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Pakistan’s provincial water disputes: a way forward

Pakistan needs to update its 1991 water sharing agreement between the provinces to allow water trading and more efficient use of resources
<p>The Shigar, a tributary to the Indus, winds through Skardu [image by Zofeen T Ebrahim]</p>

The Shigar, a tributary to the Indus, winds through Skardu [image by Zofeen T Ebrahim]

The Water Apportionment Accord is an agreement on the sharing of waters of the Indus Basin between the provinces of Pakistan. It is based largely upon the historical use of water by the provinces; Punjab 47%, Sindh 42% Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 8% and Baluchistan 3%.

The Accord was signed into effect 25 years ago on 21 March 1991 and is the most significant piece of water legislation in Pakistan after the Indus Waters Treaty, which is an agreement on sharing of waters between India and Pakistan. Yet the 25th anniversary of the Accord has passed without acknowledgement from the government, popular press or any civil society group. The irony is that it coincided with World Water Day on 22 March, when Pakistan pledged to do better when it comes to managing water.

The same political party in power today was in power in 1991 – indeed it was the very same prime minister that brought the various parties together to the table to sign the Accord (some would prefer the phrase “twisted the arms of the various parties to sign the Accord”). So is the failure to mark 25 years of the Accord simply a lapse or a deliberate brushing under the carpet?

In Pakistan water agreements quickly become sacrosanct. We are prepared to amend our constitution (22 times and counting at the time of writing of this article), but somehow our water agreements are perfect first-time around in perpetuity. The reality is that our water agreements are not perfect. The fact that India and Pakistan have not gone to war over water is often cited as a measure of the success of the Indus Waters Treaty, or that the provinces have not gone repeatedly to the Council of Common Interests over inter-provincial water disputes is hardly a testament to perfection.

Pakistan River Map
A map of the rivers of Pakistan [image created by Nomi887 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0]

The Accord failed to end long simmering tensions between Sindh and Pakistan over water sharing. Of all the provinces of Pakistan, Sindh probably feels the most aggrieved because the accord does not guarantee a minimum “environmental flow” of river water through the province and into the Arabian Sea. Sindh worries extraction of water for dam building and irrigation in upstream provinces will deprive the region of the water it needs. People feel their rights have been usurped and that the provincial political leadership of the time was forced into signing this document.

There  is a mechanism for India and Pakistan to try to resolve disputes through the Indus Water Commission, after which it escalates to neutral experts, and as a last resort, goes to the international court of arbitration.

See also: Indus water dispute going to arbitrators again

With the inter-provincial water accord, if a dispute cannot be resolved within the Indus River System Authority, the only other resort is the Council of Common Interest, which resolves power sharing disputes between the federation and provinces. There is only one tier to resolve disputes and in many cases a province may not wish to escalate a concern to that level – in which case there is no mid-way. Furthermore the Council of Common Interest like any court of law will evaluate a dispute against the existing Accord, not debate the Accord itself. Since we see our water agreements as sacrosanct we will not discuss or debate them.

The Accord is not without its problems. Its clauses and terminology are ambiguous and can be interpreted in different ways. Clause 2 stipulates how 117.35 million acre feet (MAF) of water in the Indus Basin shall be allocated among the provinces. However in reality there will never be exactly this amount since water is notoriously variable. Of note is that clause 4 does not stipulate anything if the volume available is less than 117.35MAF. Clause 14b states “The record of actual average system uses for the period 1977-82……would form the basis of sharing shortages and surpluses on all Pakistan….(sic)” . This latter clause is particularly controversial since it suggests that provinces with water storage capacity/infrastructure by 1977 now have a prior right over all “surpluses”.  Unless we improve the clarity of the Accord, the next twenty five years will be prone to subjective interpretations.

The Indus River Systems Authority responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Accord reports what are euphemistically called “gains/losses”. A more appropriate term for this would be “volume balance error”, as it is simply water that cannot be accounted for. This error is significant and growing each year. For a country that claims it suffers from water scarcity it is quite incredible that we fail to account for these large volumes of water. If we extrapolate from the current rate over the next twenty five years we will be reporting volume balance errors equivalent to the entire annual water resources of Pakistan.

Water trading – provides the answer?

Water trading could go some way to resolving tensions between provinces over water. But conversation about water trading in Pakistan is equivalent to “water blasphemy”; we refuse to engage in it. We have a simple philosophy when it comes to water – if you can extract your share of water, do with it what you will. This philosophy stems from our vast irrigation system where water was shared amongst farmers and farmers where left to their own devices as to how they use this water. Basin level water resources are dominated by this irrigation engineering philosophy prevalent in the sub-continent. This unduly punishes provinces such as Baluchistan or KP which can only extract limited water due to topography. They cannot extract the value from the resource because the Accord prohibits water trading. Water trading would involve Punjab paying KP for water that KP was unable or did not wish to use. Without opportunities for water trading, Baluchistan and KP will be incentivised to exploit all the water they can from the Indus Basin as for them this remains the only way in which to extract value.

This twenty five year milestone has gone unmarked because water, as opposed to power, is very low on the national agenda. Power (or lack of) draws crowds on to the street in protest. The pain is felt immediately, the political gains from addressing the challenge immediate. Water is a significantly poorer cousin. Its effects are slower, but far more lethal. There is no substitute for water, and without with the wells will run dry, and food will disappear from the table.


Dr Arif Anwar is Head of Office and Principal Researcher on irrigation for the International Water Managment Institute in Pakistan