Even while the India-Pakistan treaty for sharing the Indus waters remains operational, the provinces of Pakistan are squabbling. Mostly, it is Sindh vs. Punjab.
Amidst the many political problems that cry out for resolution in Pakistan, perhaps the severest one is the sharing of the water of the Indus river system, which is the hydrological lifeline of Pakistan. Indeed, no conflict in Pakistan in recent times has been more obdurate, acrimonious and pervasive than this complex dispute. Competition over withdrawal rights from the Indus has added another dimension to the long-standing rivalry between Punjab and Sindh. To complicate matters the two other provinces of Pakistan, the North West Frontier Province and Balochistan, also seem ready to join the fray.
The problem is partly a historical inheritance. In 1947, a geographically contiguous area, serviced by an integrated water management regime, was geopolitically partitioned. Water use, till then regulated by a single administering authority, now came to be governed both by an international agreement between Pakistan and India on the one hand, and by federal and provincial agencies subject to internal political and interest group pressures on the other. While the international agreement has by and large withstood the rigours of the periodically hostile India-Pakistan relations, the internal arrangement in Pakistan has become increasingly volatile, as even technical issues have become politicised.
The Pakistan-India distribution of water use is, on paper at least, as well defined as the geography that dictated it. The Indus river basin, which has an area 944,574 sq km, stretches from the Himalayan mountains in the north to the dry alluvial southern plains of Sindh, from which the river gets its name. Below its source near Lake Mansarovar in the Himalayan catchment, the main branch is joined by four main upstream tributaries, the Shyok near Skardu, the Gilgit and Hunza near Bunji and the Siran just north of Tarbela. Downstream, the river system has three eastern tributaries, the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, and three western constituents, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. By the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 the consumptive use of the former has been given over to India, while that of the latter has been awarded to Pakistan. Before the Indus reaches the province of Sindh, the five rivers of the Punjab (Jhelum and Chenab and the three eastern rivers, the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas) merge below the Panjnad head-works.
This system as it exists today evolved over time but gathered momentum from the late 19th century when the British began adding to the basin’s existing canal networks on an extensive scale and over the course of a few decades there emerged the Indus Basin Irrigation System (IBIS), the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world, which redistributed the waters of the Indus and its tributaries across undivided Punjab and Sindh.
Dramatic engineering changes were initiated over the next many decades, particularly after the treaty was signed in 1960. The division of the integrated system at partition affected Pakistan drastically, since 75 percent of its population is serviced by the IBIS. Consequent on the Indus Water Treaty, Pakistan seriously began pursuing the Indus Basin Project (IBP) to compensate the loss of water from the eastern rivers and to increase agricultural production in the IBIS. The two main components of the IBP were the major dams at Mangla on the Jhelum and the Tarbela on the Indus, which is the world’s largest earthfill dam. The Mangla dam was completed in 1968 and the Tarbela in 1974. The diversion of water to India also meant that link canals had to be built from the western rivers to those canals which till then were fed by the eastern rivers.
In all the IBIS has 110,000 watercourses consisting of 4230 km of main canals, 6835 km of branches, 25874 km of distributaries and 19189 km of minor waterways. The irrigation system has two dams, 19 diversionary headworks and barrages and 12 link canals. The command area of IBIS totals 14 million hectares (mha) of which the Mangla command is five mha. and the Tarbela command is nine mha. command.
The 1960 treaty altered the Indus water flows and the irrigation system substantially. After the treaty, the average annual discharge of Indus waters available to Pakistan was 175 billion cubic metres (bcm). The combined capacity of the Mangla and Tarbela, of 18 bcm, changed the pattern of water flows, increasing the mean-year discharge and the water availability in the rabi (dry) season. It was also estimated that with the full utilisation of Tarbela storage by the 1980s the average IBIS withdrawals would increase to about 128 bcm from the 1960s figure of 108 bcm. With new infrastructure being added under the Indus Basin Project to divert the total available water into the various IBIS commands it was clear that cropping intensities would increase in Punjab and Sindh, the two provinces that make up more than 90 percent of the system. Inevitably, changes in the agricultural patterns in a large command area dominated by two politically and economically influential provinces required some regular mechanism for monitoring inter-provincial water allocation and use.
The Sindh-Punjab Draft
The British recognised and addressed the problem of changing water requirements and hence the need for periodic revisions of allocated volumes, even in the run-of-river system they were managing. By the second decade of the 20’h century the irrigation potential of most of the perennial rivers had been exploited through a series of canals but the instruments for distribution and regulation of water use had begun to emerge about the time that the expansion of canal networks had commenced. Among the earliest of such regulations was the Northern India Canal and Drainage Act No VIII of 1873. As the system grew the question of allocations to meet the needs of this expansion came up repeatedly and the British government in the course of three decades established the Indus Discharge Committee in the 1920s, the Anderson Committee in the 1930s, and the Rau Commission in the 1940 to prescribe water allocations. The last commission’s recommendations became the basis of the Sindh-Punjab Draft Agreement on the distribution of the Indus waters, signed in 1945. By this agreement, the flow of the Indus from the Panjnad (where the other five rivers of Punjab merge with the Indus) was to be shared in proportions of 75 percent to Sindh and 25 percent to the Punjab, whereas the five Punjab rivers were to be shared in the ratio of 94 percent to Punjab and 6 percent to Sindh. Thus Sindh secured the major rights on the Indus, and Punjab on the other five rivers.
Surprisingly, after independence no stable and coherent mechanism for equitable, proportional distribution among the provinces on the basis of periodic reviews was instituted in Pakistan, and this despite the fact that the Indus system had been transformed from a run-of-river system to one involving structural regulation and calibrated release of water (with the construction of the Mangla and Tarbela dams. With these changes the scope and necessity for regulation would quite naturally increase and since the structural alterations to the system were in part motivated by the urge to intensify agriculture the problems in water allocation could easily have been anticipated. Instead the government seemed to be quite content to go along with modifications of the Sindh-Punjab Draft Agreement. One reason for this was political, as in 1955 all the federal units of the country on the western side were merged into on unit known as West Pakistan while the eastern wing was merged into another unit called East Pakistan. As a consequence of such consolidation, even the halfhearted measures undertaken by the government to find some basis for water allocations remained on paper.
In May 1968, the government constituted the Water Allocation and Rates Committee or the Akhtar Hussain Committee, whose report of June 1970 was not considered because in July 1970 the four original provinces which constituted West Pakistan were revived. In 1970 the Justice Fazl-e-Akbar Committee was appointed to look into the question of distribution, and it submitted its report in 1971. Even as this report was being studied, an ad hoc ratio of distribution from the Tarbela dam and the Chashma barrage was separately decided on. Another futile effort was made in 1977, when a commission of the chief justices of all the four provinces was appointed. The government, it would seem, has not looked at their report at all.
The first efforts to constitute a regular authority came in the 1990s. In 1991, after a series of meetings and resolutions involving the federal and provincial governments the “Apportionment of the Waters of the Indus River System between the Provinces” agreement was signed on 21 March 1991. Under the terms of this agreement, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) was established in 1993. According to the agreement, the operation of the existing reservoirs (Mangla and Tarbela) would give the highest priority to provincial irrigation use, all the provinces were allocated additional water of 15 bcm over their 1977-82 average withdrawals of 129 bcm, and the balance of river water supplies over this allocation of 144 bcm would be distributed among the provinces, with Punjab and Sindh awarded 37 percent each, NWFP 14 percent and Baluchistan 12 percent.
Ironically, this accord of 1991 only intensified the conflict between Sindh and Punjab. The disputes arose over interpretation of clause 14 (a-b) of the agreement concerning the system-wise allocation and the record of actual average system use for the period 1977-82 which would form the guideline to develop the future regulation pattern. These differences were voiced when the country first experienced severe shortages of water in 1994 and by then the shortfall of water in the system had simply precluded the operation of the 1991 principle. Acrimonious exchanges resulted, with Sindh attributing the scarcity to theft and profligate use by Punjab. As the lower riparian, Sindh traditionally has had two complaints against Punjab — one that in the dry season, when Sindh needs water, Punjab does not release enough downstream; and during floods, when Sindh does not need water, Punjab flushes out surplus water downstream. The conflict of 1994 revolved around the dry season complaint.
Since the allocation principle of 1991 was instrumental in accentuating an existing problem it obviously had to be superseded and a new compromise arrived at. Consequently, a ministerial level meeting in 1994, presided over by the then federal minister Ghulam Mustafa Khar, formulated the principle of ‘historic use’ as the new basis of allocation. Under this scheme, the provinces would share water according to the record of aggregate use in the seven years prior to 1994. The new arrangement favoured Punjab, and Sindh repudiated it on the grounds of bias from the time it was introduced.
As the water situation shows no sign of improving matters have tended to get out of hand, even resulting in street action and riots. In fact the situation has deteriorated to a point where the federal government found it necessary to call a special in camera meeting of provincial representatives this year. The meeting failed to find a solution and the IRSA secretary, Sohail Ali Khan, conceded, “Both Punjab and Sindh have outrightly rejected each other’s proposals to resolve the water distribution dispute”.
Until such time as effective federal intervention can bring about a reasonable solution, the conflict will continue to simmer because Sindhis have by now begun to feel a strong sense of deprivation on water sharing. In particular, Sindh feels that IRSA, which was designed to safeguard fairness and assure implementation of the 1991 water accord, disproportionately benefits the populous province of Punjab by insisting on releasing water shares on the 1994 basis instead of applying the 1991 water accord principle. For its part, Punjab has blamed its southern neighbour for politicising technical issues at the expense of “national unity”. While the ruinous water situation has had a country-wide impact across provinces, the situation in Sindh is particularly acute.
Water supplies to Sindh have declined as water levels in upstream reservoirs have fallen and the Sindh has suffered a 50 percent drop in water levels, as compared with only a 20 percent drop in upstream Punjab. To complicate matters, strangely, NWFP and Balochistan were allowed to share water according to the 1991 accord. Worse still, meteorological predictions of a 20- 25 percent shortfall of rains this 2002 season suggest that the widespread economic disruptions suffered during the last two years of near-drought are likely to be repeated in financial year 2002- 2003. According to the Sindh Agricultural Forum, as a result of water shortages, Sindh will this year suffer a PNR 8 billion loss on the wheat crop loss and a rabi (winter) crop loss of PNR 20 billion. Coming on the heels of last year’s PNR 10 billion agricultural loss, the province’s economic outlook looks grim, especially since Sindh is currently in the midst of a severe drought.
About two million people living in rural Sindh have been severely affected by the water shortage and increasing agricultural unemployment has led to a corresponding increase in urban migration, further straining the social infrastructures and economies of Karachi and Hyderabad. Additionally, the drop in the discharge of water to the delta has allowed the sea to intrude inland. Seawater intrusion has increased during the rabi season, reaching approximately 25 km upstream from the delta. The active Indus delta has been reduced to about one-tenth of its original size. Coastal inundation has flooded 1.2 million acres of agricultural land in the south, severely affecting several villages. The result is a human tragedy of critical proportions. Dispossessed of land or livelihood, thousands of families living in and around the delta have migrated to Karachi. The migration started four years ago, according to a survey, when the sea began intruding and destroying fertile land.
Beyond the human and economic toll, the water crisis has also had a serious environmental impact. The area downstream of Kotri barrage (see map), the closest regulatory point from the delta, has been a contentious issue. Tahir Qureishi studies the repercussions of reduced water flow on the mangrove ecosystem in the Indus delta. Based on his research, Qureishi says that extensive irrigation has had adverse effects on the mangrove ecosystem — the deltaic mangrove forests originally covered 1850 million square metres but have now been reduced to 1000 million square metres because of the reduced flow of the Indus. In this respect, superseding the 1991 accord has compounded the problem because one of its conditions was that at least 10 million acre feet (maf) of water would be allowed to flow downstream from the Kotri barrage.
Despite its aura of power, IRSA has been unable to resolve the long-standing discord between the upper and lower provinces. Though the authority was legally required to prepare a permanent water-sharing arrangement among all the units of the federation, it has been unable to forge an acceptable agreement. The present military regime has also failed to make any headway in creating an inter-provincial consensus despite the fact that it has several options at its disposal, including ad hoc measures designed to meet immediate requirements, pending a more stable arrangement.
Many people of Sindh are convinced that national control bodies have consistently discriminated against the province. Mir Amanullah Talpur, Chairman of the Sindh Agricultural Forum, says that despite the fact that Sindh produces 26 percent of Pakistan’s agricultural output, every civilian and military government in Islamabad has ignored the province’s water needs. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that a petition has been filed in the Sindh High Court accusing IRSA, the Ministry of Water and Power, the Water and Power Distribution Authority (WAPDA) and the provincial ministry of irrigation for misusing their authority to the detriment of Sindh. According to the petition, until 10 years ago the annual flow of the Indus was 209 billion cubic metres of water – twice that of Nile and thrice that of the Tigris and Euphrates combined. Recent measurements cited by petition indicate that flows have fallen to 14,100 cusecs a week. This drop is attributed to WAPDA policies carried out with the concurrence of the other respondents. According to the petition, apart from disruption or destruction of 80 canals and 800 distributaries, 675,000 acres of cultivable land have been destroyed in Badin District, while 612 acres of land are being lost every day to coastal inundation. The central thrust of the argument is that Punjab enjoys unfettered access to Sindh’s natural resources, including oil and natural gas, while a reciprocal relationship on water is not forthcoming.
However, Sindh has also been at the receiving end of complaints. Punjab and NWFP have joined Balochistan in criticising Sindh for what they call its refusal to release Balochistan’s due share of water. The Baloch-Sindh dispute has acquired such serious proportions that a recent advisory committee meeting of the Indus River System Authority was called off after representatives of Balochistan, NWFP and Punjab walked out in protest over the issue. Among those protesting was Balochistan’s irrigation secretary, Abdus Salam, who says that the government of Sindh has released 2000 cusecs less than its IRSA-allotted share of 6100 cusecs a day, a 40 percent reduction in supply. Sindh authorities have countered this claim by arguing that cuts in water levels to Sindh have necessitated reduction in water released to Balochistan. Regardless of claims and counter-claims, the Sindh-Baloch dispute adds another layer of animosity to the already bitter divisions in Pakistan.
Rising tides may lift all boats, but dropping water levels condemn agriculture-dependent regions to destitution. No solution to this persistent problem appears to be in sight. Court cases are currently pending in multiple jurisdictions, but in the absence of firm and fair decision-making from Islamabad, it is difficult to imagine that the provinces will find a solution acceptable to all among themselves. A recent petition submitted to the United Nations by Sindh activists demands that the province be allowed complete control over the “entire” Indus River System and to appoint its “entire workforce”. While such demands may be unrealistic and unfair, they underscore the hardening of attitudes by sections of communities alienated and embittered by the water shortage. One wonders how long the waters of discontentment can be kept back.