Why Kashmir Should be Reframed as an Environmental Conflict

By Hashim Pasha

At its heart, the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan is an environmental conflict, one centered primarily around water. However distant this conflict may seem to US policymakers, it is the crux of instability in the South & Central Asian region. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan will have a combined population of 2 billion by 2050 according to UN estimates.[1] India and Pakistan are already water-stressed nations, with annual per capita yields of fresh water below 1,700 m3/year.[2][3] 

Over-population and subsequent high water-stress position the Kashmir conflict as one of the most plausible flashpoints for major lethal conflict in recent history. Re-framing this conflict from one that is political, religious and territorial, into one that is in its essence environmental, may present opportunities to move forward that have been otherwise unseen.

To understand the Kashmir conflict, one has to go back to at least 1947. Two states emerged onto the world stage after the partition of India: Pakistan, and what was left of India, the remnants of British hegemony across the sub-continent. Though they emerged out of the same colonial apparatus, they developed distinctly different properties, with India becoming democratic and Pakistan largely becoming an Islamic, military-authoritarian state, until recent democratic reforms.

The grossly unpopular British Empire hastily departed India in 1947, leaving behind the machinery of a highly sophisticated central bureaucracy.  Despite the chaos that ensued from a deeply unsatisfactory partition process, India was left with the central government, operating from New Delhi.[4] Pakistan, on the other hand, was forced to create a central government from scratch; a poorly organized and flustered Muslim league which arrived in Karachi and gathered a group of men in a “tent.”[5] all that was given to them by Lord Mountbatten, the final Viceroy of India.

During this unstable time in 1947, the first of four wars between India and Pakistan occurred. The issue at hand was that of Kashmir, a mountainous princely state in the north-west corner of the Subcontinent. Conflict between India and Pakistan started before the two independent states were even created. In the summer of 1947, the British Government decided that it would finally leave India after decades of civil unrest and independence movements. The effects of World War II were also a major factor in this decision.

Outnumbered four-to-one demographically, many Indian Muslims felt unsafe with the prospect of a dominant Hindu nationalist government making them second-class citizens. A call for a separate entity where Muslims would be in majority was made through consolidated political channels. Lord Mountbatten ultimately administered what was to become known as the partition of India, whereby rules were established that Muslim majority territories of British India would be made into Pakistan, a homeland for Muslim Indians, and Hindu majority areas would become part of an independent India.

British India was made up of territories directly administered by the British government, as well as princely states that were semi-autonomous, but ultimately paid taxes to and ceded sovereignty to British suzerainty.  During partition, these princely states had the ability to decide on whether they would join India or Pakistan, based on the demographic makeup of their populaces. Most princely states decided to join India, as they consisted of largely Hindu populations.

Kashmir was the most prized princely state. Endowed with natural beauty and sizeable freshwater resources, the population of Kashmir at the time of partition was roughly 75% Muslim and 25% Hindu.[6] The ruler of Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, was himself a Hindu. Fearing deposal and rioting by Muslims, the Maharaja chose to accede to India against the wishes of most of his citizenry.[7] This was the start of the conflict in Kashmir as it is known today.[8]

This triggered a war during which Pakistan captured about 35% of the princely state of Kashmir.[9] Pakistan and India would go on to fight three more wars – in 1965, 1971, and 1999 – without boundary changes in Kashmir. Though the two countries are not currently in a state of war, deadly skirmishes are still a common occurrence along the Line of Control in Kashmir.[10]

Sources of Conflict

The common observer of the Kashmir conflict is led to believe that it is a territorial one, underpinned by insatiable religious differences. In reality, the situation is far more complex, whereby the welfare, security, autonomy, and identity of Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris alike are at stake. Food security and water stability are key factors in each of the party’s interests. Safety and avoidance of violence are central to the concerns of Kashmiris, who find themselves in the middle of a struggle between two nuclear-armed nations. Pakistani and Indian citizens residing close to the Line of Control also find themselves to be frequent casualties of random shelling from both sides of the border.

Kashmiris ability to make their own choices about beliefs and associations are also compromised, particularly in a way that allows them to make decisions that affect their self-interest and social cohesion. The issue of identity remains central to Kashmiris, who are unable to create adequate bonds with either state in an environment of conflict. Furthermore, the dignity of the Kashmiri people is inherently overlooked, particularly in Indian controlled Kashmir, where civil and political rights are severely restricted or non-existent in times of heightened tension.[11]

There are deep inequalities in the capacities and resources of the principal conflicting parties. Pakistan’s GDP as of 2017 was approximately USD 305 billion, less than one-seventh of India’s nearly USD 2.6 trillion GDP.[12] These figures are indicative of the inequalities that are manifested through other indicators, whether military, diplomatic, economic or institutional. Pakistan’s military expenditures amounted to roughly USD 12.5 billion in the year 2018, compared to India’s military expenditure of USD 66.5 billion.[13] These inequalities have led Pakistan to adopt asymmetrical strategies of warfare to achieve its goals, with limited success.

There are interest, data, value, relationship, and structural conflicts within the Kashmir dispute. Value conflicts between India and Pakistan include disagreement on when to hold bilateral discussions of the issue, or if at all, as well as strong disagreements on what specific issues are up for discussion. Defensive and aggressive reactions that prevent discussion of particular topics are also common from both countries.[14] For instance, the current Foreign Minister of India has published controversial remarks about minorities in Pakistan that have led to the derailment of regular high-level bilateral meetings.[15]

There is deep mistrust in the India-Pakistan bilateral relationship on all levels. Representatives of the two countries actively avoid each other at international moots, and at international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. The countries are also unable to communicate effectively or directly at times of heightened tension, necessitating the need of third countries to engage in back-channel diplomacy.

Tension between India and Pakistan and the personal relationships of their respective delegates has also been fraught with animosity based on issues seemingly unrelated to the Kashmir dispute specifically, such as India’s intervention into the Bangladesh civil war, or its mistreatment Muslim citizens. Likewise, allegations of Pakistan’s mistreatment of Hindus and support of Islamist militant groups anger many Indians. Both countries feed nationalist narratives that demonize the other in public education systems, consolidating a national identity by exclusion. According to the Pew Research Center, up to two-thirds of Indians, and two-thirds of Pakistanis hold “unfavorable” views of each other’s countries.[16]

Data conflicts abound in the Kashmir dispute; these originate from the very beginning of the issue. Pakistan has brought in to question the very existence of the Treaty of Accession that the Maharaja of Kashmir signed, transferring the territory to India.[17] “There are doubts about the very existence of the Instrument of Accession… The fact is that all the principles on the basis of which the Indian subcontinent was partitioned by the British in 1947 justify Kashmir becoming a part of Pakistan: the State had majority Muslim population, and it not only enjoyed geographical proximity with Pakistan but also had essential economic linkages with the territories constituting Pakistan.”[18]

India asserts that the instrument of accession is unconditional and final, and enjoys perpetual validity. India also holds that elections conducted in the Indian province of Jammu and Kashmir are a substitute for a UN-mandated plebiscite, but Pakistan points to low voter turnout (sometimes as low as 0.2%)[19] as a repudiation of this claim.[20] Furthermore, data with regard to deaths in the Kashmir conflict is disputed – “The separatist violence (in Kashmir) has killed more than 47,000 people, which does not include people who have disappeared due to the conflict. Some human rights groups and nongovernmental organizations put the death toll at twice that amount.”[21] Some sources put the death toll of Kashmiri insurrection close to 100,000 people.[22]

Structural conflicts in the dispute between India and Pakistan are characterized by the exaggerated influence cast by both the country’s militaries. Pakistan has seen four military governments throughout its history. Defense and foreign policy portfolios are still very much the purview of the military. Civilian policy-makers are often shut out of important strategic dialogue that takes place between military officials. The Indian military establishment also owns the narrative of the conflict in India. The recent politicization of the Indian armed forces in relation to the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is also cause for structural inequalities and makes a durable resolution to the Kashmir dispute even less likely.[23] Population distribution, natural resource allocation, differences in climate, and the location of rivers are also examples of structural conflict.

Both India and Pakistan have adopted zero-sum mentalities with regard to the Kashmir conflict; either country possessing Kashmir is a direct loss to the other. Participants may be unaware that they are in the same conversation as well, with Pakistanis advocating for the right of the Kashmiri people to express their political will, while India considers this an interference into domestic issues; Kashmiris are Indian citizens and no conversation on their rights will take place outside of this context. There is also a keen inability of the parties to explore each other’s interest without expressing their own.[24]

Water Conflict in Kashmir

While the interests of India and Pakistan in Kashmir have been articulated above and are seemingly manifold, the hallmark of any interest conflict is that of layered priorities with a primary underlying position. The underlying interest for both countries in the Kashmir dispute is water. The Indus river and basin originate in the territory of Kashmir, which includes the rivers Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum, and Sutlej. These rivers are the crux of the water-food-energy nexus in the region, action in one of these categories can have major impacts on the other for both countries.[25]

India and Pakistan were able to come to an agreement on the division of these resources with the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, following nine years of negotiation. Brokered by the World Bank, the institution describes the treaty as, “seen as one of the most successful international treaties, it has survived frequent tensions, including conflict, and has provided a framework for irrigation and hydropower development for more than half a century.”[26] The Indus Waters Treaty gives Pakistan full access to the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers while giving India full access to the Ravi and Sutlej for water usage and hydroelectric power generation.

The creation of this treaty is responsible for relatively placating India and Pakistan from engaging in further conflict over the region. Without this treaty, it is likely that situations of war would have occurred more frequently between the two nations, and that the territorial dispute would have been settled militarily. The treaty has robust conflict resolution mechanisms built into it, which likely explains its unusual longevity. “…the Treaty also sets forth distinct procedures to handle issues which may arise: “questions” are handled by the Commission; “differences” are to be resolved by a Neutral Expert, and “disputes” are to be referred to a seven-member arbitral tribunal called the “Court of Arbitration.” [27]

The treaty has recently been strained by India’s ongoing construction of the Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric power plants on a tributary of the Chenab and Jhelum rivers. This introduces a new structural conflict into an otherwise stable treaty relationship. Under the treaty, Pakistan has unrestricted access to these rivers, and Pakistan considers the establishment of these plants as a violation of the treaty. There is a concern that these plants can also act as dams to potentially cut the water supply of the Jhelum and Chenab in times of heightened tension. These fears are not unfounded; in February 2019, India’s transport minister stated that “Our Government has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.”[28] Furthermore, The Indian Minister of Water Resources also said the following in February 2019, “After formation of India and Pakistan, India and Pakistan got the right to use waters in three rivers each. The water from our three rivers is going to Pakistan. Now, we are planning to build a project and divert the water from these three rivers into Yamuna river. Once this happens, Yamuna will have more water.”[29] Overt threats to Pakistan’s water supply greatly increase the risk of military confrontation, revealing the underlying motivations of the Kashmir dispute.

Pakistan approached the World Bank on the issue and requested the establishment of a Court of Arbitration to look into the matter. Arbitration into the matter has currently stalled, though the World Bank states that it “…remains committed to act in good faith and with complete impartiality and transparency in fulfilling its responsibilities under the Treaty, while continuing to assist the countries.”[30]

When asked to describe to what extent water plays a role in the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, Michael Kugelman, Senior Associate for South Asia and Assistant Director of the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center said the following:

“I think water plays a huge role in the Kashmir conflict; it’s common in the west to portray Kashmir as simply a territorial dispute. There’s a tendency to forget the Indus river and basin originate in Kashmir, and I think that in and of itself makes the Kashmir region a particularly strategic spot of real estate for both countries, and very significant for water security, particularly for Pakistan. I see this as something hardliners have tried to exploit, like Islamic militants in Pakistan who accuse India of stealing Pakistan’s water. The short answer is absolutely, it plays a large role. The fact that you have the head waters of the Indus in Kashmir makes this a very fraught piece of real estate, separate of territorial disputes and the founding histories of India and Pakistan.[31]

On the Indus Waters Treaty, Kugelman stated that, “I think it’s a treaty that’s been very durable and that’s survived for a very long time, you’ve heard these increasingly loud warnings of how it needs to be revised because of new demographic developments, and there’s been added pressure on the treaty because of the broader conflict, India has not too subtly threatened to back out of the treaty back in 2016. The biggest concern about the treaty is that it’s under increasing pressure, it’s miraculous how long this treaty has survived… they’ve tried to work out water disputes bilaterally then gone to outside mediators who have been able to make recommendations both have been able to agree too. You don’t have many effective trans-boundary water treaties in South Asia. It’s getting increasingly politicized, where New Delhi has said in the recent year it could well revoke the treaty which would have significant consequences for Pakistan’s water security.”[32]

In sum, current literature on the phenomenon of “water wars” indicates that countries are more likely to cooperate than resort to military confrontation over issues of water distribution. Stripping the Kashmir conflict of its political, religious and territorial aspects may not be possible in the near future, however, the reality is that the waters of the Indus basin will continue to originate in an international trans-boundary territory regardless of whether India and Pakistan choose to engage with each other.

Understanding the Kashmir conflict as one that is based in environmental concerns may allow both sides to see the benefit of conciliation. “If you could try to cast the Kashmir dispute as something in shared concern of the two countries – environmental change – in an ideal world, both sides would understand they have a very strong interest in solving the dispute. If it is solely projected on religion and territory, they are contested tropes of both countries. Environmental and climate change vulnerability may be able to get the two countries to work together if you cast it as a way to resolve this. The countries may be in a better position to address the issues of the Indus river and how the waters flow into Pakistan; that would be a worthwhile concern.”[33]

It is not certain that an agreement between the two countries that there is indeed an environmental issue present is in and of itself enough to promote conciliation. However, the two countries have already demonstrated to some extent that they can agree on the water issues without addressing the religious, political, and territorial dimensions of the conflict. Despite its recent issues, The Indus Waters Treaty has traditionally been seen as Exhibit A of the tendency to cooperate rather than fight over international water resources. Moving forward, let us hope that the issue of water and a sense of the need to work together on such issues will bring the parties together to do more.

Hashim Pasha is a fellow and master’s candidate in Democracy and Governance at Georgetown University. 


[1] World Population Prospects – Population Division – United Nations. https://population.un.org/wpp/DataQuery/. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.

[2] AQUASTAT – FAO’s Information System on Water and Agriculture. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/didyouknow/index2.stm. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.

[3] UN-Water. “Scarcity.” UN-Water, http://www.unwater.org/water-facts/scarcity/. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.

[4] Bose, Sugata and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy

[5] Ibid., 171.

[6] Report on the Census Of India, 1901. 1903. ruralindiaonline.org, https:///resources/report-on-the-census-of-india-1901/. (176)

[7] Bose, Sugata and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy

[8] AP World History – Religion in British India. https://www.albert.io/learn/ap-world-history/antiimperialism-and-the-dissolution-of-empires-kc-62ii-. Accessed 28 Apr. 2019.

* Note the location of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, in this map of prevailing religions.

[9] Library, C. N. N. “Kashmir Fast Facts.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2013/11/08/world/kashmir-fast-facts/index.html. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[10] “Line of Control.” Wikipedia, 9 Mar. 2019. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Line_of_Control&oldid=886888788.

[11] Indian Kashmir *. 4 Jan. 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/indian-kashmir.

[12] GDP (Current US$) | Data. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/ny.gdp.mktp.cd. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[13]  “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database | SIPRI”. www.sipri.org. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

[14] Pillsbury, Jolie Bain. The Circle of Conflict Adaptation. p. 2.

[15] Sushma Swaraj Has A Twitter Spat With Pakistan Minister Over Minorities Fawad Hussain. https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/sushma-swaraj-has-a-twitter-spat-with-pakistan-minister-over-minorities-fawad-hussain-2012056. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[16] NW, 1615 L. St, et al. Chapter 6. How Pakistanis and Indians View Each Other | Pew Research Center. 21 June 2011, https://www.pewglobal.org/2011/06/21/chapter-6-how-pakistanis-and-indians-view-each-other/.

[17] Kashmir – Pakistan Mission to UN. http://www.pakun.org/kashmir/history.php. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Indian Position on Kashmir. http://www.kashmirlibrary.org/kashmir_timeline/kashmir_chapters/indian-position.shtml. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[21] Library, C. N. N. “Kashmir Fast Facts.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2013/11/08/world/kashmir-fast-facts/index.html. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[22] 40,000 People Killed in Kashmir: India | The Express Tribune. https://tribune.com.pk/story/228506/40000-people-killed-in-kashmir-india/. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[23] More Veterans Oppose ‘Politicisation’ of Army – The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/more-veterans-oppose-politicisation-of-army/article26836906.ece. Accessed 1 May 2019.

[24] Pillsbury, Jolie Bain. The Circle of Conflict Adaptation. p. 2.

[25] UN-Water. “Water, Food and Energy.” UN-Water, http://www.unwater.org/water-facts/water-food-and-energy/. Accessed 3 May 2019.

[26] “Fact Sheet: The Indus Waters Treaty 1960 and the Role of the World Bank.” World Bank, http://www.worldbank.org/en/region/sar/brief/fact-sheet-the-indus-waters-treaty-1960-and-the-world-bank. Accessed 2 May 2019.

[27] “Fact Sheet: The Indus Waters Treaty 1960 and the Role of the World Bank.” World Bank, http://www.worldbank.org/en/region/sar/brief/fact-sheet-the-indus-waters-treaty-1960-and-the-world-bank. Accessed 2 May 2019.

[28] Reuters. “India Again Threatens to Restrict Flow of River Water to Pakistan as Tension Builds.” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2019. http://www.theguardian.com, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/22/india-again-threatens-to-restrict-flow-of-river-water-to-pakistan-as-tension-builds.

[29] Dawn.com. “We Will Stop ‘our Share of Water’ from Flowing into Pakistan, Says Indian Minister.” DAWN.COM, 22 Feb. 2019, https://www.dawn.com/news/1465214.

[30] Ibid

[31] Kugelman, Michael. Personal interview. 20 April 2019

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.