Transboundary Environmental Stressors on India-Pakistan Relations

An Analysis of Shared Air and Water Resources

by Michelle E. Miro, Miriam Elizabeth Marlier, Richard S. Girven

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Research Questions

  1. What is the status of shared air and water resources and transboundary environmental management practices in India and Pakistan?
  2. What is the potential effect of planned hydropower facilities in India on water availability in Pakistan?
  3. How does the transboundary transport of smoke from agricultural waste burning contribute to degraded air quality in both nations?
  4. Which existing transboundary environmental practices are heightening tensions and which could mitigate water and air quality impacts?

An important, yet sometimes overlooked, potential flashpoint between India and Pakistan is the ongoing discourse by governments, news media, and citizens over transboundary water resources and air quality between the two countries. Each nation has continued to voice concerns over its perceived impacts from water resources development plans and air pollution from agricultural burning. Yet conversations about shared air and water resources between the two nations could benefit from tangible science and analysis on the actual causes and effects of water and agricultural management activities. This report is an initial step in that direction. The authors present the results of a preliminary pilot study intended to spur future, in-depth research. Researchers provide an assessment of the potential capacity of 13 hydroelectric projects to effectively control downstream flows in Pakistan along the Chenab River — a major tributary of the Indus River — which has its source in India and flows through both nations. Researchers also examine the influence of agricultural burning from Punjab State in India, as well as from an approximately equivalent area across the border in Pakistan, on air pollution in both countries. Finally, the authors detail the implications of this research on policy debate and decisions in South Asia and outline follow-on research that could be instrumental to formulating policies related to the shared use of water and air between India and Pakistan.

Key Findings

Transboundary water and air resources could benefit from coordinated management

  • When considered together, India's planned hydropower facilities in the Indus River Basin have a capacity to affect downstream flow in Pakistan. While analysis suggests this effect could be minimal, the full timing and magnitude of potential changes in downstream flows needs further modeling and investigation.
  • In the premonsoon burning season (April to May), fire activity is observed in both India's and Pakistan's Punjab regions, and this burning contributes to air pollution both within each country and across their shared border.
  • In the postmonsoon burning season (October to November), when pollution levels are highest, agricultural burning is almost entirely concentrated in India's Punjab region. Atmospheric transport pathways indicate that this pollution flows primarily to the southeast, where it affects air pollution in other regions of India, but it generally does not cross the border to Pakistan.

Recommendations

  • While water and air management across the India-Pakistan border could remain stressors on the relationship between the two nations, transboundary management could also evolve to offer opportunities for collaboration at both national and subnational levels.
  • Transboundary coordination on water management and agricultural water use, cropping and burning practices, and the use and location of hydroelectric projects could amplify the benefits of national management interventions.
  • Future work is needed to quantify the full timing and magnitude of the effect of hydropower facilities on downstream flows. Such work requires higher-resolution streamflow data, information on reservoir operations, and project-specific hydrologic analysis.
  • Additional scientific analyses are needed to further explore the complex dynamics associated with transboundary impacts of air pollution. New, higher-resolution remote sensing datasets should be incorporated to capture the contributions of crop residue burning on smaller farms.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Stressed Resources: Water and Air

  • Chapter Two

    Water: Sharing the Flow?

  • Chapter Three

    Clearing the Air

  • Chapter Four

    Policy Implications and Future Work

  • Appendix A

    Geopolitical Context

  • Appendix B

    Atmospheric Back Trajectory Analysis

Research conducted by

This project is a RAND Venture. Funding was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. The research was conducted by the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy within International Programs.

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