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Against The Flow: Why Sindh Complains About Indus Water Distribution

The Indus River is one of the longest rivers in the world, with a length of some 2,000 miles (3,200 km). Considering its vital importance, the Indus River has always been a source of numerous historical disputes.

One such conflict exists between the lands of Punjab and Sindh. They both share an acrimonious history over the Indus River dating back some 120 years now. In fact, it was in 1901 that the water conflict between the two provinces first came to be known.

Back then, Punjab’s consumption was restricted to the extent that without the consent of Sindh, it was not allowed to take a single drop of water. These orders were passed by the then Indian Irrigation Commission.

The next dispute between the two provinces flared up in the year 1919 when Punjab was not allowed to build any kind of irrigation project until and unless Sindh’s demands were fulfilled. Moreover, a report of the then government of British India had also demanded Sukkur barrage to be commissioned before the commencement of any future project in Punjab.

Similarly, the request of Punjab regarding Thal canal from Indus was fiercely rejected by the Viceroy of India, Lord Reading in 1925. The reason behind this rejection was the deprivation of rights and unfulfilment of the demands of Sindh.

However, the Anderson Commission did grant permission and in the year 1937, Punjab was permitted to pull back 775 cusecs of water on a trial premise from the Indus for the Thal canal. But in 1939, a formal complaint was lodged by Sindh under the Government of India Act of 1935. Eventually, after two years, the injustice meted out to Sindh was recognised by the Rao Commission and orders were passed for the construction of two new barrages in Sindh on the Indus side. Financial aid of Rs 20 million was to be paid by Punjab to somewhat compensate for its unjust behaviour towards Sindh.

Consequently, a committee was formed under the order of Rao Commission. The committee consisted of technical experts from both provinces and they mutually came to an agreement in 1945, formally known as the “Sindh Punjab agreement”.

This resolved the issue between the two provinces as nothing upstream could be built on Indus without the permission of Sindh. In fact, according to that agreement, Sindh had supremacy over the Indus River basin.

This agreement was still in force even after the 1947 Partition and the formation of India and Pakistan. But thirteen years after the Partition, a new water accord, namely the Indus Water Treaty, was signed between two arch-rivals Pakistan and India in 1960. The treaty was mediated by the World Bank. The construction of two mega-dams, Mangla and Tarbela, was allowed and the provisions for the extension of the canal network, diverting water from the Indus to the eastern side of the country, were included.

Since then, the construction of (new) dams on the Indus river has always been a bone of contention: not only between India and Pakistan but among different federating units of Pakistan. The provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, being the lower riparian regions, have always contested the construction of new large dams like Kalabagh Dam, Diamer-Bhasha Dam and Dasu Dam.

Kalabagh Dam is a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Indus River at Kalabagh in the Mianwali District, Punjab, Pakistan, which has been intensely debated along ethnic and regional lines for over 40 years, while Diamer-Bhasha Dam is a concreted-filled gravity dam, in the preliminary stages of construction, on the River Indus between Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Diamer district in Gilgit Baltistan, Pakistan administered Kashmir, whereas the Dasu Dam is a large hydroelectric gravity dam currently under construction on the Indus River near Dasu in Kohistan District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan.

It was under these circumstances that a new arrangement for water sharing among provinces had become inevitable to accommodate those massive structural changes that arose in the wake of the Indus Water Treaty of 1960,

Thus, in 1991 another significant agreement took place when a water apportionment accord was signed among four provinces, agreeing to the scheme of distribution of water among the provinces.

So in order to regulate the judicious distribution of Indus water among all the provinces, the ‘Water Apportionment Accord’ (WAA) was signed amongst the Provinces on the 16th of March 1991 and approved by the Council of Common Interests (CCI) on 21.03.1991. Under Clause 13 of the WAA 91, the need to establish an Indus River System Authority was recognized and accepted for the implementation of the Accord. The Authority would have its HQs at Lahore (later shifted to Islamabad) and having representation from all the Provinces. IRSA was established,vide Act No. XXII of 1992 passed by the Parliament and approved by the President of Pakistan on the 6th of December 1992, for regulating and monitoring the distribution of water sources of the Indus river system in accordance with the accord amongst the provinces and to provide matters connected therewith and ancillary thereto.

According to various research studies, water availability per person in Pakistan has declined from 5,260 m3 in 1951 to around 1,000 m3 in 2016, and is highly likely to further drop down to about 860 m3 by 2025, resulting in Pakistan’s classification going from a ‘water stressed’ to a ‘water scarce’ country.

In order to address the water issues of the country, the National Water Policy was approved on April 24, 2018. It was years in the making. Water experts regard it as a welcome move but they have pointed out some shortcomings that need to be addressed.

In any case, the National Water Policy 2018 had duly recognised the internationally accepted right of the lower riparian on water i.e. “The rights on sharing of water including the rights of lower riparian shall be scrupulously respected and followed in accordance with 1991 WAA.”

Sindh and Punjab have long been at odds over water from the Indus River, with the former regularly accusing the latter of not releasing its due share. This is the reason that in 2018, in-spite of hype and support by the rest of the country over the construction of Bhasha dam, Sindh raised concerns and questions that it might reduce flows downstream from Kotri – which, in any case, over the last decade, have already significantly reduced.

Technically speaking, the Kalabagh dam would be a great opportunity for Pakistan in terms of water storage. But who would address the apprehensions of Sindh regarding the construction of a Right Bank Canal that would carry water to Dera Ismail Khan?

Sindh fears that if such a canal is constructed for irrigation purposes, it would then be a repetition of history: as was done in 1985 when the CJ Link Canal was opened on the directive of the then prime minister Muhammad Khan Junejo under the pressure of then Punjab chief minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif.

The Opening of CJ Link Canal always remained a bone of contention between Sindh and Punjab, as the former believes that the flowing of water into the CJ Canal is unlawful and a violation of the 1991 water accord.

The CJ Link Canal offtakes from Chashma Barrage on its left bank and conveys water to the Jehlum to meet the requirement of the canals off-taking at Trimmu Headworks on the Jehlum near Jhang.

The Tarbela dam was to store surplus floodwater, and Chashma-Jehlum and Taunsa-Panjnand link canals were to withdraw this surplus water for upper and lower south Punjab, respectively, without in anyway interfering with the normal flow of the Indus. Although these two canals were designed as flood-canals and were meant only to be used in case of floods, clearly that did not happen. And are being continuously operated since then!

If new dams are to be built on Indus river, then it should not be done at the cost of the federation. A national consensus is a must for resolving such inter-provincial water conflicts. Certain measures need to be taken to settle this issue. The available resources need to be utilised reasonably by the Federal and Provincial governments. While doing this, the flow of the Indus River System (IRS) water shouldn’t be averted and distressed.

Sindh has already faced serious water issues. The construction of new storage facilities or dams would further cause devastation. Therefore, any diversions or intervention in the smooth flow of water ought not to be allowed until and unless the consensus of all federating units, particularly the lower riparian, is achieved.


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