Ongoing Inter-provincial Water Dispute

Water is an essential ingredient for the preservation of life on earth. But, the declining magnitude of water and its increasing demand has widened the gulf between water accessibility and water demand. In Pakistan, several factors have pressurized and over-stressed the water resources.

Pakistan is one of the world’s most arid countries, with an average rainfall of under 240mm per year. The population and economy heavily depend on water. There is an annual influx of about 180 billion cubic meters of water in the Indus River System. It emanates from the neighboring countries and is mostly derived from snowmelt in the Himalayas. Pakistan is faced with an emerging water crisis in various forms, like irrigated agriculture, municipal, rural water supply and sanitation, maintenance of supply systems, flood management, drought management, water quality and transboundary water sharing.

There is a long-standing debate on the issue of distribution of available water among the provinces of the country to meet their requirements and face future challenges. Conflict over water distribution and management is also an existing challenge to hydropower development in Pakistan. Much of these disputes are centered on the construction of dams on the Indus river basin and stem from a power asymmetry between upstream and downstream riparian, where there is a tendency for the former to over-extract water in times of shortage.

The inter-provincial water dispute mainly revolves around the construction of Dams in the Indus Basin. Punjab favors the construction of Kala Bagh Dam and Great Canal, while Sindh always rejects the idea. The dispute between Sindh (lower riparian) and Punjab (upper riparian) over water distribution dates back to the era of pre-partition.

Indus is the main source of irrigation for Pakistan’s agriculture – a sector that employs around 13% of the country’s population and more than 50% of the rural population. As a result of rising population and industrial activity, Pakistan has become increasingly water-scarce and suffers severe energy shortages. Although water scarcity has often been attributed to mismanagement, climate change has also played a role.

For sharing and distribution of surface water two major agreements have been made; one at the international level with India i.e., the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 and secondly, at the national level among provinces of Pakistan called the Apportionment of  Waters of  Indus  River  System in 1991.

Since the inception of  Pakistan,  there have been a  number of occasions when the provinces showed mutual goodwill and accommodation in resolving long-standing disputes. The construction of  Kotri,  Taunsa and  Gudu  Barrages on the main  Indus  River after independence was the result of such goodwill and cooperation.  Similarly,  the  1991 Water  Apportionment  Accord was a  major breakthrough and a  turning point in its march towards national consolidation.

The Chief Ministers and other representatives of the four provinces signed the Water Apportionment Accord on March 16, 1991, at Karachi. The accord was adopted as a decision of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) on March 21, 1991.

The Water Accord also lays down the distribution of the balance river supplies, including flood supplies as well as the future storage as 37% each to Punjab and Sindh, 14% to NWFP and 12% to Balochistan.

Despite the Accord, there are significant disputes among the provinces over the current distribution of water.

Provinces in Pakistan are also in conflict over the use of a maximum quantity of water for their agricultural, industrial and domestic needs. Failure to manage the uneven distribution of rainfall, seasonal deluge and depletion of glaciers are adversely affecting the availability of fresh water in Pakistan. The per capita availability of water in Pakistan was 5210 cubic meters in 1951, it reduced to 1100 cubic meters in 2012. Some global warming projections have been estimated a decrease in the water availability in the Indus river system to a staggering 40 percent by mid-century, which if it were to happen would threaten the very survival of a population already swollen beyond sustainability. Such circumstances further aggravated the water conflicts among the provinces.

As water shortage increases, so are the tensions between the provinces of Punjab-Sindh and Sindh-Balochistan. Recently, the Balochistan government accused Sindh of stealing water from the province. Liaquat Shahwani, Balochistan’s government spokesperson stated, “Balochistan should get 7600 cusecs of water from Pat Feeder Canal, but is actually only getting 6,000 cusecs of water from Sindh”.

Punjab has always accused Sindh of under-reporting water availability for irrigation. Sindh still feels aggrieved because the accord of 1991 didn’t guarantee a minimum environmental flow of river water through the provinces into the sea. Consequently, the provinces have been accusing each other of stealing water.

Civil society has failed to engage in a serious debate over the issue of water, which gives ample space to the politicians to exploit parochial and regional sentiments.

Pakistan is facing grave problems due to inter-provincial water conflicts. The federal, as well as provincial governments have to utilize the available resources judiciously. The Pakistani government must look out for a better form of management of their water resources. Also, Pakistan has to improve its water management infrastructure to store rainwater and even floodwaters.