase long-term water scarcity, and extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and cyclones can pose further hazards.

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Central America & Caribbean

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Europe

As one of the most developed and most densely populated regions in the world, Europe makes heavy use of its resources, resulting in difficult trade-offs and negative consequences for the environment and ecosystems. Land is used for settlements, agriculture and dense infrastructure, creating problems of soil degradation. Water resources are stressed due to unsustainable agricultural practices. Despite nature protection policies, Europe continues to lose biodiversity at an alarming pace. Some of these trends are exacerbated by climate change, which is expected, for instance, to lead to shifts in water availability.

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Global Issues

Resource scarcities, environmental pollution and climate change are not limited by national borders, but often have a transboundary or even global impact. These issues interact with political stability, governance structures and economic performance, and can trigger or worsen disputes and violent conflicts. Exacerbating some of these trends, climate change is likely to lead to the degradation of freshwater resources, declines in food production, increases in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration. All these developments pose potential for conflict.

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Middle East & North Africa

The geopolitical position of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), its fossil fuel resources, high population growth and the political changes spurred by the Arab Spring all make the region one of the most dynamic in the world. Nevertheless, it is also one of the most arid and environmentally stressed. Dwindling water resources, limited arable and grazing land, high pollution from household and industrial waste, remnants of conflicts and increasing desertification are key environmental challenges.

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North America

Climate change has various impacts on the three North American countries of Canada, Mexico and the US. Canada and the US have well-developed adaptive capacities and foster the strengthening of capacities in other regions as well. With high per capita emissions, these two countries also bear a greater responsibility for a changing climate. Mexico has a sound national strategy for climate change adaptation, yet fewer capacities than Canada and the US. The poorer and rural populations of Mexico are especially vulnerable to climate change, due to an increased sensitivity and a lower adaptive capacity.

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Oceania & Pacific

In Oceania, population growth and economic development trends put a strain on oceanic and island ecosystems. Freshwater scarcity, overexploitation of fisheries, loss of land biodiversity, forests and trees, invasive species, soil degradation, increasing levels of settlement, poor management of solid and hazardous waste and disproportionate use of coastal areas are some of the problems. Climate change exacerbates most of these trends, while also raising questions about the future sovereignty of some island states.

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South America

South America has diverse and unique ecosystems and is very rich in biodiversity. Weak natural resource management, land disputes and extreme weather events bring about significant challenges for the region. While South America accounts for relatively few CO2 emissions, the changing climate will alter its ecosystems and greater climate variability will lead to more hurricanes, landslides, and droughts.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

In many African states, environmental security issues rank high on the political agenda. Throughout the continent, countries suffer from water scarcity, food insecurity and energy poverty. These chronic and worsening resource scarcities have severe livelihood implications and are exacerbated by political conflicts over access to and control over these resources. Climate change may seriously threaten political and economic stability in Africa. It may also put a severe strain on the capacities of states and societies to co-ordinate activities, to communicate and to organize.

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