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Indus Focus Area Strategy: 2013-2017
The Indus rises in the Tibetan Plateau in China and its tributaries feed from the Hindu Kush, Karakorum and Himalayan mountain ranges. The total basin area of 1.12 million km2 is located in four countries: Afghanistan (6%), China (8%), India (39%) and Pakistan (47%). Annual precipitation ranges between 100 and 500 mm in the lowlands to a maximum of 2,000 mm on mountain slopes. Most of the precipitation falls in winter and spring and originates from the west. The basin is characterized by high inter- and intra-annual flow variability, with regularly reoccurring floods.
Glaciers and snow contribute more than 40 per cent of the average annual flow in the Indus. Around 70 per cent of the average annual stream flow occurs during July and August these being the peak months respectively for snow melt and glacier melt (Yu et al., 2013). However, the more than 18,000 glaciers feeding the basin are not adequately studied or monitored. Climate change and resulting changes in seasonal runoff patterns (expected to lead to a rise in severe flood and drought events) pose new challenges for the already highly complex water resources management in the basin.
The Indus River Basin
Average available renewable water resources are estimated at 287 km3 annually, of which around one third is groundwater. The annual renewable water availability per capita is expected to decrease from estimated 1329 m3 to below 750 m3 by 2050 as the basin population increases from over 300 million to around 380 million (Indus Basin Working Group, 2013). Rapid urbanization is worsening relative scarcity and the inadequacy of public services (water supply and sanitation), threatening human health and livelihoods. Municipal water withdrawals have quadrupled in Pakistan and doubled in India over the past twenty years (Indus Basin Working Group, 2013), and exceed rural domestic water withdrawals.
The Indus system is rapidly becoming a “closed” basin in which all of the available renewable resources are already allocated for use, with India (36%) and Pakistan (63%) representing almost all of the demand on the river’s water resources. In recent decades, irrigated agriculture in the Indus Basin has moved towards conjunctive use of surface and groundwater. Irrigation withdrawals in the basin account for 278 km3 or 93 per cent of total withdrawals. Low irrigation efficiency (e.g., in Pakistan losses are 40 per cent of diversions), poor drainage and extensive use of nitrate, herbicide and pesticide to promote crop growth have led to surface and groundwater deterioration and soil salinization.
Extensive upstream water use led to a reduction of average annual flow of fresh water to the Indus Delta from 172 to 49 km3 over the last fifty years creating two major challenges. Firstly the salinity of the sea water has increased to 50 ppt leading to a decline of the world’s largest desert climate mangrove forest, and secondly the flow of alluvium – fine grained nutrient-rich soil carried by the river – has declined from 160 to 60 MT per year while river-borne pollutants have endangered the habitat of the endangered Indus River Dolphin. The sediment loads are now largely trapped behind dams and barrages silting up reservoirs and the extensive irrigation canals. Reservoir siltation poses water security challenges for both India and Pakistan and is reducing already limited storage capacity. For Pakistan, it is estimated that an average of 25 per cent of the live storage capacity of small dams in the basin has been lost as a result of sedimentation. The heavily quartz laden sands affect hydropower infrastructure damaging turbines and tunnel works.
Water management challenges are compounded by the basin’s transboundary nature, the uneasy relationships between its riparians and the absence of effective basin management institutions. Bilateral relations between India and Pakistan on the Indus River are regulated by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. The treaty established the Permanent Indus Commission (consisting of one Commissioner from each country) that meets regularly. No other bilateral or multi-lateral basin management mechanisms exist. Within Pakistan the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord regulates water allocation among the provinces for the kharif (wet summer) and rabi (dry winter) seasons. Implementation of the Accord remains a challenge given the limited institutional capacity and mandate of the Indus River System Authority, ongoing disagreements among the provinces on the interpretation of the Accord, and the reality that the volumes of water allocated exceed average flows.
In a bid to foster regional cooperation around managing water resources, government officials and academics from four South Asian countries that share the waters of the Indus (Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan) undertook a joint study tour to Ecuador this January. Download Report
 Connecting the Drops. An Indus Basin Roadmap for Cross-Border Water Research, Data Sharing and Policy Coordination. Observer Research Foundation, Stimson & Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Washington DC.