Indus Lifeline

Some 270 million people in four countries depend on the Indus River and its tributaries. But population growth, mismanagement, and climate change all threaten this crucial water supply. Follow the Indus from its source in Tibet to the Arabian Sea, and explore the issues surrounding this essential system.

Countries with high water stress (those that withdraw too much from their systems) and low water productivity (those deriving little economic value from the water they take) are more likely to damage ecosystems and go thirsty during droughts.

High

water

productivity

Japan

Water productivity vs. stress, 2017*

Among Indus River Basin

countries and countries with

more than 100 million people

United

States

Brazil

1 billion

Nigeria

500 million

Russia

100 million

China

Bangladesh

Mexico

Ethiopia

Philippines

India

Pakistan

Afghanistan

Indonesia

Low

High water stress

In Pakistan, about 60 percent of water from the Indus and its tributaries is withdrawn for human use; a third of that evaporates from irrigation canals and flooded fields. Flow is also taken up by natural ecosystems as the river winds through semiarid plains.

Cropland

Irrigated

Rain-fed

Built-up area

and settlements

Irrigation

canal

Dam or

barrage

In the Indus River Basin 18,495 glaciers help supply water to the river. Climate change has accelerated glacial melting in the Himalaya, adding to the risk of future water shortages.

Total glacial

area in basin

Average glacier mass loss

(feet of water equivalent loss per year)

More

sq mi

More than 1

1 to 0.65

0.64 to 0.3

Less than 0.3

Less

Increasing water demand is heightening geopolitical tensions. Disputes over water have flared around India’s construction of the Kishenganga and Ratle dams in Kashmir.

Compared with China and India, Pakistan is more heavily reliant on irrigation. That makes agricultural production in Pakistan more vulnerable to diminished flow from the Indus and its tributaries.

Water used to produce major crops in cubic feet per ton

Cotton

Wheat

Pakistan

100,532

69%

irrigation

water

51,900

21

67,598

70%

Global

average

114,981

36

India

267,701

22

China

54,046

15

57,827

65

41,200

36

Rice

Raw Sugar

91,594

77%

47,607

23

81,150

72%

50,042

29

25,469

36

59,140

24

66,829

54

44,659

4

Kinjhar Lake, an Indus-fed reservoir, currently holds enough water for Karachi. But only half the demand gets met: Waste, corruption, and poor infrastructure deprive the city.

RYAN MORRIS, IRENE BERMAN-VAPORIS, Matthew W. Chwastyk, AND Jason Treat, NGM Staff

Sources: William Young, World Bank/GWSP; Mesfin M. Mekonnen, Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska; David Shean, University of Washington; FAO AQUASTAT; World Bank; UN Population Division; NASA, GFSAD CROPLANDS; LANDSCAN 2018 HIGH-RESOLUTION POPULATION DATA; garmin

*Water withdrawals based on 2017 or latest available data