Water Scarcity Compounds Tensions Between India and Pakistan

As Egypt’s post-Mubarak regime begins to pursue cooperative water rights agreements with other Nile countries, the Indus River Basin is quickly turning water into a source of makeshift hard power for both India and Pakistan.


Since the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, Pakistan has relied on India for its share of water. Although India chose not to withhold water in any of the Indo-Pakistani wars, a lack of domestic supply limits Pakistani foreign policy and negotiations with its neighbor. Both agricultural supply and energy production, key aspects for internal development and stability, are contingent on continued cooperation between the two countries.

Perhaps then, nothing is quite as threatening for Pakistan as India planning 33 separate dams within the Indus river system. While India claims that it needs the hydropower to fuel its rapid development, the mutual distrust and antagonism between the countries means that the very possibility of decreasing Pakistani water supply is perceived as an act of aggression and a violation of the 1960 agreement.

In parts of both countries, decreasing water levels resulted in a 10–20% decrease in agricultural output. Meanwhile, population growth compounds scarcity by increasing the number of famished and disgruntled citizens, who threaten state security by demanding access to clean water and agricultural goods.

If India were to use its hydro technology to divert water from Pakistan, the country would surely feel a series of shocks, starting with famine and quickly progressing to general chaos. Pakistan has already seen low-level skirmishes as a result of temporary water unavailability. If unavailability were to become the rule, not the exception, the state’s already precarious monopoly on the use of force would be farcical. In this ongoing conflict, water is more than a source of life: It is a weapon capable of internally destabilizing the enemy.

For the U.S. especially, maintaining Pakistani stability through water must become a foreign policy priority. If nothing else, ensuring quality of life through water access is an excellent way to curtail the “decentralized affiliates” currently plaguing Pakistan’s countryside. Additionally, exercising U.S. leadership through successful arbitration would increase soft power within the region, and could be used to combat the perception of “Fortress America” abroad.

Both India and Pakistan should take a lesson from post-Mubarak Egypt: Honest cooperation is in the best interest of all parties. While decades of rivalry between the two countries makes mutual distrust easier, instability in one country will only lead to instability in the other. Ultimately, if both countries want to avoid the ticking population bomb, cooperation is the only answer.

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