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Through two wars and a half-century of suspicion and resentment, the Indus Waters Treaty has governed the sharing of a strategic river between the bitter nuclear rivals eager to control and to profit from it. But will India and Pakistan's treaty survive the emerging water crisis?
Halfway between Islamabad and Peshawar, the Indus River dips beneath the smooth six-lane blacktop of Pakistan's National Highway. One day last month, I stood on the shoulder and watched the river ripple beneath the bridge. It was an olive ribbon half as wide as the riverbed, where standing puddles glinted in the afternoon sun. It looked like a creek. Or a dying river.
The Indus-the name comes from the Sanskrit for "river"-is an ecological icon of the subcontinent that bears its name. Like all great rivers, it shaped the history of the ancient civilizations that appeared along its banks. Over the last century, it has grown an exoskeleton: a sprawling system of canals that has expanded into what is now the world's largest irrigation basin fed by a single river. It is a big job that's taken a heavy toll. Today, hundreds of miles downstream, the river, deprived of runoff from receding glaciers and choked by upstream diversions, no longer reaches the sea. And the sea has pushed back, intruding into the mainland, destroying millions of acres of crops and causing the evacuation of whole towns. It is a parable of human demand and its limitations.
Inevitably, the consequences are political. The river's flow has always been a source of tension between India and Pakistan, both of whom rely on it to generate hydroelectric power and to irrigate their agricultural heartland, and it springs from the heart of their most bitter dispute. The headwaters of the Indus and its tributaries flow south and west from Himalayan Kashmir, watering the rich Punjabi farmland on either side of the border, and into Pakistan where they merge and continue together toward the Arabian Sea. On a map, the waters look like a forked bolt of lightning, or a claw that reaches across a volatile divide.
In 1947, the partitioning of India and Pakistan divided the Indus basin, and the river became a potential source of conflict. In the six decades since, the river system has been a cauldron of tensions that have inevitably increased as the world became warmer and more populous. But for nearly as long, a unique accord, the Indus Waters Treaty, has, if not kept the peace, at least restrained the conflict.
"The Indus treaty is one of the chapters that is taught in all universities when you talk about conflict and cooperation," says Kishor Uprety, a senior World Bank lawyer who has spent his career working on development and legal issues about rivers. It's a sign of the treaty's success, he argues, that India and Pakistan have only fought two wars since it was signed. "Without a treaty," he says, "there would have been five or six wars between them."
Today, both countries are plagued by water stress-strained by demand from booming populations and increased competition for the Indus's dwindling resources. Against the river's fickle currents, dams and large reservoirs offer a measure of control, allowing each country to produce desperately needed food and energy: The Indus's waters are a critical outlet in the quest for power to fuel India's 8-percent annual growth rate, and the water lifeline on which Pakistan's agriculture-based economy relies, even amid the turmoil of fighting that has displaced some 2 million people there in recent months. And while the seven major river basins in South Asia, which are home to a quarter of the world's population, are all vulnerable to the unpredictable effects of climate change, the Indus's flow is uniquely dependent-to a startlingly unclear extent-on the seasonal runoff from rapidly shrinking Himalayan glaciers. Taken together, the incalculable impact of these factors raises questions about the future of the Indus, and the stakes for the rivals building new dams to harness its power.
"I believe it will come crashing into conflict sooner rather than later." -John Briscoe, former World Bank senior advisor
"There is insufficient data to say what will happen to the Indus," says David Grey, the World Bank's senior water advisor in South Asia. "But we all have very nasty fears that the flows of the Indus could be severely, severely affected by glacier melt as a consequence of climate change," and reduced by perhaps as much as 50 percent. "Now what does that mean to a population that lives in a desert [where], without the river, there would be no life? I don't know the answer to that question," he says. "But we need to be concerned about that. Deeply, deeply concerned."
Amid tensions over a spate of Indian dams being built upstream in Kashmir, and water crises destabilizing both countries from within, will the region's fragile politics survive the environmental crises?
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