Pakistan’s fragile economy and its 195 million people should fear a water war with India more than the one fought with weapons. If that happens, Uri will find place in Pakistan’s history records as, perhaps, the biggest price it paid for state-sponsored terrorism. Reason: it could inflict deeper cuts in Pakistan’s psyche damaging its only major source of water available for irrigation, power generation and even for drinking.
Such an action from Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot be ruled out. An embattled PM, facing severe pressure to avenge Uri, is reportedly weighing alternative options to military strike, including scrapping the 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT). Given that Modi wouldn’t want risk his own hard-won image of a matured diplomat internationally choosing a full-fledged war, strategic options such as re-looking at IWT seem possible.
Why should Pakistan fear about IWT? Three rivers under the IWT pact in the Nehruvian era, whose rights went to Pakistan— Indus, Chenab and Jhelum — are the life energy for the Indus region, which, according to various estimates, supports 90 per cent of the Pakistan’s agriculture. It is the backbone of Pakistan’s agricultural economy, which constitutes 19.8 percent of that country’s GDP and is the largest employer (42.3 percent of the country’s total labour force), according to latest data from the Pakistan government.
According to 2015-16 Pakistan economic survey, “agriculture sector is a vital component of Pakistan’s economy as it provides the raw materials to down the line industries and helps in poverty alleviation impact.” In the last year, the farm sector contracted by -0.19 percent mainly due to decrease in production of cotton, rice and maize, the survey says. In other words closing the water tap, even partially, could result in famine and agrarian economic crisis for Pakistan that can lead to internal unrest. Pakistan government won’t be needing Indian military then to fight with.
Already, the textile sector—one of the largest employers in Pakistan is facing one of the gravest crises in its history. According to a 21 September, Bloomberg report, which quoted Saleem Saleh, acting secretary general of All Pakistan Textile Mills Association, about 100 member factories in Pakistan have shut down and at least 500,000 people have lost jobs in the past two years alone, on account of power scarcity and buyers shifting to other markets.
Of course, this is also due to Pakistan’s infamous image of being a terror prone area, which makes foreigners scared to land in Karachi, which isn’t the case with other markets such as India, as the reports says. But, the point to note here is that here again, the Indus region’s role in contributing to Pakistan’s Hydro-electric power projects is crucial.
Pakistan’s agricultural output, as that country’s economic survey points out, is closely linked with the availability of irrigation water (logically from Indus region). The situation is already bad. This is what the survey says:
During 2015-16, the availability of water for Kharif 2015 stood at 65.5 million acre feet (MAF) showing a decrease of 5.5 percent over Kharif 2014 and 2.4 percent less than the normal supplies of 67.1 MAF. During Rabi season 2015-16, the water availability remained at 32.9 MAF, which is 0.6 percent less than Rabi 2014-15 and 9.6 percent less than the normal availability of 36.4 MAF.
Presently, a third of Pakistan’s population is already reeling under severe poverty. According to a report in Pakistan daily, Dawn, which quoted the government data, 60 million Pakistanis are living under the poverty line. The report, which quoted a 2013-14 survey, said the number of poor households in the crisis-ridden country is at 6.8-7.6 million.
An economy in distress
The fact is that the Pakistan economy is in perils. A war, of any sort, could reduce that country to a pile of debris and yet another symbol of poverty and anarchy to the world. The ability of Nawaz Sharif government to face an economic emergency is doubtful. It is already is fighting a crisis with near-empty coffers. According to 15 February Bloomberg report, Pakistan is fighting an external payment crisis. “About 40 percent of Pakistan’s outstanding debt — both local and foreign — is due to mature in 2016, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s roughly $45 billion, of which about 4.3 trillion rupees ($41 billion) is in local currency,” the report said, adding already 77 per cent of Pakistan’s budget is for debt servicing. Sharif took a $6.6 billion International Monetary Fund loan in 2013, which pushed up Pakistan’s external debt by 79 per cent. This debt is coming up for repayment by end of this year.
For Pakistan’s fragile economy, Modi’s water warfare will be tough to deal with even though it might still avoid a full-fledged war flashing its nuclear warheads. Having said this, it wouldn’t be easy for India to tinker with the IWT since it will raise questions on the fate of other international water treaties, mainly with China. It will be hard call for Modi to take, but not an impossible one if the PM convinces the world that his action is a necessary, unavoidable outcome of Pakistan’s continuing hostility on the Indian soil. Modi’s action on IWT will be justified then. But, that’ll push the country, born out of contempt in 1947, to the corner.
One can only guess the ultimate consequences then.