Pakistan and Afghanistan have hardly ever enjoyed cordial relations and yet once again they have been pitched against each other. Amid the ongoing and infrastructural developments on both sides of the border, both countries are concerned about water disputes that may arise in future. The apprehensions are real given that in the current scenario both countries are using water from common rivers without any water agreement or treaty between them.
The case of Kabul River is the most contentious. Afghanistan asserts it has the right to use maximum water from the Kabul River out of the total flow of 21,000 million cubic metres. Pakistan, on the other hand, claims its right on this water because Kunar River, the biggest tributary of Kabul River contributing 15,000 cubic metres to it, originates from within its territory.
The Kabul River originates from the Hindukush mountains in Afghanistan and falls into the Indus River near Attock in Pakistan, after passing though Kabul and Jalalabad, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on this side of the border. The Kunar River originating from glaciers in the north of Chitral merges into Kabul River just to the east of the city of Jalalabad in Afghanistan. From here these combined rivers flow eastwards into Pakistan. This means both the countries are upper riparians and lower riparians at the same time.
Right now the situation as per reports is that Afghanistan is working on 12 dams on Kabul River with the support of India. Similarly, Pakistan is also pursuing its water storage and hydroelectric projects on Kabul River and its tributaries, although their number is far smaller than Afghanistan’s.
In this context, it is quite likely that with increase in water storage capacity and development of new hydropower projects in Afghanistan, the flow of water to Pakistan may decrease and affect large areas irrigated by Kabul River.
Several proposals have been discussed in the past to broker a treaty between them but these could not be materialised. Once again international bodies are being urged to intervene and help avert future disputes.
However, there are different perspectives related to the issue and The News on Sunday sought the opinion of various experts.
Asadullah Meelad, Transboundary Water Conflict Management Specialist, Ministry of Energy & Water, Afghanistan, says there is no doubt that Afghanistan is the least developed country in the region, its GDP per capita is the lowest, its water sector has remained undeveloped, and agriculture has not expanded or modernised. “We have the lowest access to electricity as well. Therefore, it is Afghanistan’s sovereign right to develop as all other states do,” says Meelad.
He asserts that building dams and reservoirs is a legitimate interest since they want to generate electricity, protect their ecosystems and ensure sustainable water flow for their agricultural lands. However, he says, “the water utilisation by Afghanistan is not absolute to exclude its upstream or downstream riparians. We have been using the water of transboundary rivers in an equitable and reasonable way and will not inflict significant harm to our riparians.”
He says Afghanistan respects the right of riparians to use water in equitable and reasonable way. Moreover, he thinks, Pakistan may or may not have the same view on the transboundary water issue. The historical rivalry and tensions between the two countries have politicised the water issue, which is not in the interest of either state, he adds.
Syed Jamait Ali Shah, former Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters, Ministry of Water & Power, believes the success of hydro diplomacy between the two countries depends on the health of their mutual relations. At the moment, he says, there is a lack of trust since India is helping Afghanistan strategically, financially and technically.
Tracing the history of this issue, he says that since 2001 Pakistan is trying to get data and information about existing and future projects on Kabul River and other common rivers, but without success. He recalls former Afghan President Hamid Karzai had committed to providing this data and information to increase cooperation between the two co-riparian countries. But Karzai did not fulfil his commitment due to pressures by the Northern Alliance and perhaps Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Water and Energy etc.
Shah fears escalation of tensions over water issues in the near future when Afghanistan would be utilising more water from common rivers. He claims that since there is no agreement over Kabul River, Pakistan is not denying due share to Afghanistan. “All Pakistan wants to ensure through an agreement is that Afghanistan may use water for its ongoing/future projects without affecting the downstream water usage in Pakistan.” He suggests the proposed agreement must include the provisions of climate change adaptation, pollution control and environmental protection since these will affect the volume and quality of water sources.
Engineer Suleman Khan, Chairman Indus Water Council, has his own concerns to share. He thinks Pakistan’s position can become weak because the country does not make best use of the water resources available to it. “It is a pity that on average 25 MAF to 30 MAF water goes unutilised into the sea every year and there is no way to store it. Had there been Kalabagh Dam this issue would not have existed.” Khan points out Pakistan’s co-riparians may reject its demand for more water on the grounds that it is already wasting its waters. So, in order to avoid this situation Pakistan will have to find ways to fully utilise its water resources.
In Meelad’s opinion, a workable solution is to jointly develop some trust-building mechanisms. If the two states can initiate a joint study of the Kabul Basin or work on the issue of floods or at least launch a joint research on water issues, it will create the basic elements of trust between the officials of the two states. He justifies the building of infrastructure in Afghanistan which he says is inadequate at the moment. “It’s desperately needed for water to be stored and distributed appropriately.”
Against this backdrop, Syed Jamait Shah says that Pakistan is in a process of estimating total flow of all common rivers flowing in to KP or Balochistan through the installation of additional gauges and discharge instruments at various locations. He allays the fears of an immediate conflict saying “Afghanistan is in an initial development stage”.
He says currently Afghanistan is using 1 MAF of water from River Kabul which is also its historical use. “Afghanistan will take 20-25 years in making significant progress regarding dams and infrastructure development on Kabul River, and by that time there are chances that we will have good terms with our neighbour,” he adds. One the other hand, he says, there are also chances that 20-25 years from now, a shortage of water during lean periods may emerge. Studies shall be conducted in time to tackle such situations successfully, he suggests.
However, for any major support to Afghanistan by the Asian Development Bank or the World Bank, they will have to take into consideration Pakistan’s concerns since the Kabul River is a common river and Pakistan is upper as well as lower riparian on it.
Dr Medha Bisht, an Assistant Professor at South Asian University in New Delhi, India, believes dam building projects have never worked on transboundary rivers because there is an element of trust deficit between the lower and upper riparians. “Structures like dams only perpetuate fears and distrust.”
“For Afghanistan as an upper riparian, damming rivers appears to be the most feasible option given its own agricultural demands and its potential demographic rise in coming years,” she says, adding Pakistan’s fears are a result the Indian decision to help Afghanistan build 12 dams on Kabul river. She says in the absence of any agreement between the two countries, Pakistan has been using waters with no compensation being paid to Afghanistan, which at the time lack resources and infrastructure to store water for its use.
On the argument of having a treaty on the pattern of the Indus Water Treaty between Pakistan and India, she says it was a product of its times implying that the existing situation between Pakistan and Afghanistan is different. “At that time, two post-colonial states who had just become independent could arrive at an agreement due to the interventions of the World Bank and its financial contributions,” she concludes.