Geography, population and climate
The transboundary Indus river basin has a total area of 1.12 million km2 distributed between Pakistan (47 percent), India (39 percent), China (8 percent) and Afghanistan (6 percent) (Table 1). The Indus river basin stretches from the Himalayan mountains in the north to the dry alluvial plains of Sindh province in Pakistan in the south and finally flows out into the Arabian Sea. In Pakistan, the Indus river basin covers around 520 000 km2, or 65 percent of the territory, comprising the whole of the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and most of the territory of Sindh province and the eastern part of Balochistan. The drainage area lying in India is approximately 440 000 km2, nearly 14 percent of the total area of the country, in the States of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana and Chandigarh. Only about 14 percent of the total catchment area of the basin lies in China, covering just 1 percent of the area of the country, and Afghanistan, where it accounts for 11 percent of the country’s area. Very roughly, at least 300 million people are estimated to live in the Indus basin.
Climate is not uniform over the Indus river basin. It varies from subtropical arid and semi-arid to temperate subhumid on the plains of Sindh and Punjab provinces to alpine in the mountainous highlands of the north. Annual precipitation ranges between 100 and 500 mm in the lowlands to a maximum of 2 000 mm on mountain slopes. Snowfall at higher altitudes (above 2 500 m) accounts for most of the river runoff (Ojeh, 2006).
The Upper Indus river basin is a high mountain region and the mountains limit the intrusion of the monsoon, the influence of which weakens northwestward. Most of the precipitation falls in winter and spring and originates from the west. Monsoonal incursions bring occasional rain to trans-Himalayan areas but, even during summer months, not all precipitation derives from monsoon sources. Climatic variables are strongly influenced by altitude. Northern valley floors are arid with annual precipitation from 100 to 200 mm. Totals increase to 600 mm at 4 400 m, and glaciological studies suggest accumulation rates of 1 500 to 2 000 mm at 5 500 m. Winter precipitation (October to March) is highly spatially correlated across the Upper Indus basin, north and south of the Himalayan divide. From 1961 to 1999 there were significant increases in winter, summer and annual precipitation and significant warming occurred in winter whilst summer showed a cooling trend. These trends will impact upon water resource availability (Fowler and Archer, 2005).
The climate in the Indus plains is arid to semi-arid. In the lower plain December to February is the cold season and mean monthly temperatures vary from 14 to 20 °C. Mean monthly temperatures during March to June vary from 42 to 44 °C. In the upper plain mean temperature ranges from 23 to 49 °C during summer and from 2 to 23 °C during winter. Average annual rainfall on the Indus plains is about 230 mm. On the lower plain, Larkana and Jacobabad areas, on average receive about 90 mm of rainfall annually. On the upper plain, Multan receives 150 mm and Lahore about 510 mm of rain. Because of the hot climate, the evaporation rate is very high and the mean annual evaporation on the lower plain (Nawabshah) is 204 mm while on the upper plain (Sargodha) it is 1 650 mm (WCD, 2000).
The river flows are comprised of glacier melt, snowmelt, rainfall and runoff. Outside the polar regions, the Upper Indus river basin contains the greatest area of perennial glacial ice in the world (22 000 km2); the area of winter snow cover is an order of magnitude greater. The glaciers serve as natural storage reservoirs that provide perennial supplies to the Indus river and some of its tributaries (WCD, 2000). The Indus river system forms a link between two large natural reservoirs, the snow and glaciers in the mountains and the groundwater contained by the alluvium in the Indus plains of the Sindh and Punjab Provinces of Pakistan (Ojeh, 2006).
The Indus river has two main tributaries, the Kabul on the right bank and the Panjnad on the left. The Panjnad is the flow resulting from five main rivers (literally Punjab means “five waters”): the Jhelum and Chenab, known as the western rivers with the Indus river, and the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, known as the eastern rivers. This division came into effect at the time of settlement of a water dispute between India and Pakistan in 1960. Under this Indus Water Treaty, the following rules apply:
All the rivers of the Indus system are perennial (WCD, 2000). Aided by a number of smaller rivers (Swat, Haro, Kunar [Chitral], Tochi, Shah Alam, Naguman, Adezai, Soan, etc.) and streams/Nullahs, these rivers supply water to the entire Indus Basin Irrigation System (NDMA-UNDP, 2010).
The Indus river is the twelfth largest river in the world (Ojeh, 2006) and originates near lake Manasarovar to the north of the Himalayas range on the Kailash Parbat mountain in China at an elevation of 5 500 m. The Indus catchment area is unique in the sense that it contains seven of the world’s highest peaks after Mount Everest. Among these are K2 (8 600 m), Nanga Parbat (8 100 m) and Rakaposhi (7 800 m). The river is 3 200 m long out of which 1 114 m are in India. The river has 27 major tributaries above Guddu barrage. The largest tributary is the Shyoke river (640 km long with a catchment area of 20 160 km2) (NDMA-UNDP, 2010). The flow of the Indus river depends on the season, it decreases during the winter and floods the banks during the monsoons.
The Sutlej river originates in China in Western Tibet in the Kailas mountain range and near the source of the rivers Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra. The river is 1 536 km long and has a catchment area of 75 369 km2 (of which 70 percent is in India). It flows into Pakistan (Punjab) near Ferozepur and eventually joins the Chenab river close to Punjnad barrage. The Sutlej river has eight major tributaries (all except Rohi Nullah join Sutlej river in India). The largest tributary is the Beas river, which is 464 km long and with a catchment area of 9 920 km2 (NDMA-UNDP, 2010).
The Ravi river originates in the lesser Himalayas range in India. The river is 880 km long with acatchment area of 24 960 km2. It runs almost along the India-Pakistan border. The Ravi river has five major tributaries (Ujh, Bein, Basantar, Deg and Hudiara nullahs [streams]), the upper catchments of which lie in India. The largest tributary is Deg Nullah river, which is 256 km long with a catchment area of 730 km2 (NDMA-UNDP, 2010).
The Chenab river is formed at the confluence of the Bhaga and Chandra rivers, which join at a place called Tandi. Its uppermost part is snow covered and forms the northeast part of Himachal Pradesh. From Tandi to Akhnoor the river traverses high mountains. The river is 1 232 km long and the catchment area is 41 760 km2. The river enters Pakistan a little over Head Marala with very sharp changes in slope. The river has 12 major tributaries. Doara, Dowara, Halsi, Bhimber, Palku and Budhi join close to Marala. The largest tributary is the 120 km long Palku Nullah, with a catchment area of 1 269 km2 (NDMA-UNDP, 2010).
The Jhelum river originates in the Kashmir Valley, about 54 km east of Anant Nag, and is 816 km long with a catchment area of 39 200 km2. The river has ten major tributaries, including Neelum/Kishan Ganga (the largest tributary, is 260 km long with a catchment area of 3 968 km2), Kunhar, Poonch and Kanshi (NDMA-UNDP, 2010).
The first record of gauge heights was made on the Indus at Attock in 1848. The next was on Chenab at Alexandria Bridge in 1879. The most important river gauging stations, called the rim-stations, have continuous discharge data from the early 1920s when the Indus Discharge Committee was established for this purpose (WCD, 2000).
Total inflow from China to India in the Indus river basin is estimated at 181.62 km3. Total inflow from Afghanistan to Pakistan in the Indus basin is estimated at 21.5 km3, 15.5 km3 from the Kabul river (of which 10 km3 come from Kunar river, which first enters Afghanistan from Pakistan and then flows back to Pakistan after joining the Kabul river) and 6 km3 from other tributaries (Pansjir, Gomal, Margo, Shamal, Kuram). The mean annual inflow into Pakistan from India through the western tributaries, the Jhelum and the Chenab, considering the Indus Water Treaty, amounts to 170.27 km3. The mean annual natural inflow into Pakistan through the eastern rivers (the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej) is estimated at 11.1 km3 but, according to the Treaty, this is reserved for India.
The Indus river basin represents an extensive groundwater aquifer, covering a gross command area of 16.2 million ha. The water table was well below the surface (>30 m) and the aquifer was in a state of hydrological equilibrium before the development of the canal irrigation system. The recharge to aquifer from rivers and rainfall was balanced by outflow and crop evapotranspiration. When the canal irrigation system was introduced, percolation to the aquifer was increased in irrigated areas of the Indus basin resulting in the twin menace of waterlogging and salinity. Although, there are disadvantages in having a high water table, it was used for irrigation with dug wells and tubewells in the fresh groundwater zone. In 2000, estimated groundwater extraction from the aquifer was almost equal to the recharge in fresh groundwater areas; although the balance between recharge and abstraction is not uniform across the basin (WCD, 2000).
Water quality of the Indus river and its tributaries is excellent. Total dissolved solids (TDS) range between 60-374 ppm (parts per million), which is safe for multiple uses (Bhutta, 1999; PWP, 2000). TDS in the upper reaches range between 60 ppm during high-flow to about 200 ppm during low-flow. Water quality deteriorates downstream but remains well within permissible limits, with TDS in the lower reaches of the Indus (at Kotri barrage) ranging from 150 to 374 ppm. TDS of some of the tributaries such as Gomal river at Khajuri, Touchi river at Tangi Post and Zhob river at Sharik Weir range between 400 to 1 250 ppm (IWASRI, 1997).
Indiscriminate and unplanned disposal of effluents (including agricultural drainage water, municipal and industrial wastewater) into rivers, canals and drains is causing deterioration of water quality in the downstream parts. In 1995 around 12.435 km3/year (40 million m3/day) of untreated water were being discharged into water bodies (Ahmad, 2008b). It was estimated that 0.484 and 0.345 km3/year (1.3 and 0.9 million m3/day) of sewage was produced in Karachi and Lahore metropolitan areas respectively and most of it was discharged untreated into water bodies. The polluted water is also being used for drinking in downstream areas, causing numerous water-borne diseases.
The groundwater is marginal to brackish in quality in 60 percent of the Indus Basin Irrigation System’s (IBIS) aquifer (Ahmad, 2008a; 2008b). Groundwater quality varies widely, ranging from < 1 000 ppm to > 3 000 ppm. Besides TDS, there are quality concerns regarding sodium adsorption ratio (SAR) and residual sodium carbonate (RSC) (WAPADA 2006).
Use of pesticides and nitrogenous fertilizers is seriously affecting shallow groundwater and entry of effluents into rivers and canals is deteriorating the quality of freshwater. Almost all shallow freshwater is now polluted with agricultural pollutants and sewage (Ahmad, 2008a; Ahmad, 2008b).
Investments in drainage have been significant during the last two decades, though waterlogging still affects large tracts of land. Soil salinity and sodicity also constrain farmers and affect agricultural production. These problems are further exacerbated by poor quality groundwater (Kijne and Kuper, 1995). In fresh groundwater areas, excessive pumping by tubewells leads to mining and reduction of groundwater quality (WRRI, MONA and IIMI, 1999).
In the 1990s waterlogging in the IBIS area was high in the 1990s because of heavy floods, while droughts in the early years of the current decade (2000-2010) resulted in lowering of the water table and in reduction of the waterlogged area. The overall analysis depicts that there is no change in waterlogging. Currently, in the Pakistani part of the basin, the waterlogged and saline areas are around 7 million ha. During the late 1990s most of the SCARP tubewells were abandoned and farmers were provided support to install shallow tubewells (Zaman and Ahmad, 2009).
Water-related development in the basin
The 4 000-year-old Indus civilization has its roots in irrigated agriculture. Canal irrigation development began in 1859 with the completion of the Upper Bari Doab Canal (UBDC) from Madhopur Headworks on Ravi river. Until that time, irrigation was undertaken through a network of inundation canals, which were functional only during periods of high river flow. These provided water for kharif (summer) crops and residual soil moisture for rabi (winter) crops. The UBDC was followed by the Sirhind Canal from Rupar Headworks on Sutlej in 1872 and the Sidhnai Canal from Sidhnai barrage on the Ravi river in 1886. The Lower Chenab from Khanki on Chenab in 1892, and Lower Jhelum from Rasul on Jhelum in 1901 followed suit. Lower and Upper Swat, Kabul river and Paharpur Canals in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Pakistan) were completed during 1885 to 1914.
In the beginning of the 1900s, it became apparent that the water resources of the individual rivers were not in proportion to the potential irrigable land. The supply from the Ravi river, serving a large area of Bari Doab, was insufficient while Jhelum had a surplus. An innovative solution, the Triple Canal Project, was constructed during 1907-1915. The project linked the Jhelum, Chenab and Ravi rivers, allowing a transfer of surplus Jhelum and Chenab water to the Ravi river. The Triple Canal Project was a landmark in integrated inter-basin water resources management and provided the key concept for the resolution of the Indus waters dispute between India and Pakistan in 1960 with the Indus Water Treaty (IWT).
The Sutlej Valley Project, comprising four barrages and two canals, was completed in 1933, resulting in the development of the unregulated flow resources of the Sutlej river and motivated planning for the Bhakra reservoir. During the same period, the Sukkur barrage and its system of seven canals serving 2.95 million ha in the Lower Indus plain were completed and considered as the first modern hydraulic structure on the downstream Indus river. Haveli and Rangpur from Trimmu Headworks on Chenab in 1939 and Thal Canal from Kalabagh Headworks on Indus were completed in 1947. This comprised the system inherited by Pakistan at the time of its creation in 1947. The IBIS, spread over the flat plains of the Indus Valley, is the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world and is the result of large surface irrigation schemes promoted by the British up to 1947 when their Indian colony was divided into India and Pakistan.
At independence, the irrigation system, conceived originally as a whole, was divided between India and Pakistan without considering the irrigated boundaries. This resulted in an international water dispute in 1948, which was finally resolved by the enforcement of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 under the aegis of the World Bank.
After Partition, Kotri, Taunsa and Guddu barrages were completed on the Indus river to provide controlled irrigation to areas previously served by inundation canals. The Taunsa barrage was completed in 1958 to divert water to two large areas on the left and right banks of the river making irrigated agriculture possible for about 1.18 million ha of arid landscape in Punjab province (Pakistan). Currently rehabilitation and modernization of the barrage is in progress. Also, three additional inter-river link canals were built before the initiation of the Indus Basin Project. The last inundation canals were connected to weir-controlled supplies in 1962 with the completion of the Guddu barrage on the Indus river.
The Indus Basin Project (IBP) was developed in pursuance of the Indus Water Treaty, including Mangla dam, five barrages, one syphon and eight inter-river link canals, completed during 1960-1971, and Tarbela dam started partial operation in 1975-1976. The two main components of IBP were the major storage reservoirs on Jhelum (Mangla) and Indus (Tarbela) to mitigate the effect of diverting the three eastern rivers by India and to increase agricultural production in the IBIS (Table 2). As part of the implementation schedule of IBP, the Mangla Dam Project was taken up first and completed by 1968. In the meantime, the decision was also taken to go ahead with the Tarbela dam after its re-evaluation by the World Bank and lining up of the additional funding. Consequently construction started in 1968, was substantially completed by 1974, and started partial operation in 1975-1976 (WCD, 2000).
As a result of these extensive developments, Pakistan now possesses the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. It commands a full control equipped area of 14.87 million ha (2008) (36 percent is under Mangla command and 64 percent under Tarbela command (WCD, 2000)) and encompasses the Indus river and its tributaries including three large reservoirs (Tarbela, Mangla, and Chashma), 23 barrages/headworks/siphons, 12 inter-river link canals and 45 canals commands extending for 60 800 km, with communal watercourses, farm channels, and field ditches covering another 1.6 million km to serve over 90 000 farmers’ operated watercourses.
River water in the Indus system is diverted by barrages and weirs into main canals and subsequently branch canals, distributaries and minors. The flow to the farm is delivered by over 107 000 watercourses, which are supplied through outlets (moghas) from the distributaries and minors. The mogha is designed to allow a discharge that self-adjusts to variations in the parent canal. Within the watercourse command (an area ranging from 80 to 280 ha), farmers receive water proportional to their land holding. The entire discharge of the watercourse is given to one farm for a specified period on a seven-day rotation. The rotation schedule, called warabandi, is established by the Provincial Irrigation and Power Department, unless the farmers can reach a mutual agreement.
In Pakistan, more than 95 percent of irrigation is located in the Indus river basin. In 2008, the total area equipped for irrigation throughout Pakistan was estimated at 19.99 million ha. The total water managed area in Pakistan is around 21.20 million ha, and can be divided according to the following classification:
In 1990, the area equipped for irrigation in Pakistan was estimated at 15.73 million ha and total water managed area was estimated at 16.96 million ha.
The total area equipped for irrigation in the entire Indus river basin is estimated to be around 26.3 million ha, of which Pakistan accounts for approximately 19.08 million ha or 72.7 percent, India for 6.71 million ha or 25.6 percent, Afghanistan for 0.44 million ha or 1.7 percent and China for 0.03 million ha or 0.1 percent. Area actually irrigated is estimated at 24.5 million ha. The equipped area irrigated by surface water accounts for 53 percent while groundwater accounts for 47 percent.
The cropped area in the Indus basin in Pakistan expanded with the increased availability of water from the Tarbela dam. Other factors helped to increase the cropped area: increased numbers of tractors, availability of planting machinery and credit support. A rapid rise in population also encouraged the cultivation of additional areas to meet the growing needs of the population. The major rabi crops in the Tarbela command are wheat, fodder and horticultural crops. Sugarcane also needs irrigation during the rabi season and thus competes for water with rabi crops. There was a significant shift in cropping patterns with the increased availability of water from Tarbela dam. There was a net increase in the cropped area of food grains and cash crops such as wheat, rice, cotton and sugarcane. Consequently, there was a decrease in the cropped area of coarse grains and conventional oilseeds.
In the Indus basin, irrigated agriculture saw an increase in area of 36 percent, 44 percent, 39 percent and 52 percent for wheat, cotton, rice and sugarcane, respectively. The overall increase in the cropped area was around 39 percent (Table 3).
Wheat is the leading food grain for human consumption, while its straw is used as a source of cheap roughage for livestock feed. The increase in the area under sugarcane, in particular, is the result of the availability of additional irrigation water from the Tarbela reservoir as it is a crop that demands at lot of irrigation. Other factors that contributed towards this increase were the development of the sugarcane industry and the road infrastructure, both of which provided the necessary linkages for growth (WCD, 2000).
In 2008, total harvested irrigated cropped area in Pakistan was estimated at 21.45 million ha, most of it in the IBIS. The major irrigated crops in the country are wheat, rice, sugarcane, cotton and fodder. These crops comprise almost 78 percent of the total harvested area, or 16.6 million ha, with wheat covering 7.3 million ha, rice 2.5 million ha, sugarcane 1.2 million ha, cotton 3.1 million ha and fodder 2.5 million ha (GoP, 2008).
When the IBIS was developed, the drainage needs were initially minimal. Water tables were deep and irrigation water supplies were too low to generate much groundwater recharge and surface water losses. Whatever little drainage was required, could readily be accommodated by the existing natural drainage. The drainage needs, however, increased over time as more irrigation water was diverted and the water table rose to harmful levels causing waterlogging and salinity. The drainage systems mostly have been developed over the last 30-40 years (Bhutta and Smedema, 2005).
Total water withdrawal in the Indus river basin is estimated at 299 km3, of which Pakistan accounts for approximately 63 percent, India for 36 percent, Afghanistan for 1 percent, and China for barely 0.04 percent. Irrigation withdrawal accounts for 278 km3, or 93 percent of the total. Surface water and groundwater account for 52 percent and 48 percent of total withdrawals in the Indus river basin respectively.
Most summer rains are not available for crop production or recharge to groundwater because of rapid runoff from torrential showers.
In the Pakistani part of the basin, in 2005, total dam capacity was estimated at 23.36 km3. Currently, there are three large hydropower dams and 50 smaller dams (more than 15 m high), while 11 smaller dams are under construction. The designed live storage capacity of the three large hydropower dams in the Indus river basin is 22.98 km3 (Tarbela 11.96 km3, Raised Mangla 10.15 km3, which includes recent raising of 3.58 km3, and Chashma 0.87 km3). The current live storage capacity of these three large hydropower dams is 17.89 km3, representing an overall loss of storage of 22 percent (World Bank, 2005).
Pakistan can barely store 30 days of water in the IBIS. Each km3 of storage capacity lost means one km3/year less water that can be supplied with a given level of reliability. There is an urgent need for storage just to replace capacity that has been lost because of sedimentation. Given the high silt loads from the young Himalayas, two large reservoirs are silting rapidly. In 2008, because of the raising of the Mangla dam, the loss resulting from sedimentation was recovered (World Bank, 2005). The designed live storage capacity of 50 small dams is 0.383 km3. Information related to sedimentation and loss of live storage of small dams is not available. Therefore, it was assumed that on average 25 percent of the live storage of these small dams has been lost as a result of sedimentation, leading to a current live storage capacity of these small dams of 0.287 km3.
There are more than 1 600 mini dams (less than 15 m high), which were constructed for small-scale irrigation purposes, but the capacity of these mini dams is low as a mini dam is normally constructed for an individual farmer. Information on the live storage capacity of mini dams is not available and it is negligible compared to small dams. According to certain estimates, the total designed capacity of these mini dams would be in the order of 0.036 km3.
The Pakistani part of the Indus river basin has a hydroelectric potential of about 50 000 MW. Its main gorge, between the Skardu and Tarbela, has a potential of almost 30 000 MW. These include Bashan (4 500 MW), Disso (3 700 MW), Banjo (5 200 MW), Thicket (1 043 MW), Paten (1 172 MW), Racicot (670 MW), Yuba (710 MW), Hugo (1 000 MW), Tunas (625), and Sakardu or Kithara (possibly 4 000 to 15 000 MW). Almost 20 000 MW potential is available on various sites on the rivers: Swat, Jhelum, Neelam, Punch and Kumar (Qazilbash, 2005).
In 2010, India had six large dams in the Indus basin, with a total dam capacity of 18.6 km3. Bhakra and Nangal dams are on the Sutlej river, Pandoh and Pong dams are on the Beas river and Salal and Baglihar are on the Chenab river.
Table 4 shows the large dams in the Indus river basin.
Table 5 shows the barrages in the Indus river basin.
Transboundary water issues
In 1948 India unilaterally cut off supplies to Pakistan canals originating from the headworks located on the eastern rivers of Ravi and Sutlej thereby asserting its right to the waters of three eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej). Besides causing a serious setback to the national economy, this would have seriously disrupted Pakistan´s water resources development plans. Therefore, right from its creation, the country had to accord the highest priority to the resolution of water disputes involving India. After protracted negotiations, the dispute was finally resolved and culminated in the signing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 (WCD, 2000).
Details of the flows under this Treaty are given in the section: Water resources. This Treaty helped to resolve the issues between the two countries and allowed Pakistan to investment extensively in the Indus Basin Project (IBP) during the 1960s to construct a network of canals and barrages to divert waters from the western rivers to the command of the eastern rivers as replacement works. However, in the last few years Pakistan has objected to India’s development of hydropower projects on the western rivers, Chenab and Jhelum.
Baglihar dam, constructed in the Chenab in Jammu and Kashmir and completed in 2008, has been the source of continuing disputes between India and Pakistan. After construction began in 1999, Pakistan claimed that the design parameters of the Baglihar project violated the Indus Water Treaty. Finally, the World Bank held that India had not violated the Indus Water Treaty and said that the dam could be completed with slight modifications in design and without any impact on the 450 MW power component. The World Bank determined that India should reduce the freeboard in the height of the dam from 4.5 m to 3 m. India had offered to do this before Pakistan referred the dispute to the World Bank. Another objection by Pakistan was related to the width of the pondage that India could maintain in the run-of-the river project. India claimed a pondage of 37.5 million m3. This was reduced by a neutral expert to 32.58 million m3, while upholding India’s methodology of calculation and rejecting Pakistan’s suggestion of a pondage of 6.22 million m3 (The Hindus, 2007; Press Information Bureau, 2008).
Table 6 lists the main historical events in the Indus river basin.
Main sources of information
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