Madeleine Gordon | Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow
2019 was a tense year for India and Pakistan. In February, a suicide bombing by Pakistani-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammad killed over thirty Indian personnel in Kashmir, triggering retaliatory airstrikes.
In August, New Delhi revoked the semi-autonomous status of Indian-controlled Kashmir, claiming it as Indian territory.
In December, India fast-tracked citizenship for Hindus and Christians fleeing persecution in Pakistan, antagonising Islamabad which denies persecution allegations.
These were just the latest developments in the decades-old India-Pakistan conflict. But there is another dynamic which is expected to define this volatile relationship in the coming years: water security.
India controls almost all of Pakistan’s water. What’s more, climate change is decreasing water supplies in both countries, increasing resource competition.
Water sharing is currently controlled by the Indus Water Treaty, which gives India control over three major tributaries of the Indus River and allocates the Indus River and two other tributaries to Pakistan. But it’s a tenuous agreement, with provocations in Kashmir often triggering retaliatory damming from India.
We saw this in 2018 when India moved to suspend the treaty, following the killing of 18 soldiers by Pakistani terrorists. Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Advisor, Sartaj Aziz responded that any breach (including unilateral suspension) of the Treaty would be considered an act of war. A further provocation followed in 2019 when conflict in Kashmir caused India to divert Pakistani-allocated water into the Indian regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Punjab.
Existing water shortages intensify the situation. Pakistan is already one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. Moreover, the Pakistani population is heavily dependent on a consistent water supply to ensure economic stability and food security due to its highly agrarian economy. India is also facing shortages due to its rapidly growing population.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate the situation through both supply and demand-side changes. On the supply-side, climate change is increasing the temperature and precipitation levels in the Hindu-Kush-Karakoram-Himalaya range which feeds the Indus Water System.
Counterintuitively, increased precipitation in the context of warmer temperatures does not necessarily increase water supplies. This is because higher temperatures increase evaporation. Cloud cover, due to precipitation, is also understood to significantly slow glacial melt, decreasing runoff.
This makes it difficult to determine the net effect of climate change on water supply in the short and medium-term.
Over the longer term, however, there is a much clearer consensus. Once the Hindu-Kush-Karakoram-Himalaya glaciers melt completely (around 2100), modelling suggests that the Indus’ water supply will decrease significantly. Rising sea levels are likely to compound the issue by intruding on fresh water supplies.
Climate change is also predicted to increase the demand for water. This is because higher levels of irrigation are needed to compensate for increased evaporation.
Available research on the economic ramifications of these changes has focussed on Pakistan’s cash crops. These findings suggest that maize yields, under a business-as-usual climate change scenario, may decrease by 20 per cent. Rice production may also decline by up to 20 per cent while a 1 per cent increase in temperature during the flowering and vegetative phrases of cotton cultivation would decrease the yield by over 24 per cent.
These climate change impacts come amid growing concerns over Chinese damming projects upstream from India, particularly on the Brahmaputra River. This pressure from the east creates a stronger impetus for India to dam Pakistani supplies.
Water concerns and Kashmir tensions are not mutually exclusive problems. In the future, India may need to withhold Pakistani supplies to support its own population, particularly given Chinese damming. This may cause Pakistan to push back in Kashmir. Inversely, as we have seen, escalations in Kashmir can trigger retaliatory damming.
Either channel has the potential to spark a wider-scale conflict; a report from the United States Office of the Director of National Intelligence identified the Indus River basin as one of the most likely hotspots for the use of water as a tool of war or terrorism.
In these ways, climate change is drying up Kashmir, creating a tinderbox set for ignition. The impetus is on both India and Pakistan to better adhere to the Indus Water Treaty and invest in the technology needed to increase water efficiency. Failure in either area will have severe ramifications for economic development and regional stability.
Madeleine Gordon is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.