Saving the Indus River

India/Pakistan 2017

The Indus River, one of Asia's longest, originates largely in the Himalayan glaciers of India before crossing the border and flowing the length of Pakistan. It is used for extensive irrigation of commercial and food crops, industry, and to provide hydroelectric power. It is a vital resource for both countries, yet several factors are making heavy reliance on the Indus increasingly difficult to sustain.

First, the Indus flows from Pakistan's rival India, which thanks to an extensive and growing dam network has the power to drastically reduce the water allowed through to Pakistan. A 1960 treaty defines which Kashmiri headwaters India and Pakistan control, though recent military disputes and disagreements over India's efforts to utilize the river in its territory have raised questions about its ability and intention to essentially weaponize water. 

Second, climate change is affecting the monsoon rains and many of the glaciers that are the source of half the river's water, throwing into doubt both India's and Pakistan's long-term economic dependence on the river. Paradoxically, this has contributed to recent flooding as some glaciers melt more than normal, but once they have shrunk water flows will be less than necessary to sustain the economy built on the Indus. Only a small fraction of the thousands of glaciers feeding the Indus have been studied in a meaningful way, and so the ultimate consequences of climate change are poorly understood.

Finally, Pakistan, with a rapidly growing population, has the most water-intensive economy in the world, and is already water-stressed based on the amount of fresh water available per person. Its economic reliance on the Indus is extreme; in addition to rice and wheat, the water-intensive cotton and textile industries make up a significant part of its GDP and foreign exchange earnings. Major changes are necessary to make agriculture and irrigation more efficient, yet to do so will require scientific advances and taking on corrupt interests unlikely to yield.

As the political and economic stakes continue to grow, will the dispute over the Indus launch a water war?