Nearly two billion people – a quarter of the world’s population – live in regions of extremely high water stress.
In some regions, droughts are making things worse, severely affecting people’s health and livelihoods. And in many places, more frequent floods, pollution of rivers and lakes, urbanisation, over-extraction of ground water and expanding populations create serious water shortages.
The Indus River rises in the Tibetan plateau, making its 3,200 km journey southwards before emptying into the Arabian Sea. On the way, six other rivers join it. The river basin is divided between Pakistan, with about 60% of the catchment area, India with about 20%, Afghanistan with 5% and the remainder in Tibet. Pakistan and India have extensively dammed the Indus River to provide for irrigation and hydro-electricity.
The Indus sustains communities in both countries. In Pakistan, it is the only river system supporting the country, where more than 92% of the land is arid or semi-arid. In India, it is one of two main river systems irrigating the country’s northwest: Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan – considered water deficient areas.
Given that over half of Pakistan’s population works on the land and that Punjab produces more than 20% of India’s wheat, the importance of the Indus River system to the economy and survival of both countries is self-evident.
So, in the context of the climate crisis, a canny government such as India – with its growing population and increased demand for water – might decide to take pre-emptive action to guarantee access to and control of a rapidly dwindling supply.
When the border between India and Pakistan was mapped in 1947, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the chairman of the body set up to demarcate the borders, was unable to decide what to do with the Indus River system, given that it was vital to both states. Ever since, with Kashmir claimed by both countries, the political dispute has been coloured by water.
The Indus Water Treaty signed by India and Pakistan in September 1960, gave exclusive rights over the three western rivers of the Indus river system (Jhelum, Chenab and Indus) to Pakistan, and over the three eastern rivers (Sutlej, Ravi and Beas) to India. The signing of the Treaty and the development of water storage projects to benefit both Pakistan and India reduced tensions and set aside Kashmir’s strategic water importance for a few decades.
Today, with more and more people needing access to water together with the devastating impact of climate change, supplies are under enormous stress. In effect, both Pakistan and India are facing water starvation.
India’s attempt to revoke the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir begins to look like a future-oriented water grab that also plays into Hindu right-wing politics. Prime Minister Modi’s master-plan to end Kashmir’s special status “solves” the problem of rights and privileges (especially land-ownership) in the State as well as giving India unfettered access to water.
Far-fetched? Referring to Kashmir in her PEN America Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture (12 May 2019), Arundhati Roy said it is a country “where only fiction can be true because the truth cannot be told. In India, it is not possible to speak of Kashmir with any degree of honesty without risking bodily harm.”