The South Asia Channel

Peace through water

Pakistan is once again accusing India of water hegemony. This time, however, the accusation refers not to Indian damming of the Western Rivers in the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir, but to Indian support for Afghan development projects along the Kabul River. This accusation indulges in conspiratorial thinking, and distracts from a factual understanding ...


Pakistan is once again accusing India of water hegemony. This time, however, the accusation refers not to Indian damming of the Western Rivers in the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir, but to Indian support for Afghan development projects along the Kabul River. This accusation indulges in conspiratorial thinking, and distracts from a factual understanding of the water issues between the two countries.

According to Pakistani media reports, Afghanistan (with assistance from India and the World Bank) has plans to build 12 dams on the Kabul River (a tributary of the Indus which runs through Afghanistan and Pakistan), with a combined storage capacity of 4.7 million acre feet (MAF). Pakistan is concerned that these dams will stop crucial water supply from flowing to the Indus River. It is also concerned that Indian support for these dams will increase India’s sphere of influence over water issues in the region.

India has not confirmed its support to build all 12 Afghan dams on the Kabul River, though it is currently one of Afghanistan’s largest assistance donors; Afghan media report that India has $1.3 billion invested in infrastructure projects. Water infrastructure, including dam building, is an integral part of Afghanistan’s 2008 Development Agenda.

In order to understand India’s possible participation in Afghan dam-building — along with that of the U.S. Government, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), and others — one has to understand the context — namely Afghanistan’s lack of hydro-development.

Firstly, due to successive wars in Afghanistan, water infrastructure in the country is incredibly underdeveloped. All 12 of the existing water reservoirs in the country were built between 1920 and 1940. Afghanistan has sufficient water to meet its needs. Overall, around 2,775 cubic meters of water are currently available per capita (an all-inclusive figure accounting for consumption and agricultural needs), which is well above the water threshold of 1,800 cubic meters per capita. However, the country has not been able to harness this water adequately because of a lack of infrastructure and international assistance.

Secondly, even though the Kabul River Basin (KRB) is the most important river basin in Afghanistan — containing half the country’s urban population, including the city of Kabul — it is one of the most underutilized basins in Afghanistan in terms of overall surface water availability. The proportion of water use in the KRB is 25 percent. In contrast, in the Northern and Helmand basins, water use is 100 percent and 58 percent, respectively, of the available surface water. Such figures refer to the amount of renewable freshwater reserves; any use beyond this will be overutilization as it might not be replenished.  

Thirdly, Disaster Management Information systems have revealed that the mountainous north-eastern region of the country where the Kabul River is situated is one of the most flood- and drought-prone areas in Afghanistan. Annual flow is extremely erratic, dropping as low as 11.2MAF and rising as high as 34.8MAF. This makes storage all the more essential in order to provide water in lean periods, and to avoid disasters like flash floods during sudden flow outbursts. (Afghanistan currently has one of the lowest storage capacities in the world.)

It goes almost without saying that development in Afghanistan is essential and unavoidable; a more prosperous and functional Afghanistan will aid security and stability across South Asia. Yet without the assistance it requires to build water infrastructure, Kabul cannot reach its development goals for agriculture, energy, and urban development.

It is also important to understand that the Kabul River, a tributary of the Indus, is a shared river between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Therefore, this challenge of the 12 dams is essentially an Af-Pak issue rather than an Indo-Pak one.

The issue of the 12 Kabul River dams, rather than simply being a reference point for India’s development assistance program in Afghanistan, should be the spark for a water agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan. So far, India/Pakistan is the only Indus Basin riparian pairing that enjoys a treaty or agreement on water sharing. Afghanistan and Pakistan do not enjoy the same advantage — the two countries came close to drafting a water treaty in 2003 and 2006, but these attempts failed on both accounts.

From a strategic standpoint, the timing could not be better for a water treaty between the two countries. Recent months have seen an increase in tensions between them, reaching an apex with the assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. A comprehensive water accord — one that addresses both the Afghan need for water development and Pakistan’s apprehensions about a reduction in water flows — could do wonders not only for water security, but also for political ties.

Though Indo-Pak water relations are not directly involved in the Kabul River issue, they still hold relevance. The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan can be used to inform an Af-Pak agreement on the Kabul River, and this can subsequently create pressure for a more comprehensive view of water security throughout the Indus River Basin.

The IWT is considered one of the more successful water treaties in the world. The treaty is one of the few on transboundary water that addresses specific water allocations; it provides unique design requirements for run-of-the-river dams that ensure the steady flow of water while at the same time guaranteeing power generation through hydro-electricity. The Indo-Pak water treaty also provides a mechanism for consultation and arbitration in case questions, disagreements, or disputes arise over water sharing. All of these features present in the IWT could be applicable to a similar accord between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also important to note that the IWT, by settling the rights of the upper and lower riparians, also gave India and Pakistan access to billions in World Bank financing. In Pakistan, this money was used to build the Mangla and Tarbela dams, as well as to develop irrigation infrastructure. Afghanistan can take similar steps to secure its national water development plans.

The IWT, however, does have its limitations, as it was formulated decades ago and therefore does not account for more recent challenges to water management.

Accordingly, an Af-Pak water treaty could also factor in more contemporary concepts like climate change and integrated river basin management, for instance. According to the Pacific Institute, "many existing treaties allocate water among the nations on the basis of river banks but very few — if any — account for the possibility of a river’s flow diminishing over all or at crucial times of the year. Likewise most treaties ignore the possibility of intense floods that are expected to increase as the climate warms." In the institute’s most recent report, authors Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley say that new as well as existing transboundary water treaties should be "climate-proofed." An Af-Pak water treaty can factor climate change in its draft, and can even inspire other stakeholders of the Indus River Basin like India and China to create a more comprehensive understanding and transparency over the effects of climate change on the basin as a whole.

Efficient use of existing water resources is another contemporary concept to water management not accounted for in the IWT, which can be included in an Af-Pak water treaty. So far transboundary treaties have been largely focused on the supply side. In other words, they have focused on developing water infrastructure rather than on changing patterns of water use. Adequate demand management has been lacking, and is desperately required in the developing economies of South Asia. An Af-Pak treaty could acknowledge ways in which limited — and perhaps even diminishing — water resources can be utilized in a sustainable way to meet the growing agricultural, industrial, and domestic needs of both countries. For example, the treaty could stipulate that each country pledge to undertake a certain percentage of annual repairs on water infrastructure governed by the treaty, in order to minimize wastage and other losses. It could also institute measures that will help Afghanistan and Pakistan shift from flood to drip irrigation.

Additionally, the spirit of sustainability in an Af-Pak water treaty should emphasize the sharing dimension of water resource management rather than one of segregation. In an age and an area of growing populations and limited resources, we can no longer afford to divide water; instead we need to learn how to share it. Why not stipulate that Pakistan, as the lower riparian, purchase hydro-power from the Afghan dams (it would presumably be cheaper than purchasing it from diesel-driven rental power projects)?

An Af-Pak water treaty, if consummated, would represent a rare regional success story in South Asia. A shared interest of Pakistan and Afghanistan — enhancing water security — would be addressed through cooperative institutional mechanisms. India’s desire to assist Afghanistan with dam construction would be less politically fraught, given that Pakistan would presumably be more willing to accept the existence of these dam projects if its concerns were addressed via treaty. And the United States would welcome an Af-Pak water accord’s political implications: A convergence between two nations whose cooperation is essential for Washington’s goal of proceeding with reconciliation in the country. Perhaps most importantly, an Af-Pak water accord could eventually be applied to an understanding of water-sharing for the region at large that is founded on cooperation rather than competition.

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Ahmad Rafay Alam is vice president, Pakistan Environmental Law Association, and manager of the Water Program at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. Gitanjali Bakshi is co-author of "Indus Equation" and former Coordinator of the South Asia Security Unit at Strategic Foresight Group in Mumbai, India. A version of this piece appeared in The News International.

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