Water Wars and The Prisoner’s Dilemma


Rivers of PakistanWater is a basic building block of life. Without water, we cannot live. For this reason, water security is an existential issue for any country, and Pakistan is no different. In fact, issues of water management and water rights between Pakistan and India have been ongoing for decades. With the release of a new report by the US government, ‘Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia’s Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan’, the issue is again making headlines.

What is disappointing is that, rather than working towards a viable solution through improved infrastructure and regulations, we are once again a parade of paranoid conspiracy theories. According to The Nation, President Pakistan Economy Watch Dr Murtaza Mughal said on Sunday,

The Indus Waters Treaty has failed to settle water disputes between Pakistan and India therefore, it needs to be revisited and made to order, he said. Otherwise, he warned, nothing will forestall a war between two countries. It’s in the interest of US and the international community to take measures to avert a possible water war. He said that United Nations was also supporting Indian conspiracies by pumping huge funds in such controversial projects. He lamented that resolution of such important issue has been left at the mercy of few bureaucrats as politicians remain busy in their favourite hobby of mudslinging.

Leaving aside the obvious irony of accusing politicians of mudslinging while doing the same thing, it is pathetic that the only response Dr Mughal can think of is to repeat anti-Indian conspiracies. This is the same excuse that he gives for both textile industry and also Afghan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement. With an entire think tank at his disposal, you would expect him to come up with an original thought every once in a while. What is worse, though, is how Dr Mughal uses the threat of war like a common extortionist by suggesting that if the US and the international community do not intervene, we will attack India.

Pakistan Observer published an article by Dr Raja Muhammad Khan that also repeats anti-Indian conspiracies, then, quite humourously, requests the US to intervene and negotiate for Pakistan’s interests.

Pakistan appreciates a very timely and realistic assessment of the US Senate Committee report on the likely future wars in South Asia over the water resources. However, Pakistan would appreciate any US role for bringing India to a negotiating table for the result oriented talks between both countries over all the disputes, water being one of them.

This is the same Dr Khan who in December accused the US of having only nefarious intentions towards Pakistan!

As far as Pakistani interests are concerned, U.S has never supported those. It never desired that Pakistan to attain economic self-sufficiency. Similarly, it has not been a reliable military partner. It provided military hardware to Pakistani Armed Forces once U.S required for its own assistance and thereafter stopped their supply and spare parts too. For years, U.S has been after the nuclear programme of Pakistan.

Why would the US honour the request of a man who spits in their face? Actually, this is quite typical of the conspiracy brigades. They will accuse the Americans of being satan himself when it suits them, then beg them for help when it suits them otherwise. For all their talk of ‘honour’, they seem to have none at all.

But let us set aside the blatant hypocrisy and examine the underlying claim of all of these articles – that India has hegemonic designs on Pakistan and is using access to water as a weapon. Each of the commentators refers to the same US report, but it is not clear that any of them actually read it. Consider the following passage from the report:

The drive to meet energy demand through hydropower development is also occurring in India and Pakistan, two countries that lack sufficient access to energy. This is particularly true with respect to India, which faces a rapidly expanding population, growing economy, and soaring energy needs. To meet growing demand and cope with increasing electricity shortages, the government has developed plans to expand power generation through the construction of multipurpose dams. India has 33 projects at various stages of completion on the rivers that affect this region.

The number of dams under construction and their management is a source of significant bilateral tension. Currently, the most controversial dam project is the proposed 330-megawatt dam on the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Indus. While studies show that no single dam along the waters controlled by the Indus Waters Treaty will affect Pakistan’s access to water, the cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season. In the difficult 60-plus year bilateral relationship, water has not yet been used in this way. However, staff met with some experts that argue the treaty’s long-term stability is threatened by a lack of trust between these two countries. Any perceived reduc- tion in water flows magnifies this distrust, whether caused by India’s activities in the Indus Basin or climate change.

As the report makes very clear, the problem is that India is acting in its own interests without considering the impact on Pakistan, not some hegemonic conspiracy against Pakistan. Obviously this does not excuse their actions, but it means that the solution is not to be found in threats, but in dialogue. The report even emphasises that the real obstacle is a lack of trust between our two nations.

This situation can be compared to what is known as The Prisoner’s Dilemma.

Two suspects are arrested by the police. The police have insufficient evidence for a conviction, and, having separated the prisoners, visit each of them to offer the same deal. If one testifies for the prosecution against the other (defects) and the other remains silent (cooperates), the defector goes free and the silent accomplice receives the full 10-year sentence. If both remain silent, both prisoners are sentenced to only six months in jail for a minor charge. If each betrays the other, each receives a five-year sentence. Each prisoner must choose to betray the other or to remain silent. Each one is assured that the other would not know about the betrayal before the end of the investigation. How should the prisoners act?

Obviously, the best solution for both prisoners is to cooperate. However, if the level of trust is low between the two, both will defect and they will each be worse off. In the same way, Pakistan and India must cooperate to minimize the impact of what is an increasingly limited supply of fresh water in the region. If either country puts their own interests above the interests of the region, both countries will lose.

The US Senate report also references a 2009 report of the Pacific Institute that “indicates that local and subnational conflicts are increasing in severity and intensity relative to international conflicts.” Since the convergence of Pakistan’s rivers occurs in Punjab and then flows down through Sindh, it seems that the threat of water scarcity can easily become one of provincial competition over the resource as well. This is also something that must be avoided at all costs, and the only way to do so is to develop a regional water policy that ensures effective managements and efficient distribution to all areas.

Rather than making threats against Indian conspiracies, our best and brightest minds should be working to develop improved water management techniques that ensure a diminishing resource can be used more effectively and efficiently, and distributed more equitably to all regions of the country. It is truly shocking that so many articles are referencing this US government report on water scarcity without even mentioning the pages of policy recommendations that could help solve this looming problem. Rather it seems too many of our so-called ‘analysts’ are only interested in taking a swipe at India. Using the word ‘hegemony’ does not excuse intellectual laziness.

While our conspiracy corps wastes time and money, our diplomatic corps should be engaging in discussions with their counterparts in India that build consensus around solutions that meet the growing needs of our region as a whole. According to the findings of the report, “transboundary waters by their very definition require international cooperation to avoid conflict”. The only way forward is through cooperation, not competition. Sensational conspiracy theories and threats of war will only exacerbate current problems, ultimately making us less secure.


Author: Mahmood Adeel


  1. In Pakistan PhD,Experts in every field are dime a dozen.It
    is not their fault they come up with conspiracy theories
    since they cannot present a sane solution.But how can they
    come up with a viable solution? The degree they hold is far from the subject or the appointment they hold. Thus to
    raise a cry of wolf is safest way avoiding public inquiry.
    Incidently do you have the viable solution to Indus river
    water,improve the infra-structure of controlling floods and conserving water for rainy days? otherwise stop picking your nose at people who are not contesting against
    your seat.Present your solution to the government and the

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