Pakistan is once again accusing India of water hegemony. This time, however, the accusation refers not to Indian damming of the Western Rivers in J&K, 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 Arshad Abbasi, a water and energy expert from the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad, Afghanistan, with assistance from India and the World Bank, has plans to build 12 dams on the Kabul River, with a combined storage capacity of 4.7MAF. 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 hydro-influence in the region.
India has not confirmed its support for the building of all 12 Afghan dams on the Kabul River, though it is currently one of Afghanistan's largest assistance donors; it 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 US government, the World Bank, IMF, 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 shockingly 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 - around 2,775 cubic meters of water are currently available per capita, which is well above the water threshold of 1,800m3 per capita. However, the country has not been able to harness this water adequately.
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 underutilised basins in Afghanistan in terms of overall surface water availability. The proportion of water use in the KRB is 25 percent.
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.
Since the Kabul River, a tributary of the Indus, is a shared river between Pakistan and Afghanistan, 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 programme 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.
From a strategic standpoint, the timing could not be better for a water treaty between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Recent months have seen an increase in tensions between the two countries, heightened by 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 India-Pakistan 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 Afghanistan-Pakistan agreement on the Kabul River, and this can subsequently create a more comprehensive view of water security throughout the Indus River Basin.
Although not without limitations, the IWT is considered one of the more successful water treaties in the world. The treaty is one of the few on trans-boundary 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 hydroelectricity. The India-Pakistan water treaty also provides a mechanism for consultation and arbitration in case questions, disagreements, or disputes arise over water sharing. All of these features could be applicable to an Afghanistan-Pakistan water treaty.
Besides, by settling the rights of the upper and lower riparians, the IWT 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.
Using the limitations of the IWT to expand upon and modify concepts of trans-boundary water agreements in South Asia, the treaty could 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 overall 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 trans-boundary water treaties should be "climate-proofed." An Afghanistan-Pakistan 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. So far trans-boundary treaties have been largely focused on the supply side. Adequate demand management has been lacking, and is desperately required in the developing economies of South Asia. An Afghanistan-Pakistan treaty could acknowledge ways in which limited - and perhaps even diminishing - water resources can be utilised 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 minimise 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 Afghanistan-Pakistan water treaty should emphasise 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 hydropower from the Afghan dams? (It would presumably be cheaper than purchasing it from diesel-driven rental power projects.)
The treaty 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 accept the existence of these dam projects regardless of who is helping construct them. And the United States, with its goal of proceeding with reconciliation in Afghanistan, would welcome the political implications of the treaty. Perhaps most importantly, an Afghanistan-Pakistan water accord could eventually be applied to an understanding of water-sharing for the region at large, founded on cooperation rather than competition.
Ahmad Rafay Alam is an environmental lawyer and coordinates the LUMS Water Programme in Pakistan.
Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC.
Gitanjali Bakshi is co-author of Indus Equation and former coordinator of the South Asia Security Unit at the Strategic Foresight Group in Mumbai, India.
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