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Indus River: Water Scarcity And The Conflict Between Sindh And Punjab

Via Eurasia Review, an article on water conflicts on the Indus:

Satellite image of the Indus River basin in Pakistan, India, and China.

Satellite image of the Indus River basin in Pakistan, India, and China.

The basic source of irrigation for Pakistan agriculture is the Indus River. Water resources are becoming shorter due to the irregular flow of water in the Indus River. To overcome the problem of water shortage and to meet the water demands of rising populations, the Punjab and the federal governments are in favor of constructing more dams in order to store the water which is being wasted otherwise. On the contrary, the Sindh holds the point that the construction of dams such as KBD and Bhasha dam would deprived them of their due shares from IBIS. There has been a distrust regarding water sharing between the two provinces1.

The conflict between the two provinces exists since pre-partition and the issue is still a bone of contention between the two provinces as Sindh have reservations regarding the construction of KBD and other dams i.e. they see the building of KBD as a cause of desertification and water scarcity, however Punjab feels it necessary to construct more dams in order to save our coming generations from severe water scarcity.

Overview of water resources in Pakistan

Pakistan is mainly an agrarian country and about 70% of country’s population residing in rural areas depends for their livelihood on agriculture. Agriculture sector contributes to 24% of the GDP2 and almost 48.4% of the overall labor force is employed in this sector and moreover, 70% of the Pakistan’ exports depends on agricultural products3.

Water, on which agriculture mainly depends, is obtained through three main sources i.e. river, rainfall and underground. The main source of river water is Indus River with its tributaries Kabul, Jhelum, Chenab Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas. But unluckily their source of generation lies outside Pakistan. The average water available from the year 1922-23 to 2001-02 is 144 MAF i.e. from Western Rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) it is 139 MAF, and as far as eastern rivers (Sutlej, Ravi, Beas) are concerned, the available water is 5 MAF4.

To talk of other rainfall, the average rainfall from the year 1960-2000 has been recorded as 290.7mm and is being estimated that almost 17 MAF of water can be saved if more dams are constructed5.

Another source of irrigation is underground water and it is being estimated that 45 MAF has been exploited through public sector and private tube wells6.

Today Pakistan is confronted with serious crisis regarding water distribution among the provinces. For this the construction of Kalabagh dam is controversial in every period7.

Distribution of water resources; a historical background (the 1991 Accord):

In the mid 19th century, head works across the Indus River were constructed to help prevent the control of water supply in inundation canals. The 1st head work, in 1859 was therefore built on Ravi River in Punjab, while during 1882-1901, many other head works were also being constructed across the tributaries in Punjab. Sukkhur barrage and Sutlej Valley project i.e. the two main irrigation projects were being made operational by 19358.

But several problems and issues were raised regarding distribution of water resources between Sindh and Punjab. For this several efforts were made and recommendation were put forward till 1990, to resolve the water sharing issue between the two provinces, but all efforts were gone in vein.

Pakistan Water Apportionment Accord (WAA) 1991:

The Sindh-Punjab water dispute dates back to pre-partition. Up to 1991, the water was distributed between the provinces mainly on so-called and unorganized annual basis9. The WWA comprised of 11 pages and the clauses 2, 4, 6, 7, 13, 14a &14b are comparatively significant.

Under WWA, water supply from rivers was kept equal for both provinces at 37% in clause 410.

On March 1991, in Nawaz Sharif era, Water Apportionment Accord was put forward and it was unanimously signed by all the four provinces. Later on the agreement was ratified by CCI on 21st March 199111.

The pre-partition tension between Punjab and Sindh on water distribution went high when Punjab tried to build an irrigation infrastructure on Indus River and the Sindh in particular opposed these efforts12.

Establishment of IRSA:

Indus River System Authority under clause 13 of WAA accord was established on December 10, 1992 to regulate the balance river water supplies to Sindh and Punjab13.

In May 1994, after the proposal by Punjab government to reorganize the ten-daily figures in order to establish it on historical usage, tensions between Punjab & Sindh again raised. However the agreement was maintained, but decision was challenged in court and Sindh accused Punjab of controlling water supply by enjoying its upstream riparian position14.

Thus the WWA also could not be implemented properly in practice in its true letters & spirits and hence the water dispute between the two provinces is still present today.

Water availability and water demands:

The data in 2008 from FAO revealed that the country will be going to become water-scarce by 2035. Moreover, the non existence of river in most parts of Sindh has disturbed the livelihood across the river delta.15

The 2002 report of Ministry of Water and Power on the present water resources in Pakistan has estimated a total availability at farm gate as; 109.3 MAF of which 62.3 MAF is available from surface, 42 MAF from underground and 5 MAF from rainfall.16
However the required water by 2025 at farm gate is about 28 MAF as the increment in population number is estimated to 221 million by the year 2025. Other estimates reveal that annual rainfall in Pakistan is about 11.4 inches17.

Beside some useful aspects of rainfall(on farmlands and river system), floods in certain areas of the country causes not only soil erosion and water wastage, but also leads to kind of disastrous situation in some underdeveloped regions. Moreover, Pakistan has the potential to store river flows for just 30 days while that of India has the capacity to store river water b/w 120-220 days.18

According to “Pakistan National Water Resource Strategy”, the projected demands for water is as; at farm gate, the demand for water will increase by 28% by the year 2025, the demand for municipal and rural use is estimated to be increased by almost 110%, and for industrial uses the water demand would be raised by 118% by the year 202519.

Sindh-Punjab water dispute:

The water dispute between the two provinces exists since pre-partition, setting a fairly good example of upstream-downstream or upper riparian-lower riparian rivalry20.

Moreover, the conflict between Sindh and Punjab regarding distribution of Indus River water is said to be very complicated issue as both provinces have rivalry on allocation of water resources before partition and the dispute is still not settled. The Sindhi authorities have serious reservations that the construction of Kalabagh and other dams have negative impacts on Sindh irrigation21.

In this case, Sindh has rivalry with Punjab as the former receives water from lower riparian and accused Punjab of receiving larger share of water as being enjoying the position of upstream; furthermore, Sindh also blames Punjab as a cause of desertification, water logging, salinity, famine, certain kind of diseases, and moreover electricity load shedding in Sindh is also because the Punjab bodies being an upper riparian controls the water of Sindh and therefore less crops are grown in Sindh due to diversion of Indus river. Another charge by Sindh is that Punjab is wasting water by generating electricity from Mangla and Tarbela dams and consequently depriving Sindh of water. The certain moves and initiative taken for several times by Punjab for building an irrigation infrastructure on Indus River was challenged and simply opposed every time by Sindhis22.

When the president Musharaff government however in 2005, gave the approval of constructing Kalabagh and Bhasha dams, the decision was challenged by Sindh bodies in court in which they put forth their doubts and fears regarding the suffering from water deprivation. However the work on Bhasha dam started but as far as the issue of building of Kalabagh dam, its construction is still controversial23.

The recent decision by LHC is again opposed by Sindh assembly in which they have raised the issue of survivability of province of Sindh.

Kalabagh dam:

Kalabagh dam has always been a disputed and controversial issue. Whenever previously it was decided to build KBD on Indus River, it was challenged by other three provinces and the strongest opposition always came from Sindh. Since very long time, almost all federal governments and Punjab authorities realized the need for KBD and other dams in order to store water which is being wasted otherwise and also to prevent from the devastations of floods24.

Flashback of Kalabagh dam controversy:

The decision to build KBD on Indus River was taken for the first time during General Zia-ul-Haq government in 1984 with the consent of provincial government of Punjab. On this decision, Sindhis got furious and reacting aggressively on the construction of KBD put forward their reservations that Punjab is already diverting water from Indus River, depriving Sindh of their due share, the construction of new dam on IBIS would further provide Punjab an opportunity to divert water from Indus river and in this way Sindh would get less water than before and hence there would be too much danger of desertification, soil erosion and food shortage, therefore the construction of dam on IBIS would have adverse effects on the irrigation of Sindh. Furthermore Sindh authorities also put their concerns about health and related issues. For these reasons, the construction of KBD was cancelled25.

In 1991 accord, CCI directed orders for constructing KBD but the decision was again challenged by Sindh authorities. Keeping in view the rising demands for water, CCI again reconsider the former decision to construct dam on IBIS. To initiate the construction, CCI advised WAPDA to formulate a proper plan to start work on KBD and the council gave Natural Water Resource Development Program the authority to supervise the concerns and reservations regarding the construction of KBD but the construction was delayed due to reservations of Sindhis26.

However, in December 2004, former president of Pakistan General (R) Pervez Musharraf ordered to build a largest hydro-electric Kalabagh dam on Indus River in the district of Mianwali which would have the capacity to produce 3800 MW of electricity. But there was a strong opposition against the construction of KBD. The Sindh government made a view that with the construction of KBD on Indus River, there would be chance of environmental hazards and climatic changes, moreover they said that the construction of dam would have serious repercussions on Sindh irrigation system as the dam would facilitate the agriculture in Punjab and also KBD would be to the extent beneficent for KPK and hence the Sindhis resultantly would be deprived of their actual share of water from Indus River. Despite the assurance by former president Musharraf and finance minister of that time Shaukat Aziz that Sindhis would not deprived of their due share from Indus River as given in 1991 WWA, Sindhi authorities kept on opposing the decision of building KBD. After facing constant resistance from Sindh, the federal Minister for Water and Power declared to postpone the construction of KBD. However, the disastrous flood of 2010 left a realization to federal government that the construction of KBD and other dams on Indus River would help prevent from such deadly catastrophes as KBD has the potential to store the water and avoid the wastage of water27.

Current status of Kalabagh dam:

The tensions between Sindh and Punjab once again been heightened when on November 29, 2012 the LHC, owing to worst electricity load shedding for the past years, scarce water resources, water wastage, low quality food and likewise, gave a bold decision of constructing KBD in the district of Mianwali.

The Sindh authorities rejected the decision of LHC on KBD and bring condemnation of this decision on greater forum & termed the decision against the sovereignty of the country therefore appealed the federal government not to implement the LHC decision in practice in order to maintain stability in the Sindh as well as on national level. Consequently, on Friday 7th December 2012, Sindh assembly unanimously passed four resolutions by MQM, PPP, Imran Laghari and PML-Functional against the construction of KBD28.

Bhasha dam:

Likewise Kalabagh dam, Diamer Bhasha dam is one amongst several controversial issues. It is also hydro-electric dam located having the projected capacity of producing electricity of 3360 MW. On its upper stream, located is Tarbela dam, while on downstream, situated is Chilas. While figures vary, about 33000-100,000 people are estimated to be effected by construction of Bhasha dam and the area of Chilas would also be vulnerable to be flooded. However, keeping in view these estimates & pros and cons of construction of Bhasha dam, in December 2004, former president Musharraf gave the orders to construct Bhasha dam on Indus River and it was estimated to make the dam functional by 201629. Not surprisingly, this decision of President Musharraf was taken as an offense by Sindh governmet as well and Sindhis put forward the same concerns and reservations on construction of Bhasha dam as they made for KBD. However, despite too much opposition and criticism from Sindh authorities, president Musharraf finally on April 11, 2006 inaugurated the construction of Bhasha dam30. Currently, Bhasha dam is in process. It would overcome the existing energy crisis in the country, once it is been made operational.

Mangla dam:

The construction of Mangla dam is one of the good measures taken to promote agriculture sector and to store water which is being wasted otherwise. It was build and bring in operation in the year 1967. It was constructed on Jhelum and has the storage capacity of about 5.3 MAF and the figures tell that about 1000 MW of electricity can be produced from the dam. This is an earth fill dam and, the estimated displacements of people from the construction of dam were about 40,000 people. But Sindh has same reservations regarding Mangla dam and they see the dam as reduction in their due share i.e. they considered the construction of dam as violation of 1991 accord31.

Tarbela dam:

The world’s largest earth fill Tarbela dam was made operational in 1977 with the storage capacity of 11.62 MAF and is the major source of electricity generation of which the estimated potential was 3487 MW32.Sindh made a point that Punjab by generating electricity engulfs the share of Sindhis and hence a lot of water gone in waste due to electricity generation. And furthermore Sindh has been bearing 20 hours load shedding because the Punjab is given with electricity at the expense of Sindh.

C-J Link canal & Sindh-Punjab water dispute:

The construction of C-J link canal is the outcome of Indus water treaty 1960, under which Pakistan was given authority to build two link canals as a compensation, as water of eastern rivers was attributed to India33.

Efforts to resolve the dispute:

The tensions between Sindh and Punjab actually started when Punjab (undivided) in the subcontinent of India started using water from the Indus Rivers, encroaching the rights of province of Sindh, on which the Sindhi people and authorities got furious and started accusing Punjab of stealing water from Indus river system.

  • In order to provide against their reservations and grievances regarding Indus water system, British government in 1901, brought some recommendations and made it obligatory for Punjab authorities to initiate any program after getting permission from Sindh government.
  • Furthermore, Punjab was prohibited to use and divert water from Indus River by the 1919 Cotton Committee.
  • To take Sindhi’s grievances into consideration, the committee further decided to take the issue in its hands and made it clear that every decision and measure regarding Sindh-Punjab water dispute would be taken and approved by the viceroy of India only34.
  • It was put forth in 1935 Act that not any province is given the authority to use the water illegally from Indus River.
  • Opposing the orders of 1935 Act, Punjab government claimed that being an upper riparian, it has legal right and authority to divert desired amount of water from Indus River, however this claim of the Punjab was criticized by B.W.Rao who was supervising and chairing the Rao commission in 1939, and it was decided by the commission that this claim violates the international law and if this claim of Punjab has been considered, then it would be unjust and unfair as this claim of Punjab would make sindh vulnerable regarding the accessibility of water. The commission put forward its decision that upper riparian has not given any leverage to divert water from lower riparian and make it hard for lower riparian to use water for agriculture35.
  • In 1945, an agreement was signed by sindh and Punjab concerning water distribution issue. Under this agreement, Sindh was given a leverage to build two barrages and Punjab was asked to provide the loan worth of 20 million for the construction of these barrages on upper and lower sindh respectively and further Punjab was warned not to build any canal or barrage without the permission of Sindh government.
  • In order to resolve the water dispute between the provinces, in 1991, WWA was presented and it was unanimously approved by the Chief Ministers of all the provinces of Pakistan. IRSA was also established to implement WAA in but failed.
  • Thus the dispute between the two provinces regarding water sharing is matter of distrust. Both provinces have their own stances regarding water distribution of IBIS36.

Political impacts of water scarcity:

Due to irregularities in river flows & politics involved in water sharing between the two provinces, and scarcity of water, the agriculture in Pakistan has been worse affected. Because the country is falling short of water resources, Punjab and Sindh in contemporary are confronting with the problems of low productivity of certain crops, resultantly there are serious problems of food shortage, availability of drinking water in Sindh and certain areas of Punjab. The construction of KBD also involves some sort of politics; while on the other hand Sindh also has resentments regarding damming of Indus River as they consider the construction of dams an offensive and illegitimate action by Punjab37. Another important political impact of water scarcity is that the lower riparian Sindh would caught in drought and environmental losses such as desertification, soil erosion etc38.If such patterns continue, then it would pose a serious challenge on the part of federal government to control the situation as Sindhis grievances and vulnerabilities are increasing.

Demographic factors: The migration in Sindh, population movements and rising population in Sindh is causing burden on the economy and population movements giving rise to ethnic and group identity conflicts. The available water resources are not enough to meet the demands of rising populations39.

Economic impacts: Agriculture sector is the backbone of Pakistan economy, but due to increasing shortfall in water resources for past several years, the country’s export level is declining and currently Pakistan is facing a deficit in balance of payments as imports are more than exports40. As far as agriculture is concerned, the estimated 2.5 million acres of land is under the threat of becoming infertile due to scarcity of water, therefore leaving adverse effects on the economy of Pakistan41.
Health impacts: Water scarcity has serious and adverse impacts on health in Pakistan. Many dangerous diseases like cholera, typhoid, malaria, and skin diseases etc. spreading among children are due to drinking dirty water which results in the death of children and hence raising the rate of infant death. And further it has been revealed that in hospitals about more than 40% patients are suffering from water-borne diseases42.


As a student of social sciences, I put some recommendations keeping in view the recent situation of the country.

  • The federal government should take serious measures to resolve the issue between Sindh and Punjab in order to avoid any worst incident in future.
  • Bold decisions to construct more dams should be taken in order to meet the demands of rising population.
  • The federal government should take Sindh into confidence i.e. they would not face any problem regarding accessibility of river water and they would be provided with water shares as given in WAA, and hence build more dams.
  • If we want to survive, then we must build Kalabagh and certain other hydro-electric dams as the country is in dire need of reservoirs in order to generate electricity.
  • For this, the recent 29th November decision of Lahore High Court should not be rejected.
  • Moreover, federal government should either bring a proposal of water sharing between the two province or take serious steps to implement the 1991 WWA.
  • If we want to prevent from a severe shock on economy, then government and policymakers must compensate for losses in agriculture sector and further there is a need for bringing several schemes to promote agriculture sector.
  • In this regard, private sector should also come forward with sincere plans of helping farmers by providing them certain incentives.
  • To execute all these measures, above all we have a dire need of sincere, competent and visionary leadership; a leadership whose first priority is national interests rather than personal interests.


In my opinion, hence going through all the issue on water sharing and water scarcity & conflict between Sindh and Punjab, it is probable that water scarcity can lead to intra-state conflicts, resulting in domestic unrest and instability. As water scarcity between Sindh and Punjab is a challenge for the government to tackle the situation as Sindh’ reaction to the construction of new dams is still very aggressive and they stick to their point that the construction of new dams will allow the Punjab to take more water from Indus River than their respective share. However, if we think realistically, then would realize the construction of new dams in order to survive and to save our generations from deprivations and in order to avoid intra state unrest. The conflict between Sindh and Punjab is a clear indicator of intra state and domestic unrest as the present situation of the country is a good example for it. Both the provinces have not mutually resolved the water distribution issue via negotiations as Sindh is clearly against the construction of KBD. However the time demands of construction of more reservoirs in order to store the water and to prevent from natural hazards and catastrophes, like floods.

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