Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reference to the Indus Waters Treaty at an election rally in Bathinda, Punjab on Friday, comes two months after the Union government indicated that it may indefinitely suspend the meeting of the Indus water commissioners of India and Pakistan. The commissioners together form the Permanent Indus Commission under the 1960 treaty for “complete and satisfactory utilisation of the waters of the Indus system of rivers” between the two countries.

“Indus Water Treaty – Sutlej, Beas, Ravi – the waters in these rivers belong to India and our farmers,” said Modi, addressing a crowd in the state that is scheduled for Assembly elections in 2017. “It is not being used in the fields of Pakistan but flowing into the sea through Pakistan. Now every drop of this water will be stopped and I will give that to farmers of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir and Indian farmers. I am committed to this.”

Modi added that his government had formed a task force to make sure that farmers in Punjab and the rest of the country “get each drop of water due to them”.

“During a meeting of senior government officials chaired by Modi on September 26, it was decided that an inter-ministerial task force would be set up to study the provisions of the bilateral Indus Waters Treaty.

According to a report, the news agency ANI said: “a decision was taken [at the meeting] to use India’s fullest legal rights in the treaty. It was also decided to again review the construction on Tulbul navigation project, work on which was suspended in 2007”. There was, however, no decision on a review or abrogation of the treaty.

At that time, the reason given for a relook at the details of the treaty was not the waters of the Indus per se, but terrorism. On September 18, an attack on an Indian Army base in Kashmir’s Uri sector near the Line of Control led to 19 soldiers being killed. The government held Pakistan responsible for the attack, an allegation Islamabad denied. The government’s move on the Indus Waters Treaty was seen as a retaliation to this attack.

Significantly, since the signing of the treaty, the two countries have fought three wars (1965, 1971 and 1999), but that did not derail the water-sharing pact.

At present, opinion on the treaty is divided. A section of experts strongly demands it be abrogated while others call for restraint, pointing out that India is downstream of China and two rivers covered under the treaty – the Indus and the Sutlej – originate in Tibet, for which India has no pact with China.

What’s been overlooked

But in the political hullaballoo over the treaty since September, an important factor that may make or break the treaty in the long term has been completely overlooked.

“Scientific field-based studies conducted by us show that since the mid-1990s, there is a significant decline in streamflow [the flow of water in a river or stream] in the three western rivers, the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus,” said Dr Shakil A Romshoo, head of the Department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University in Srinagar. “This is due to climate change.”

Reduced streamflow is not an immediate concern for India because, for at least the next five decades, there will be no acute water scarcity on its part of the Indus basin as glaciers will continue to melt and supply water.

“However, the real crisis will strike when there will not be enough water in these rivers to share with Pakistan,” warned Romshoo.

According to the treaty, India has to allow 43 million acre-feet of water to flow into Pakistan daily.

India basin

The trans-boundary Indus river basin is spread over an area of 1.12 million square km and sustains the lives of over 300 million people. About 47% of the basin falls in Pakistan, followed by 39% in India, 8% in China and the remaining 6% in Afghanistan.

In India, the Indus river basin drains an area of 4,40,000 sqkm (nearly 14% of the total geographical area of the country) spread across Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Chandigarh.

Because of its vast spread, the climate is not uniform over the Indus basin, whose main source of water is snow and glacier melt. It is claimed that outside the polar regions, the upper Indus basin contains the greatest area of perennial glacial ice in the world (22,000 sq km). Rainfall is low with annual precipitation ranging between 100 mm and 500 mm in the lowlands to a maximum of 2,000 mm on the mountain slopes.

The main river of the basin – the Indus – originates at Lake Ngangla Rinco on the Tibetan Plateau and, on its way to the Arabian sea, is joined by various tributaries – the Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Jhelum, Chenab, Swat, Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Kabul, etc. The Indus, thus, sustains large populations in this region.

“Almost 93% agriculture in Pakistan is dependent on the waters of the Indus basin,” said Azeem Ali Shah of the International Water Management Institute-Pakistan.

Indus Waters Treaty

The sharing of the Indus waters has always been controversial. There are references to pre-Independence water conflict between Sindh and Punjab provinces way back in the 1930s. In order to find a lasting solution to the sharing of the Indus waters, the World Bank negotiated between India and Pakistan and, after several rounds of talks, the Indus Waters Treaty was signed on September 19, 1960.

The treaty covers the six main rivers of the Indus basin – the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. These are divided into two categories, the western rivers and the eastern rivers. The former includes the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, and the latter includes the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej.

The treaty gives India unrestricted access to all the waters of the eastern rivers, with few exceptions. In return, it says that “Pakistan shall receive for unrestricted use all those waters of the western rivers which India is under obligation to let flow”.

India can, however, use the waters of these western rivers for “domestic use, non-consumptive use, agricultural use, and generation of hydroelectric power”. Annexure D and Annexure E of the treaty specify the conditions under which the Indian government can set up hydroelectric plants and reservoirs, respectively.

Article 9 of the treaty discusses the settlement of differences and disputes between the two countries. Such differences have arisen several times in the past, and in a few cases, Pakistan has even approached the Hague-based International Court of Arbitration.

At home, the treaty has faced opposition in Jammu and Kashmir, whose Legislative Assembly has thrice passed unanimous resolutions against the Indus Waters Treaty, alleging that it takes away the state’s right to develop its water resources.

After the Uri attack, the Indian government decided to take a relook at some pending projects on the western rivers and expedite them. It is estimated that the India stretch of the Indus basin has a hydropower potential of 18,600 MW, of which India is at present using only 3,034 MW. Projects worth 2,526 MW are under construction and another 5,846 MW are under consideration.

Climate change

There are more than 17,000 glaciers in the Indus basin, of which over 8,000 are in Jammu and Kashmir alone. These glaciers serve as natural reservoirs that provide a perennial freshwater supply to the Indus river and some of its tributaries.

Since the entire Indus basin relies strongly on melt water, it is vulnerable to climate factors, such as increased temperatures that will alter the pace at which the glaciers melt, meaning streamflow in the Indus will be greatly affected in the long term, according to WATCH (WATer and Global CHange), a project coordinated by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Wallingford in the UK.

Kashmir University professor Dr Shakil A Romshoo has carried out studies in the India stretch of the upper Indus basin and recorded changes in climate. “The data shows an increase in average temperature in the winter months of December and January. The total precipitation in Kashmir has not changed, but snowfall is decreasing whereas rainfall is increasing,” he said.

This is not good news because rainfall results in run-off, which washes away in no time. It is the snow that melts slowly and provides freshwater all through the year, he added.

Source: Shakil A Romshoo and Irfan Rashid 2010, Potential and Constraints of Geospatial Data for Precise Assessment of the Impacts of Climate Change at Landscape Level, in International Journal of Geomatics and Geosciences, Vol. 3(3), pp. 386-405.

This is not all. Glaciers are undergoing changes too. The majority of the glaciers studied so far are decreasing in thickness, though there is some variability (see graphs 3 and 4). The Kolahoi glacier in Pahalgam is retreating at a rate of 20 metres every year.

The melting of glaciers has a direct bearing on the streamflow of rivers. “We found an increase in the streamflow of the Indus river till the mid-1990s, after which there has been a steady decline,” said Romshoo. “If the trend continues, there will be an acute water shortage in the Indus basin in the coming few decades.”

Pakistan is already facing that water stress. Because of the initial increase in streamflow in the Indus, from 117 million acre feet in 1962 to 159.4 million acre feet in the early 1990s, it expanded the agricultural area in the basin. However, by 2013, the streamflow had reduced to 119 million acre feet, leading to water shortage.

Studies conducted in Pakistan, too, have recorded changing climate and variability in streamflow of rivers in the Indus basin. A 2015 joint study, Detection of river flow trends and variability analysis of upper India basin, Pakistan, indicated that “maximum and mean temperature have warming trends and have increased with increase in elevation… Annual streamflow in the Indus (at Kharmong, Alam Br and Khairabad), the Sawat (at Kalam) and the Kabul (at Nowshera) have decreased whereas in the river Gilgit, Hunza, Chitral, Shoyk, Shigar and Astore have increased”.

Data gaps

In spite of the growing evidence of climate change in the Indus basin, there is a lack of a body of knowledge about snow glaciers in the upper Indus basin. “Of the thousands of glaciers, we have been able to study only 20 for which two decades of data is available,” said Romshoo. “Another 136 glaciers are being studied remotely using satellites.”

Sharad K Jain, head of the Water Resources Systems Division of the Roorkee-based National Institute of Hydrology, agreed there was an acute lack of data on the hydrology and glaciology of the Indus basin. The institute has launched two field-based studies in the Ladakh region to study glaciers and understand the basin’s hydrology. “But, data collection is difficult due to the tough terrain,” he said.

Dr S Janakarajan, president of the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, said it was too early to review the Indus Waters Treaty in the wake of climate change, but there was an urgent need to build a long-term database on climatic changes in the Indus basin. “Rather than considering a review of the treaty, the Indian government should invest heavily in collecting real-time data on climate change in the basin,” Janakarajan said. “A team of international experts should be involved as it is going to be an extensive exercise.”

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance environment journalist. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi.