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Indus Basin Groundwater Depletion: Unsteady Footings for India-Pakistan Relations

Via Future Directions International, a report on growing tensions in the Indus Basin:


In the discourse between India and Pakistan the issue of water sharing has gained prominence this year with the move by Pakistan to take India to The Hague. This was an issue over the damming of the rivers feeding Pakistan, namely the Indus. Provisions for sharing the rivers between Pakistan and India were formalised in the 1960s in the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). This treaty only takes into account the shared surface water between the two states, it does not take into account the groundwater shared by both and how the actions of either state affects the supply and quality of groundwater to the other. Groundwater in the Indus Basin is being drastically depleted. It currently has to support 300 million people; a population that is projected to rapidly increase. If interstate stability is to be assured, water distribution and management needs to improve.


The acceleration of this issue is caused by a greater demand for water in the Indian states of Punjab and Indian-controlled Kashmir. Demand will rise greatly in rural communities where dug wells are the main source of water access. In Punjab, 70 per cent of all wells recorded a fall in water level according to the Government of India. There is currently no water governance model for improving the management of groundwater in Indian agriculture. The depletion of the basin has led to the practice of digging ever deeper wells, a practice out of reach to many Indian farmers as the water level drops below 20-40 metres in 50 per cent of Punjab. This has led to a migration toward the cities, which already face water stress.

Pakistan shares a similar set of issues and, as with the initial IWT, feels the effect downstream from India. Downstream provinces are already feeling the strain, with some dried-out areas being abandoned by fishers and farmers who are increasingly moving to cities. That increases competition between urban and rural communities for water. The Indus River, which feeds the majority of the agricultural needs of Pakistan, is prone to a new set of issues. Pakistan withdraws 737 billion gallons from the Indus River to grow cotton for its textile industry accounting for 90 per cent of agricultural water use; a great deal of this water is wasted. The reliability of the Indus as a main water source is in question as the source of the river is glacial and the melting of these glaciers has led to destructive flooding. While only 35 per cent of agricultural water requirements in Pakistan are met from groundwater; most of the drinking water supplies are drawn from underground. Both states have obstacles in approaching the groundwater issue, but a few possible solutions are raised: engaging civil society, securing sustainable water policies and joining in a common policy to replenish the basin.

Civil society and rural capacity development is very weak in Pakistan and India. The policy focus is on developing the capital in Pakistan, raising tensions with provinces downstream. In India civil society has limited reach and is bureaucratised by the government. This makes implementing water saving and environmental development on a grass roots level far more difficult.

Establishing sustainability of water sources through policies and practices is a possible avenue to combat depletion. The traditional reliability of groundwater is now in question if the Indus proves too unstable in the long run. There is no regulation by Pakistan or India to monitor the use of water in rural areas. The sustainability approach relies on the ability of policies to reach down to the rural level. The greatest obstacle for this approach is returning the basin to a replenishing level against a booming population and demand for water.

A common policy of basin sharing is hamstrung by these two domestic limitations. The need for co-operation is in the sharing of a collective resource which is increasingly showing signs of agricultural and chemical pollution. The revision of the IWT is important as a formal step in addressing the depletion of the basin before it leads to tensions between the two states. The original IWT was only ratified after ten years of negotiation and the likelihood of the two states revising groundwater management in the IWT is impeded by the domestic issues experienced by both. Neither has implemented the necessary infrastructure to assure the other of progress toward improving the collective good of groundwater in the Indus Basin. Groundwater is essential for the survival of these two states and a collective solution seems distant unless they can resolve their domestic issues.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 1st, 2016 at 8:41 am and is filed under India, Indus, Pakistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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