Friday, July 17, 2009

Coming water war in Asia

Stephen Faris in Foreign Policy: Hopelessly overcrowded, crippled by poverty, teeming with Islamist militancy, careless with its nukes—it sometimes seems as if Pakistan can’t get any more terrifying. But forget about the Taliban: The country's troubles today pale compared with what it might face 25 years from now. When it comes to the stability of one of the world's most volatile regions, it's the fate of the Himalayan glaciers that should be keeping us awake at night.

In the mountainous area of Kashmir along and around Pakistan's contested border with India lies what might become the epicenter of the problem. Since the separation of the two countries 62 years ago, the argument over whether Kashmir belongs to Muslim Pakistan or secular India has never ceased. Since 1998, when both countries tested nuclear weapons, the conflict has taken on the added risk of escalating into cataclysm. Another increasingly important factor will soon heighten the tension: Ninety percent of Pakistan's agricultural irrigation depends on rivers that originate in Kashmir. "This water issue between India and Pakistan is the key," Mohammad Yusuf Tarigami, a parliamentarian from Kashmir, told me. "Much more than any other political or religious concern."

Until now, the two sides had been able to relegate the water issue to the back burner. In 1960, India and Pakistan agreed to divide the six tributaries that form the Indus River. India claimed the three eastern branches, which flow through Punjab. The water in the other three, which pass through Jammu and Kashmir, became Pakistan's. The countries set a cap on how much land Kashmir could irrigate and agreed to strict regulations on how and where water could be stored. The resulting Indus Waters Treaty has survived three wars and nearly 50 years. It's often cited as an example of how resource scarcity can lead to cooperation rather than conflict.

But the treaty's success depends on the maintenance of a status quo that will be disrupted as the world warms. Traditionally, Kashmir's waters have been naturally regulated by the glaciers in the Himalayas. Precipitation freezes during the coldest months and then melts during the agricultural season. But if global warming continues at its current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates, the glaciers could be mostly gone from the mountains by 2035. Water that once flowed for the planting will flush away in winter floods….

View of Glacial lake and the Drang Drung Glacier, as seen from Pensi La, Zanskar, Ladakh, India. Shot by Mahuasarkar25, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License.


Anonymous said...

Good post. There's a story about the glacial melt and the threat of an Indo-Pak water war in this month's GOOD Magazine (

Bill said...