Pakistan, according to a report by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, entered in water scarcity zone in 2005. The South Asian state is one of the world’s highest water consuming countries worldwide. Most notable is the threat posed to shrinking Agriculture sector which serves as the backbone of Pakistan’s economy contributing 24% towards the GDP and providing employment to half of the employed labour force. With all trends pointing towards a serious trouble in 2025 in the form of Absolute Water shortage throughout, Pakistan must fight the scarcity by construction of dams on emergency basis.
The most popular narrative throughout the country, regarding Pakistan running short of water, is Indian violation of the World-Bank brokered Indus Water Treaty (1960) which gave exclusive rights to Pakistan to three major rivers which include Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. While Indian violation does contribute to the emergence of the threat, the biggest contribution comes from Pakistan’s lack of political will to cope up with water demand.
Pakistan has not really looked at its water storage capacity being swiftly outrun by the explosive population growth rate. Its carryover capacity, i.e. the potential to store water, is around 30 days which is in sharp contrast to India’s 170. The fact that Pakistan has been able to construct storage for just 10% of the river water flowing on its surface, way below the average 40%, shows the building blocks of threat in the 21st century lie within and not without.
Pakistan’s potential to store water, is around 30 days which is in sharp contrast to India’s 170.
The Kalabagh dam, a proposed reservoir which would, if built, generate 3600 MW for the national grid, has been a victim of political wrangling. The unfortunate project has been in the cold storage for decades. Despite the dismal state of affairs of water storage in Pakistan, the government has shown little resolve in building a consensus which is hampered by internal political rifts. The opposition to the dam comes from some parties from Sindh and KPK which believe that the dam would deprive smaller provinces of their due share of water. The dam could be built within six to seven years, if a consensus is reached, as its detailed design and tender documents stand prepared since 1986. Kalabagh Dam has the potential to save $4 Billion annually by reducing energy costs of Pakistan. It also has the potential to save billions in irrigation and dramatically reduce the cost endured by Pakistan in the wake of floods in the Monsoon.
Kalabagh Dam has the potential to save $4 Billion annually by reducing energy costs of Pakistan
The blame game, does little, in solving the problem. Rather, it makes resolution even more difficult as the government overlooks the part due on it. The India factor is vital, as the injudicious use of water of rivers allocated for Pakistan as per the IWT in 1960 by India, is a major contribution to the drying up of Pakistan.
India inaugurated Baglihar dam on Chenab river basin in 2008 and then Kishanganga dam, built on Jhelum river basin in May 2018. Both of these dams violate Indus Water Treaty. The treaty allows India to construct run-of-the-river projects on rivers allocated to Pakistan but with limited capacity and certain design parameters. However the design parameters of Indian dams in Kashmir are too lax, in contrast with those required for feasible power generation. The dams gave India a strategic control by giving India the excessive ability to control the flow.
India is constructing Ratle Hydroelctric project on Jhelum river basin . The construction is set to be completed in 2022. The dam has the potential to generate 850 MW power. Similarly, Pakal Dul Dam is being constructed on Chenab River basin with potential to generate 1500 MW. Another dam ‘Lower Kalnai Hydroelectric Project’ is also under construction on Chenab river basin.
The dams, mentioned above, provide India, the ability to control waters allocated for Pakistan. Altering the flow of any of the Pakistani rivers creates a serious threat to the economic security of Pakistan. India has plans to generate 32,000 MW by constructing more dams on Pakistani rivers, particularly on Chenab. With Chenab drying up, at a swift pace, Pakistan is set to suffer severe economic loss as the agricultural production is bound to decrease. The biggest victim will be Punjab, the agricultural hub of Pakistan.
The dams constructed on Chenab and Jhelum rivers in Occupied Kashmir, gave India a strategic control by providing the excessive ability to control the flow.
The third contribution to the the threat is Pakistan’s mismanagement of its waters. With the passage of time, the capacity of Pakistani reservoirs is narrowing and not much has been done to deal with the challenge. Another major problem is water conveyance efficiency which stands at around 40%. In other words, 60% of irrigation water is lost in conveyance which is a dilemma. Due to lack of surface storage, ground water is used excessively in Pakistan with no regulating mechanism existing. 80% of the total ground water pumped is exploited by private farmers using tube wells. There’s no limit as to what amount of water can be extracted and therefore, ground water levels are dropping swiftly.
What Must be done?
Pakistan needs to deal with the threat with pragmatism and not idealism on emergency basis. The donations for dam are not projected to be critical in construction of dams since Diamer Bhasha dam alone needs Rs. 650 Billion for its infrastructure and the total cost exceeds a trillion. To finance mega projects such as a water reservoir at the scale required by Pakistan, the government must conduct ‘Water Diplomacy‘ expeditiously.
To construct our dams, We need funds and the public cannot finance the projects. The water scarcity threat is national security concern and is a threat to Pakistan’s economic vitality which needs to be seen in that spectrum. States cannot be run on charity and this needs to be realised in the power corridors. In the upcoming budget, Pakistan needs to allocate funds for Diamer Bhasha and Mohmand dam even if that requires a cut on other development funds.
The alternate is, foreign assistance which is where water diplomacy comes in. In our case, its a misfortune that the governments have not addressed the need. The world bank has already rejected to fund Diamer-Bhasha dam. In 2017, Pakistan rejected China’s package of $14 Billion to fund Diamer-Bhasha dam however the conditions with the loan were too strict and were against the former’s national interest and so Chinese assistance is also not on the cards. Under such tough circumstances, Pakistan is left with very few alternatives to ensure its economic vitality.
Let us now come to Kalabagh Dam which could be built within six years and has the potential to rescue Pakistan in a threatening situation. The objections on Kalabagh dam come from KPK and Sindh with the former calling it a threat to Nowshera in the form of flooding and the latter claiming to be a move that would block Sindh’s water and turn it into a desert. However, these reservations are not impossible to be addressed and the dispute can be resolved with government’s serious efforts. The matter of constructing Kalabagh Dam transcends inter-provincial politics as it is a matter of Pakistan’s survival.
By ensuring the construction of major dams in Pakistan, a great portion of the threat is dealt and we can move onto the next dimension which is India’s water aggression. To counter this, Pakistan needs to adopt aggressive diplomacy to deter India from violating of Indus Water Treaty (1960) and constructing more dams on Chenab and Jhelum river basins. Indian Prime Minister has been threatening to stop the flow of Indus water to Pakistan in the past and circles in India are demanding from Indian government to review the 1960’s Indus Water Treaty and renegotiate the deal as they believe that it is against Indian interests. Such aggressive posture may only be countered by triggering International intervention which requires efficient water diplomacy.
About The Author
Abubakar Farooqui is the brains behind Rationale-47. He Studies International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include National Security of Pakistan and International Politics, particularly of Afghanistan and Middle East. He tweets @AbubakarTweets
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of Rationale-47.