The science on climate change is clear – the world is warming at dangerous levels. Optimists and alarmists alike agree that it poses an existential threat to the planet with potentially catastrophic effects for the future of civilisation. One of the impacts of climate change is expected to be an increase in armed conflict with States fighting over remaining natural resources. While researchers differ on the direct nature of the link between armed conflict and climate change, many agree that it will operate as a threat multiplier; i.e. that the climate changing will ‘load the dice’ and make future conflicts more likely. Much of the discussion on this effect focuses on conflict breaking out over water as a particularly vital resource with its scarcity being at the root of future insecurity. In addressing this threat, the international legal framework will have to yield key principles, such as sovereignty and territorial integrity, to the reality of climate change. The international order as we know it will also change.
Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change and the third most water stressed. By 2025, it is anticipated that water demand will outstrip supply by 35 percent. It is also in an extremely vulnerable position in relation to this resource as a lower riparian State to India. The rise of Hindutva nationalism in its hydrological neighbour does not bode well. India has, since electing the BJP into power, repeatedly threatened to cut off all water to Pakistan and give it to Jammu and Kashmir instead. In so doing, it is weaponising Pakistan’s water needs and driving a wedge between the country and Kashmiris. After the Uri attack in 2016, Indian Prime Minister Modi said that “Blood and Water cannot flow simultaneously.” The only legal instrument regulating water-relations between India and Pakistan, however, remains the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. While the two countries have resolved issues under the agreement through hydrodiplomacy and the treaty’s dispute resolution process in the past, there are well-founded fears that India may go beyond rhetoric and resort to unilateral acts violating the water-sharing pact. The risk of India undertaking this sort of hydrohegemony for Pakistan is acute and a source of existential anxiety. Pakistan only has enough water storage to last 30 days if India were to shut off its water. Meanwhile, it has countered Indian rhetoric by stating that it will consider any diversion of water to be an act of war.
This paper explores and assesses all of these issues. It starts with a discussion of the effects of climate change, focusing on its impact on freshwater systems and Pakistan specifically. It then considers the link between climate change and armed conflict, particularly ‘water wars’, concluding that it acts as a threat multiplier making conflict more likely. The article goes on to analyse international legal frameworks and key principles applicable on States that may counter the effects of climate-change fuelled conflicts. Part Five of this paper then looks at Pakistan-India water relations as a case study. It begins with a historical perspective with regards to the adoption of the Indus Waters Treaty, key aspects of the treaty, the dispute resolution process, and its weaknesses. The international legal framework is then applied to Pakistan and India’s water relations and possible recourse for Pakistan in the event that India does take unilateral steps in breach of the treaty are analysed. The paper concludes by advocating that Pakistan adopt a forward-looking approach in responding to any possible actions by India. It does this in the hope that we can avoid a water-aggravated war; the lives of the 300 million people in both countries relying on the Indus for sustenance depend on it.