Pakistan Water Crisis: India Should Watch Out For Food Riots, Possible Exodus

Possible exodus from POK into this side of the Line of Control cannot be ruled out, given family ties.

5 min read
Hindi Female

Even as Imran Khan is firing on all the cylinders on the streets, threatening the ‘imported’ government of Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, there’s an extremely serious crisis brewing that adds to the existing ones of an economic sinkhole, social unrest, terrorism, and political skullduggery.

The Indus River Systems Authority (IRSA) has warned of a ‘massive water shortage’ just as the Kharif season begins next week. That has already led to squabbling between Punjab and Sindh, which are the main agricultural riparian states. 

Drought, for that is what it is, shorn of all clean language, will mean an additional burden on farmers already hit badly by the floods in 2022 that wrecked a third of Pakistan.

And that adds to the unrest already apparent on the streets. Not just rallies for Imran Khan, but fights for food, water, and gas. Someone spoke of a ‘perfect storm’. This is it.


No Water, Says the State

The IRSA warns of a nearly 25 – 35 percent shortage this season, following the floods last year. Drought after floods was also seen after the Kerala floods of 2018 and is one of the mysteries that an increasingly unpredictable nature throws at humans. That was, however, a phenomenon linked to severe deforestation in the Western Ghats.

In Pakistan, it's more due to poor maintenance of irrigation channels, theft, and leakage, with Sindh and Punjab already at loggerheads on exactly how a new water-sharing agreement is to be implemented. The IRSA is to follow a three-tier model, which is bitterly contested.

Remember that it’s the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in Punjab—who’s already at the receiving end of Imran Khan’s huge jalsas—and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP-P) in Sindh, whose political futures are at stake.

Farmers form an important part of the electorate, and cutting off of water would light the embers already put in place by Khan. Apart from that, Sindh, as a lower riparian state, is already in the throes of a water crisis as its freshwater lakes dry up. Earlier, it was found that 80 percent of the water samples collected from 14 districts of Sindh were unfit for human consumption. In the megacity of Karachi, 90 percent of the water was found unsafe. 


Dams at Dead Level

Take a look at the data released by the IRSA. Dams at Tarbela, one of the largest earth-filled dams in the world, as well as dams at Chashma, and Mangla on the Jhelum, are already dangerously close to dead level. 

Add to this the other locations, not on the Indus. For instance, the Skardu dam in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) is also at dead level and has been so for some time. The dam, southwest of Skardu, is the city’s only water source which provides water for drinking, irrigation, and other needs and also generates electricity.

Due to the shortage, drinking water is being supplied only during sehri and iftar hours.

Currently, Skardu residents were facing power outages of up to 22 hours while no drinking water was being supplied for 20 hours. Protests have been going on since December 2022, but nobody in Pakistan seems to care.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan Dry Up 

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) has also been seeing massive protests over power outages, while residents of Kohat, getting a mere 2 hours of electricity a day, have been demanding that the power from the Gomal Zam project, in south Waziristan, be made available to them. Meanwhile, taps are running dry, as even groundwater is unavailable, with no respite in sight.

Balochistan has long since gone completely dry, but due to different reasons. With no potable water, the state had installed filtration plants, which have been packed up due to a lack of maintenance. In short, the whole of Pakistan is suffering from a water crisis of unprecedented proportions.

Not a lot of this is new. The IRSA was reporting an impending crisis as early as 2018 when it warned that Pakistan’s dams had hit their lowest water mark in history.

The outgoing Nawaz Sharif government put in place a path-breaking National Water Policy, some 33 pages long (unlike India’s policy which was a mere 13 pages), making it a document without any clear priorities, and which moreover doesn’t seem to have been followed up.

The critical facts are that Pakistan's population growth at about 2.4 percent annually (compared to India’s .80 percent) simply cannot live on already declining water sources. Then there’s the low productivity index of agriculture, which is constantly reducing in terms of crops per acre,  despite using 90 percent of Indus water.

Add to that climate change, and water availability drops further. Crop yield per acre has been reducing, - much like in India. But unlike India where the state is in control, and taking strong steps to mitigate this through initiatives like natural farming – Pakistan’s state is hitting new lows.


The State has Abdicated

In the last few weeks, the streets of Punjab have witnessed massive protests as Khan pressed for elections, and the State responded by trying to arrest Khan on the court's orders, creating even more of an uproar.

Terrorist attacks have killed an ISI Brigadier and police officials, another attack on the police the very next day, a blast in Khuzdar, and a targeted attack on a politician's son that killed two security guards. All of these in just one week from 11 – 22 March.

Now add to this the fact that the complete chaos as crowds attacked a truck carrying wheat in sheer desperation at various locations across the country, while in Karachi, protests against gas and fuel shortages hit life in the city.

Gas and fuel shortages have been felt across the country, with reports of people filling gas in balloons and plastic bags, indicating extreme need. 

None of this affects Pakistan’s super-rich elite. So far, at least.

If this toxic mix spills over into serious water shortage and an agricultural crisis, matters could heat up fast, especially with Imran Khan bemoaning this in his latest ‘address to the nation’. It’s a call for a revolution. What he could have on his plate is a complete crisis.


What Should India Do?

So far it seemed that Pakistan, which is after all no small country without resources, could manage the crisis and limp on slowly toward normalcy. That is now in question. The tragedy is that even a financial bailout by the International Monetary Fund is unlikely to ease the crisis at all, which is of an impending collapse of all institutions. Consider that the Chief Justice of Pakistan is proposing a pay cut for himself and his colleagues to fund elections! It's fast becoming a farce.

The question that must concern India is the possible outflow of refugees into India. While refugees from Pakistan proper may still hesitate to come to India, the possibility of an exodus from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK which includes both ‘Azad’ Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan) into this side of the Line of Control cannot be ruled out, given that many have relations on this side of the border.

In such a situation, it will become difficult for Delhi to refuse aid and assistance to the Kashmiris on the other side, an area that India claims as its own.

Protests over the last few years in POK have also seen demands for trade routes to be opened into India, which arises from a sense that the only solution to their many difficulties is to open up to the Indian side. As the Valley stabilises after years of strife, there is understandably little appetite for risk.

But as matters worsen, a decision may be forced upon Delhi. Time to confer and consult, and think way out of the box.  

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Pakistan   Imran Khan   Shahbaz Sharif 

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