Provision vs Management – the Eternal choice of the Indus Waters

(A version of this piece first appeared in Firstpost on Apr 09, 2019)

Last time we saw how the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) defanged the dam as a geopolitical source of advantage. But the more relevant question to ask is – will securing the Indus secure India’s water future?

To answer that question, we need to understand what use the water is put to. The largest use of water on both sides of the border is agriculture.

From IWT to now: Addicted to Water-Hungry crops in a rain-starved region

Since Punjab supplies food for the rest of India, it’s useful to consider the population growth of India as a driver for Punjab’s agricultural growth.

From the signing of the Indus Water Treaty to now, India’s population has tripled, and grown more wealthy, meaning more people needed more food. How did India meet the challenge?

At the time when the IWT was signed, India was plagued by drought, and desperately needed a cheap source of food. India also wanted to conserve her forex for capital imports, so it was critical that she could pay for her food imports in rupees. The US PL480 programme seemed made to order – supplying wheat paid for in rupee terms. Between 1954 and 1965, more than $2 billion worth of American wheat (primarily) and other agricultural commodities were shipped to India, which the nascent nation paid for in its local currency. The scheme pleased both India and the US: American farmers found a market for their surplus wheat, India saved her foreign exchange for infrastructure, and India’s urban citizens got their reasonably priced atta from fair price shops. Life was good.

This sanguine state of affairs changed in the mid-1960s, when, stung by the temerity of India to criticize US action in Vietnam and wage war on an important ally, Pakistan, the US tightened the noose on its wheat shipments. India, after two back-to-back droughts in the mid-’60s had to beg for wheat and literally lived ‘ship to mouth’. This set the stage (and the priority given) for the Green Revolution, promising as it did, the Holy Grail of self-sufficiency in food.

But while the Green Revolution ensured that yields skyrocketed and that India became food-import-independent, it also upended the old agricultural equilibrium. With its emphasis on intensive irrigation, efficient crop varieties and technology, the Green Revolution got farmers in Punjab to use the most productive methods, with good quality inputs. India’s democratic exigencies accelerated the change by providing free electricity to drive agricultural borewells, generous support prices for paddy and importantly in Punjab, top-class procurement of the crop from its farmers. This last point is important. Punjab outperforms many other states in crop procurement from farmers and in making sure most of its farmers get the MSP rate for their paddy crop. This efficiency makes farmers paddy-growing addicts.

As a result, Punjab saw the area under rice shoot up from under 50,000 Ha in 1973–74 to 2.8 million Ha in 2011–2012. Moreover, Punjab’s extensive irrigation infrastructure is driven primarily by ground water. New farming practises combined with free electricity explains the shocking depletion of the water table, with over 80 per cent of Punjab’s groundwater blocks being overexploited. ‘Punjab is not meant to grow paddy. Because of free electricity, we grow paddy,’ says a farmer I spoke to who manages 90 acres in Punjab. ‘It’s ironic. We don’t eat rice here, and yet we export our water when we grow rice and sell it out of the state.’

In downstream Pakistan, life is not much better – it’s curiously similar, in fact. A recent World Bank report says,

While irrigation dominates water use in the country, the four major crops (rice, wheat, sugarcane and cotton) that use 80 percent of water contribute only 5 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Poor water management is conservatively estimated to cost 4 percent of GDP or around $12 billion per year.”

Both countries are caught in growing the ‘wrong’ crops in a water-inefficient way as a result of both a colonial past and the democratic realities of the present. Both countries are in crying need for water management, which their current political realities make it hard to do. Indeed, Water management is not a successful electoral gambit either – so let us not hold our breath on this one, just yet. Meanwhile their colonized minds are hung up on water provision and division, especially on and of the Indus.

Since the Indus water play a central role, let us ask a different question: Are the Indus waters secure?

The Future – Climate Change and Changing Geopolitics


First, demand will continue to increase. Quite apart from rising populations and increasing wealth, climate change is expected to increase water requirements by 5-15% by 2047 in Pakistan. It’s fair to say, the number will be similar in India. Fights are breaking out – not between countries, but within each country: Sind vs Punjab (Punjab dwarfs Sind in water withdrawals) contrasted with Haryana vs Delhi.

Somewhere, someone is crooking an ironical smile.

Second, we have a new participant in this game.

Let’s not forget that China is beginning to get into the Indus game: first by building a dam in its own territory, and then by financing a set of dams in Pakistan. Any future negotiation in the Indus will have, tacitly or overtly, a Chinese cast.

Third, the waters themselves will become more volatile. The Indus waters look to become far more uncertain as the climate warms. There are several studies that show rising temperatures will melt glaciers faster. This is important because the glacier melt runoff contributes a significant proportion of the river flow. But to understand the overall state of river flow, we need to consider the impact of snowfall in catchment areas as well. Putting all this together, studies appear to suggest that annual runoff may increase in the short term, but likely decrease in the longer term. Something to keep in mind, when we construct dams in that area. It also appears likely that the volatility between and within years is likely to increase.

Floods and droughts? Build more dams, some might suggest. As we rush to build yet more dams in the name of flood control, it maybe prudent to consider whether they are up to a job in a climate that is changing all too rapidly?

Set our own house(s) in order: Management vs Provision

Fairly soon, we will be confronted with a choice regarding our water future. It’s easy to say that ‘turn off the tap’ or ‘build a wall’. But the soundest way of securing our water future is managing our water present. Water pricing is beginning to take tentative steps forward in India. And communities which have run out of both ground and municipal water are discovering the glories of sewage. So focussed have we been on the seasonal Indus waters, that we tend to forget that both countries have ample access to a secure, non-seasonal, plentiful, (relatively) untapped source of water – sewage. The total quantity of sewage produced in the Punjab may not satisfy its thirsty farms, but it can help a little.

What are Punjab’s options to optimize water use? Stop procurement of paddy. Not possible. Not even conceivable. But perhaps we should start thinking about how to ‘sour the milk’. Replacing food subsidy by a universal basic income is one possibility. Price power for agricultural pump sets. Not possible. Again, replacing the power subsidy with a universal basic income is a possibility. Treat sewage to supply agriculture. Hmmm. This is one intervention that maybe politically (and economically) feasible, especially if done in a decentralized fashion. If each country strengthens its own water hands, the need to squabble over a tap on an uncertain river comes down. Almost two centuries ago, the British prioritized provision of water in the Punjab via the canals over local management. Today, we face a similar choice: focus on provision and face an uncertain future or focus on management and secure that future. Ironically, since both countries are democracies, it is up to the people to elect political parties based on their water management policies. Today, we don’t.

But will we tomorrow?

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