News & Current Affairs

Cooperating over water, for the people of the Indus and Jordan River basins

By: Amy Grossbard
December 30, 2012

Last month, FoEME had the pleasure to host Ahmad Rafay Alam, a Pakistani lawyer and environmental activist, advocate of the High Court and Vice President of the Pakistan Environmental Law Association. Rafay and his wife Aysha visited various GWN communities together with the Kosovar delegation, and on December 2nd, he gave a well-received lecture on the Indus Water Treaty and water cooperation at Tel Aviv University in association with FoEME, The Porter School of Environmental Studies and TAU’s Legal Education Clinic, Faculty of Law.

Ahmad Rafay Alam - environmental lawyer and activist
Ahmad Rafay Alam – environmental lawyer and activist


A decade of Good Water Neighbors (GWN) cross-border initiatives have proven how much there is to gain and learn from sharing experiences and debating with people from different communities and local contexts. Cooperation processes are at the core of FoEME’s work: advancing local joint action through the 28 partnering GWN communities, political regional cooperation, and international exchanges as well. The Protecting Ground Water project is in cooperation with Spain, the Jordan River Rehabilitation initiative is enriched by other basin experiences worldwide and partners in Sweden and Germany, and recently the GWN team has conducted fruitful exchanges with Kosovo, Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. Contexts are different, yet there are many common environmental and water challenges – and good experiences developed here and there have the potential to enrich our programming. Therefore when we have the opportunity to bring in experts, activists that can speak about their own country with authority, we do not hesitate. Ahmad Rafay Alam, a leading Pakistani lawyer, is just that; and his presentation of the Indo-Pakistani water issues led to a fruitful discussion on water cooperation.

The Indus River and its tributaries originate in one of the highest area of our planet, in the glacial heights of western Himalaya. Six major waterways flow down through India and Pakistan (and to a lesser extent, China and Afghanistan), converge in Pakistan into the Indus River, flowing south into the Arabian Sea. In arid Pakistan, the Indus is a major source of water that lies at the source of the country’s development. Agriculture, which heavily relies on irrigation, accounts for nearly half of the Pakistani workforce and 24% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In India, though less crucial on a global scale, the Indus basin flows are also precious for local economy; and both countries use the River’s powerful flows to generate hydroelectricity.

Map of the Indus Basin (source-US senate report)
Map of the Indus Basin (source: US senate report)

In 1960, thirteen years after Pakistan was created along artificial borders that did not take into consideration water flows, India and Pakistan negotiated a partition of water through the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) orchestrated by the World Bank. Instead of water volumes, the two countries divided rivers of the basin: eastern ones for India, western streams for Pakistan. The IWT, set up at a time when international water law was in its infancy, successfully passed the test of time and political dissensions. Strict and highly technical mechanisms provide the framework for the settlement of differences and disputes: if the two nations disagree on water uses, a neutral expert and a court of arbitration study the case to rend a final and binding judgment. So far, their decisions always have been accepted by both parties.

Nowadays, the Indus basin faces new challenges. Negotiated in times of water abundance, the IWT was not designed to manage scarce water resources, saying little about ecology or environmental flow standards. Climate change affects the river’s glacier sources, resulting in an increasing risk of flood events due to their rapid melting, while overall water resources in the Indus system decrease. Minimum flow requirements are not met: three rivers have already died, creating an ecological disaster. The lack of sewage treatment facilities severely impacts water quality, causing numerous water-related diseases. Increasing water needs, both quantitatively and qualitatively, may prove difficult for the IWT to negotiate.  Controversy already exists regarding the numerous dams that India has built and their plans for the upper western rivers of the basin, which are in fact dedicated to Pakistan. Although each dam fits into the technical requirements of the IWT, their multiplication affects water flows downstream, adding to existing uncertainty over water. At the community level, people are quick to accuse India for any water problem, including those related to deficient Pakistani water infrastructure or non-efficient irrigation practices, thus perpetrating resentment between communities. In response, environmental activists such as Ahmad Rafay Alam are merging their efforts to tackle the rising issues over water, advocate for a long term vision for the Indus basin and develop cross-border cooperation.

The necessity of creating a new dialogue over water, of establishing community work and expand awareness among the population about water issues, is rather similar to the Jordan River basin challenges. Managing, treating and reusing wastewater, protecting ground water, improving agricultural practices are among the commons themes that need to be worked on.  Both areas may benefit from significant international goodwill: international institutions would be ready to support Indo-Pakistani actions, meanwhile in the Middle East positive effects of FoEME’s initiatives are widely acknowledged. This could be important leverage for more cross-border cooperation. Therefore, political regional cooperation will not suffice: as stated by Gidon Bromberg, FoEME’s Tel Aviv Director, “the handshakes of governments are absolutely necessary, but they are totally insufficient.” Community partnerships are essential for environmental peace-building processes.

This post was written by FoEME intern Amélie Joseph, who is based in the Tel Aviv office.