The Ravi River, historically revered as one of the five rivers defining Punjab’s identity, has endured a perilous decline, raising concerns over its environmental and geopolitical ramifications. Originating in the Himalayas, the Ravi winds its way through Himachal Pradesh, gracing the landscapes of northwestern India before converging with the Indus River in Pakistan. Throughout its journey, the Ravi has been a lifeline for communities, sustaining agriculture and livelihoods along its banks for centuries.

However, the Ravi’s significance is now overshadowed by its dire state. The Shahpurkandi Barrage was initially proposed alongside the Ranjit Sagar Dam in an agreement signed between the Chief Ministers of Punjab, Parkash Singh Badal, and Sheikh Abdullah of Jammu and Kashmir in 1979. Despite the laying of the first foundation stone in April 1995, the construction of the dam encountered significant delays, ultimately spanning a duration of 45 years. These delays primarily stemmed from opposition from Jammu and Kashmir concerning the perceived exploitation of its water share under the project, which aimed to irrigate parts of Punjab. India’s progress in advancing the construction was hindered by the necessity for approval from the Jammu and Kashmir assembly, as dictated by the democratic process.

The resolution of this impasse occurred when Prime Minister Narendra Modi withdrew support from the coalition government led by People’s Democratic Party Chief Mehbooba Mufti on June 20, 2018, thereby imposing governor rule in the region. Subsequently, by circumventing Kashmiri decision-making processes, the agreement for the implementation of the Shahpurkandi project was secured on September 8, 2018. The completion of the Shahpur Kandi Barrage has halted its flow into Pakistan, exacerbating concerns over water scarcity and environmental degradation.

The river, once vibrant, now resembles a stagnant cesspool, polluted by Lahore’s sewage and other effluents. This degradation not only threatens public health but also undermines Pakistan’s water security and diplomatic relations with India. To further compound the issue, recent studies have revealed a troubling trend of deteriorating groundwater quality along the Ravi’s banks. Pollution originating from the river is seeping into the groundwater, posing additional challenges for local communities.

The completion of the Shahpur Kandi Barrage marks a significant turning point for the Ravi River, as India now diverts its flow away from Pakistan. Previously, 1150 cusecs of water nourished Pakistani lands, but now it serves Indian-administered districts of Jammu and Kashmir. This redirection, alongside severe pollution, has ravaged the Ravi, rendering it almost lifeless. Its water levels have plummeted to the extent that one can simply walk across its bed.

The impact of the Shahpur Kandi Barrage cannot be overstated. By blocking the flow of the Ravi into Pakistan, India not only jeopardizes vital water resources but also disrupts the delicate balance of ecosystems dependent on the river. Furthermore, pollution exacerbates the crisis, posing significant challenges for climate advocates and environmentalists.

This article delves into the multifaceted impacts of the near demise of the Ravi River on Pakistan, both environmentally and in terms of foreign policy. The environmental consequences are stark: the once-flowing Ravi has devolved into a stagnant cesspool of Lahore’s sewage. Activists from the Ravi Bachao Tehreek (Save Ravi movement) emphasize the urgent need to restore the river’s natural flow, highlighting the detrimental effects on public health, aquatic life, and agricultural productivity. This situation not only jeopardizes food security but also presents significant challenges for climate advocates and environmentalists.

The plight of the Ravi River epitomizes the urgent need for comprehensive action to address Pakistan’s environmental and water management challenges. Efforts to revive the river’s flow must be coupled with broader reforms to improve water quality, enhance agricultural sustainability, and safeguard public health. Moreover, diplomatic engagement with India to not exploit loopholes the terms of the Indus Water Treaty is imperative to ensure equitable access to shared water resources. The dwindling flow of the Ravi River, once a vital source of recharge, has become a cause for concern, particularly for Lahore. With the river nearly dry for most of the year, fears of an impending water crisis loom large over the city, threatening the well-being of its residents.

Furthermore, the Modi government has frequently utilized the Indus Water Treaty as a tool to exert pressure on Pakistan, with indications of willingness to withdraw from it. This stance reinforced following the Uri Attack, wherein Prime Minister Modi articulated the sentiment that “Blood and Water cannot flow together.” Modi’s rhetoric has consistently included threats to scrap the treaty, often leveraging it during election campaigns to garner domestic support. Promises to curtail water flow to Pakistan and redirect it to states such as Haryana have featured prominently in these political strategies.

The recent blockade of the Ravi River’s flow to Pakistan, coinciding with impending elections in India, underscores the continuation of this approach. Notably, the BJP has previously resorted to military actions against Pakistan to bolster national support, as exemplified by the Pulwama attack in 2019. In the aftermath of the crisis, India further threatened to sever water flow into Pakistan through its rivers. Modi’s latest endeavor to block water flow via the Ravi River aligns with his overarching political objectives, particularly in light of existing discontent among farmers due to unfulfilled promises made in 2021.

The ongoing farmers’ protests, which have mobilized significant support from regions pivotal in electoral outcomes, namely Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh, pose a considerable challenge to the BJP’s electoral prospects in 2024. Against this backdrop, Modi’s prioritization of the Shahpurkandi project serves as a strategic maneuver aimed at mitigating the potential fallout of the farmers’ protests on the party’s electoral base and a political tool to undermine Pakistan to appease domestic populace.

Blocking the flow of water to the Ravi River constitutes a breach of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which was adopted by the United Nations in 2015. SDG 6 aims to ensure universal access to clean water and sanitation, emphasizing not only the provision of drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene (WaSH) services but also the sustainable management of global water resources. India’s decision to impede the Ravi River’s flow has exacerbated Pakistan’s water scarcity issues. The Indus Water Treaty between the two countries is frequently politicized to disadvantage Pakistan, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable water resource management between Pakistan and India in line with the UN Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Water Courses. This convention significantly influences how both parties ensure compliance with the treaty, thereby limiting opportunities for manipulation.

About the authors:

  • Syeda Tahreem Bukhari is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies-AJK. She holds an MPhil in Peace and Conflict Studies from National Defence University, Islamabad, and is an alumni of NESA. She also serves as an Ambassador for the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP). Her research area is strategic stability in South Asia. She posts @Tehmii_Syed.
  • Qurat Ul Ain Shabbir is a Research Officer at the Center for International Strategic Studies (CISS) AJK. Currently, she is pursuing her Ph.D. degree in DSS from Quaid-i-Azam University. Her areas of interest include comprehensive security and conflict analysis. She posts @AShabbir123.

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Center for International Strategic Studies AJK, King Abdullah Campus Chatter kalas Muzaffarabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir