India, Pakistan, and the Coming Climate-Induced Scramble for Water




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Oct 15, 2020
by Sadaf Taimur
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India, Pakistan, and the Coming Climate-Induced Scramble for Water

Approaching the 75th-anniversary of the India-Pakistan partition, Salzburg Global Fellow Sadaf Taimur calls on each country's leaders to put climate crisis on the agenda Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir, India Photo by Eshani Mathur on Unsplash

The Kashmir region has remained a flashpoint between India and Pakistan for more than six decades. To understand the dimensions of this conflict, one has to go back to 1947. After the division of the sub-continent, two states emerged onto the world's stage. Both Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of Pakistan, and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, knew both nations lacked strong institutions and resources to sustain the test of time. Despite all the challenges, Jinnah came up with an impressive inaugural speech to talk about inclusive and impartial government. Nehru's "Tryst with Destiny" speech, meanwhile, highlighted the independent struggles and set the tone for India's role in the future. After the partition, Kashmir – a princely state with substantial natural resources and beauty in the north-western corner of the subcontinent, became an issue at hand and led to four wars between India and Pakistan. India's and Pakistan's interests in Kashmir are seemingly manifold.

The hallmark of any interest-based conflict is that it has layers of priorities with a primary underlying locus. In Kashmir's case, the underlying interest of the neighboring countries is water. Therefore, the dispute over Kashmir is interlinked mainly with water security in both countries. As we approach the 75th anniversary of the Indian-Pakistan partition in 2022, what is the status of the India-Pakistan conflict? This article seeks to highlight the unforeseen challenges that might not be visible now, but, if they become visible, will lead to irreversible damages, violent conflicts, and wars. We need to prepare now.

Setting the Scene

The territory of Kashmir is an origin point of the Indus river and basin, which includes Ravi, Jhelum, Chenab, and Sutlej rivers. These rivers are central to the water-food-energy nexus in the region, and acting on one of these three categories can have significant impacts on the other. This fact is true for both countries. Considering that Indus is the primary source of water in Pakistan and supports 90% of its agriculture (1), it is clear that water is an immediate interest position in the Kashmir conflict.

To ensure the equitable distribution of water resources in the region, the World Bank brokered an agreement, titled as the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), between India and Pakistan in 1960. The World Bank describes the treaty as "one of the most successful international treaties" as it survived recurrent tensions (including conflicts). It has provided a framework for developing irrigation and hydropower in the region for more than half a century. The IWT gives India full access to Ravi and Sutlej's water while giving Pakistan full access to Indus, Chenab, and Jhelum rivers. This treaty's creation has played a vital role in pacifying India and Pakistan's conflict over the Kashmir region. Without this treaty, it is highly likely that, between the two nations, the situation of war would have occurred more frequently. Without a doubt, the IWT has set an example of successful mediation between the two countries, but it does not come without faults. Our biggest concern regarding this treaty is that it does not consider the changing environment due to climate change. We agree that climate change was not a prevalent topic while the IWT was enacted, but now the authority of the IWT is being threatened by the unforeseen threat of climate change.

Impact of Climate Change in India and Pakistan

The effects of climate change have become more acute and visible in the last few years. The Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, the Helsinki Rules on the Uses of the Waters of International Rivers, followed by the Berlin Rules on Water Resources, emphasized the importance of considering environmental degradation and sustainability in transboundary water negotiations before climate change became a predictable reality. It is critically alarming that while international communities are aware of the significance of sustainable use and sharing of resources, neither India nor Pakistan is a signatory of the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

What makes water conflicts unique is that water resources are affected by anthropogenic and environmental conditions, and climate change can significantly impact these conditions. This knowledge helps us conclude that if climate change persists, so will the water resource conflicts. The situation in Kashmir often overshadows climate change concerns, but if not addressed timely, these concerns as stressors can lead the two nuclear-armed nations to a dreadful war. Climate change affects the hydrologic cycle like rainfall patterns and runoff, enhancing certain regions' vulnerability due to extreme events, such as floods and droughts. You might have heard of Indus and its tributaries overflowing, causing mass flooding during the monsoon season, while at other times, two nations facing water scarcity.

In his book, This Is the Way the World Ends…, Jeff A. Nesbitt wrote, "Indus is dribbling to a meager end. Its once-fertile delta of rice paddies and fisheries has shriveled up." This, along with the reports on farmers dying by suicide, critically low groundwater level, and agricultural crisis due to water shortage in both India and Pakistan, clearly illustrate the magnitude of the issue at hand. On top of this, a study predicted Indus's flow would reduce by eight percent by 2050 due to shrinking glaciers in the face of climate change. This decrease in water flow is detrimental and can lead to severe water scarcity and food shortages because the Indus river water flows serve as a primary source of water for the downstream part of the basin. These climate-induced environmental scarcities affect society and act as stressors that manifest as transforming conflict into violence. The history of conflict between India and Pakistan is chronic, and this scarcity can aggravate the conflict while encouraging competition between two countries leading to violence, terrorism, and wars.

Building a New Relationship

Understanding the conflict between two countries from the lens of climate change will allow both sides to see conciliation benefits.  If we try to frame the dispute over Kashmir as something which is a shared concern for both India and Pakistan – Climate Change – ideally, both sides will show their willingness to solve the dispute because they have a strong interest in that. If we keep projecting this dispute as an issue of religion or territory, we will push two countries to take two different positions. Climate change vulnerability may help in bringing these two countries closer and work together in the long-term.

The bilateral relationship between Pakistan and India is so dented we have to rewrite and rewire this relationship to bring them together to talk about and deal with the climate change and the water crisis affiliated with that. The best and the easiest way to normalize this relationship is to reflect on our historical, geographic, emotional, and cultural similarities through different techniques. Capacity building, documentary films, art, and journalism can all contribute to peacebuilding. The work of Salzburg Global Fellow Anwar Akhtar and Samosa Media has been particularly impactful here, such as their film made with Ajoka Theatre, Pakistan's Best Kept Secret: Lahore Museum.   

Imagine two nuclear-armed countries with strong armies, torn apart by climate-induced scarcity and stressors. This situation will have irreversible and terrible ramifications not only on these two countries but in South Asia. As Anatol Lieven mentioned in his book, Pakistan – A Hard Country, people from India who look forward to celebrating Pakistan's fall should know that it would undoubtedly drag India down. The IWT was signed in 1960, and what may have worked in the past may not work in the future as climate change can significantly impact the waterways' environment. The threat of climate change leading to changing conditions of rivers warrants an immediate need to update and to re-negotiate the IWT.

In the meantime, two nations can create capacity building material focusing on their similarities, building dams in collaboration instead of in competition, improving domestic water management, and encouraging less-water intensive crop. Multi-dimensional efforts are needed. For a win-win situation over the utilization of transboundary water, there is an urgent need for conflict transformation leading to conflict resolution. Let's make the 75th anniversary one where leaders in India and Pakistan tackle the climate change crisis in South Asia, and not build on existing mutual recriminations and tensions 75 years on. Imagine what a huge positive impact to both peace building and action to fight the climate crisis the huge global South Asian diaspora communities could contribute.


(1) Gupta, A. (2020). The Politicization of Water: Transboundary Water-Conflict in the Indian Subcontinent (Doctoral dissertation, Oberlin College).

Sadaf Taimur is a Salzburg Global Fellow who is currently taking part in the Asia Peace Innovators Forum, a program held in partnership with the Nippon Foundation. Sign up for our newsletter here to receive updates about this program.