Women and children walk kilometers each day in search for water in a crowded, downtrodden district of Pakistan’s financial capital, Karachi — a scene repeated in cities throughout the country.
Across the border in India, government research indicates that about three-quarters of people do not have drinking water at home and 70 percent of the water is contaminated.
As rivers and taps run dry, water has the potential to become a major flashpoint between archrivals India and Pakistan. Both have repeatedly accused each other of violating the World Bank-brokered 1960s Indus Waters Treaty that ensures shared management of the six rivers crossing between the two neighbors, which have fought three major wars in the past 71 years.
The latest dispute is over hydroelectric projects India is building along the Chenab River that Pakistan says violate the treaty and will afect its water supply.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Jan. 27 sent inspectors to visit the site.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who faces elections in the next few months — has vowed to proceed with construction.
It remains unclear how the impasse will be resolved.
“Tensions over water will undoubtedly intensify and put the Indus Waters Treaty — which to this point has helped ensure that they have never fought a war over water — to its greatest test,” Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said by e-mail.
“The prospect of two nuclear-armed rivals becoming enmeshed in increasing tensions over a critical resource like water is unsettling and poses highly troubling implications for security in South Asia and the world on the whole,” Kugelman said.
For now, relations between India and Pakistan appear to be stable and even looking more positive. Khan’s six-month-old Pakistani government has sought to mend ties with India and has said the country’s powerful military supports those efforts — a notion greeted with skepticism in New Delhi.
Still, all sides see the long-term risks of a conflict over water: Khan himself is attempting to raise US$17 billion via the world’s largest crowdfund for the construction of two large dams, one of which would be built in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
In a region that is home to about one-quarter of the world’s population, failure to manage water shortages could be catastrophic.
“Any future war that happens will be on these issues,” Major General Asif Ghafoor, Pakistan’s military spokesman, told reporters last year, referring to water issues. “We need to give it a lot of attention.”
The most serious threat to the water agreement of late followed a terrorist attack on an Indian army camp in September 2016, when Modi stated that “blood and water and cannot flow together” and vowed to review the treaty.
If Modi is re-elected “there’s a possibility that water may become a tool to try bring Pakistan to heel,” said Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict research and director of research at the School of International Water Cooperation at Uppsala University in Sweden.
“He may not do something immediately after resuming power, but if relations with Pakistan deteriorate, by 2020-21, it’s a possibility,” Swain said.
Although Pakistan’s new political leaders are aware the two dams being built by India are only one part its problem, “a water conflict with India can be a good way to hide their own mismanagement.”