hydropolitics in pakistan

Written by Ayesha Javaid 8:01 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Pakistan, Published Content

The Role of Hydropolitics in Pakistan’s Water Crisis

Ayesha Javaid discusses how Pakistan has been embroiled in politics over water resources since its independence – at both local and international levels. Pakistan and India initially had disagreements over the Indus Basin, which was finally settled by the Indus Water Treaty in 1960. However, with India now demanding modifications in the 62-year-old treaty, serious water-based conflicts between the two countries are a likely possibility. Pakistan also faces water troubles within, as provincial governments have failed to reach an agreement over the much-needed construction (& even usage) of dams.
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Ms Ayesha Javaid is studying Psychology at Government College University, Lahore.

Hydropolitics and Subcontinent

Water disputes between and within countries are particularly prevalent in South Asia. There were water disputes among the provinces and the princely states throughout the British colonization of the region. Political boundaries were redrawn as a result of the country’s split (into what are now India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh) which led to intense hydropolitics and further disagreements over water rights.

Since the end of British colonial rule in Indo-Pak, Pakistan and India have been at odds over the Indus Basin. Elhance asserts that the scientific study of conflict and cooperation over water resources among actors is known as “hydro-politics.” This hydropolitics can be seen between states that cross international borders or among the interstates of a nation.

Hydropolitics over the Indus Basin

With a roughly one million square kilometer extent, the Indus Basin is the largest river basin in Asia. In the area between Pakistan and India, it is the main supply of water. In South Asia, it covers four countries – China in the north, India in the east, Afghanistan in the northwest, and most of Punjab, Sindh, and KPK (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) province in Pakistan.

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Pakistan is home to 56 percent of the Indus Basin, which takes up around 70 percent of the nation’s land. Three western rivers—the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab—as well as three eastern rivers—Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi—make up the Indus system of rivers. Snowmelt from the Hindukush-Himalayan region is the main factor in these rivers’ yearly water flow.

Before entering Pakistan, all of the rivers in the Indus Basin travel through India. When the Indian subcontinent was split into two sovereign nations on August 14, 1947, one of the most advanced irrigation systems in the world was already in place. Without taking the irrigation work into consideration, the border between the two nations was drawn.

On April 1, 1948, India abruptly stopped water flow in Pakistan’s canals that were being supplied by the Indian-controlled rivers Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. After this, the dispute between Pakistan and India caused as a result of hydropolitics was finally resolved by the World Bank, resulting in the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) being signed in 1960. The Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab rivers in the west were given to Pakistan, whereas the three eastern rivers, the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej, were exclusively granted to India.

Pakistan was required to build the appropriate replacement works, which included storage dams and inter-river transfer links, to meet the needs of the eastern river canals from the western rivers. After Pakistan finished these projects in the ten-year period between 1960 and 1970, India was given the authority to prohibit water from flowing to Pakistan in the three eastern rivers.

However, serious disagreements over the sharing of water have existed between Pakistan and India for the past few years. India is allegedly building a number of dams on rivers, which has made Pakistan quite worried. In addition to the rivers coming from India, the Afghan Kabul River also significantly contributes to the flow of the River Indus. The Kabul River increases the Indus flows at Attock by 20 to 28 million acre-feet.

Once Afghanistan starts building water storage projects on the River Kabul, a significant portion of the water contribution from it may be lost. Afghanistan is already conducting feasibility studies to construct new dams. Therefore, it is crucial that Pakistan and Afghanistan come to a water-sharing agreement before disagreements escalate into major water conflicts.

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Interprovincial Water Conflict in Pakistan

The World Bank-funded big dam projects at Mangala, Tarbela, and Kalabagh were built to help Pakistan meet its rising water and energy needs. Following their construction, the provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh, and KPK provinces fought over the Mangla and Tarbela reservoirs. The majority of irrigation water is used for agriculture in these provinces.

The provincial government of Punjab was accused by the government of Sindh of diverting its fair share of water from these reservoirs. The provincial government of Punjab, on the other hand, denied the accusations and asserted that it has been utilizing less water than necessary to satisfy the provincial governments of Sindh and KPK.

Due to the ongoing interprovincial water-sharing issues from the existing reservoirs, the development of additional water reservoirs in Pakistan nearly came to an end in 1977. Before coming to an agreement in the 1991 Water Distribution Accord, the nation experienced a 1.5-decade-long crisis involving irrigation supply and hydropower production.

To resolve the long-running conflict over the use of canal water, distribution of river supplies, and excess flows in the form of floods, an interprovincial agreement became necessary. A water-sharing agreement to settle intra-hydropolitics was formed in 1991 among the four provinces of Pakistan. This agreement allocated the available water among the provinces, with Punjab receiving the lion’s share.

This agreement allocated the balance of river supplies, including flood surpluses and future storage, across the provinces while also protecting each province’s current use of canal water. Also, constructing the Kalabagh Dam was deemed vital to address the nation’s power needs due to the country’s 10% annual increase in electricity demand. However, all of Pakistan’s provinces are continuously at odds with one another over the Kalabagh dam issue, providing a hindrance in the way of its construction.

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Punjab is putting special emphasis on building the Kalabagh dam to properly utilize the 38-million-acre feet of water that will eventually flow into the ocean. The other three provinces of Sindh, KPK, and Balochistan are opposing its construction due to concerns about royalties. The storage of Indus water, according to Sindh, will negatively impact the ecosystem of its delta. Provinces are worried about losing their fair share of water, blaming one another without understanding the situation, and prioritizing their own interests over that of the nation.

Despite the 1991 agreement, Sindh was still wary of large-scale Indus River projects. Due to this, Sindh raised concerns about the Basha Dam’s construction in 2018, despite the national hype and support for the project. Sindh was worried that the dam might reduce the environmental flows that flow into Kotri downstream, which have already been significantly reduced over the previous ten years.

History has shown, quite clearly, that Sindh has a point, and Punjab must take note of its concerns, which are supported by historical developments.


Interprovincial conflicts must be resolved because, if they do not, they could rip apart the social fabric and weaken Pakistan even more. Water is a problem that affects South Asia as a whole, not only Pakistan, and it has the potential to generate significant upheaval in the area.

Since the Indus River system originates in the Himalayas, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan need new regional agreements on water distribution on a regional scale. A constructive mutual agreement on water sharing was achieved with the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, but researchers and water specialists agree that it needs to be updated urgently. Therefore, for Pakistan’s future as well as the future of South Asia, a fair regional distribution of water resources and faith in its implementation is essential.

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