Structural Violence: Case of Water Crisis in Pakistan

Published in Hilal English

Written By: Waseem Iftikhar

Before theorizing structural violence, Johan Galtung talked about Personal or Direct Violence. Defining violence he argued that, “Violence is present when human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realizations are below their potential realizations, or the actual is lesser than the potential”(Galtung, 1969). By this, he implied that any hindrance, physical or psychological, that forces an individual to perform below his true potential is in fact violence. In event of direct violence, the actor who commits the act of violence is clearly visible or can be singled out. In event of structural violence however, which also creates social injustice, it is hard to apportion the blame on any single individual since the structures or organizations etc. are so arranged as to create harmful effect. Galtung further argues that although the subject who violates an object may not be visible directly for pointing finger, nonetheless violence does occur.


structvoilance.jpgDevelopment of peace studies in the 20th century has added paradigms of positive and negative peace. Absence of direct violence can create a visible calm, Galtung called this negative peace. To the contrary, positive peace can only be obtained when both direct as well as structural violence is absent. Development of these paradigms convinced policy makers to take serious note of issues such as human rights, environmental concerns as well as economic well-being. John Burton has called this approach more inclusive of human needs (Burton, 1993). Movement or displacement of resources from one region to another and in process creating shortage of production or depriving more deserving region is also a form of structural violence. A classic example of one such problem in Pakistan is water and it is one of the most serious issues that needs immediate policy attention by the government.

As shown in Figure 1, water as a source of conflict has multiple interlinked dimensions. Long term policy vacuum leads to issues such as floods, energy shortage and contaminated water causing disease and even death. Most of the conflicts generated by water are thus far latent, simultaneously becoming protracted, demanding immediate attention.

As per Indus Water Treaty between Pakistan and India, Pakistan receives water from three western rivers i.e., Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, whereas India agreed to utilize water from Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. Although all these rivers originate in Indian Occupied Kashmir and India, Indus River Systems gave Pakistan 80.52% (167.2 billion Cubic meters) of water, while India got 19.48% (40.4 billion Cubic meters) of the total water.


structvoilance1.jpgDams and reservoirs can be used to supply drinking water, generate hydroelectric power, increase the water supply for irrigation, provide recreational opportunities, and improve environmental ecology. In past almost 50 years, USA has built 6575 dams, India 4291 dams (planning another 2500 dams by 2025) and China has been able to build more than 22000 dams. Pakistan in same time has been able to build and operationalize 154 dams (ICOLD). These statistics show great amount of institutional negligence and lack of consensus on part of policy makers. One of the structural fallouts of shortage of dams is that resultantly electricity has to be produced at an exorbitant cost using oil. While it costs Pakistani Rupees 1.02 per unit for hydropower energy, price goes up to Pakistani Rupees 12.0 per unit when produced through oil operated power plants. The excessive amount of money paid every year in shape of electric bills by the consumers is more than the total cost of Kalabagh Dam which has not been built for over two decades due to absence of political consensus. This economic violence caused by excessive electric bills translates into higher cost of this costly production and provision of electricity results into increased commodity prices. Resultantly, poor can’t afford to buy basic necessities of life, which brings this concern to the domain of structural violence. Energy shortage is shared through load shedding. Long hours of darkness in hospitals cause delay in patients’ treatment resulting in deaths, hence, the end product of absence of institutional policy is death of a human being for which no visible subject can be blamed. A survey conducted by three Dutch scientists shows reduced glacial activity causing an 8% reduction in flow of water in Indus River alone by 2050 and, along with Brahmaputra River, these rivers with less water are likely to cause food security issues affecting more than 60 million people (Walter W. Immerzeel). Unless Pakistan creates enhanced storage capacity and actionable plan, it is likely to fall into the category of Water Scarce nation from Water Stressed nation. An agriculture-based economy cannot sustain itself with current rate of population growth and diminishing water availability. Topping the list of basic human needs, food insecurity is in itself violence and needs to be taken care of through structural egalitarianism.

Closely linked to dams is the excessive amount of criticism leading to potential conflict when neighboring countries build or plan to build dams on water channels with water belonging to Pakistan under the water treaties. While water is wasted by Pakistan due to structural failures with millions of gallons of useful water ending up in the Arabian Sea. Afghanistan in connivance with India has planned to build 12 dams on Kabul River with a combined capacity of 25%; more than one of the major Pakistani dams, Mangla Dam. On the other hand, former Pakistani Federal Minister for Water and Power, Khawaja Asif criticized India’s plan to construct 53 power projects and seven dams on rivers dedicated for Pakistan. Water issue has generated conflict both vertically and horizontally: vertical conflict inside the country due to absence or weakness of policy structures, while horizontally against the neighbors, who in turn blame Pakistan for not using water optimally for energy production. Structural violence on issue of water thus seems to cross geographical boundaries besides initiating violence within its own bounds.

Drinking water in Pakistan is not painting any encouraging picture either. A 2010 study by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources shows that out of the 14000 water sources monitored across Pakistan, 82% were providing water which is unsafe for human health and only 18% were found fit for consumption resulting in death of almost 250,000 children every year due to water-borne diseases. This factor was substantiated by another study carried out by National Institute of Population Studies (NIPS) in 2013, which has given an alarming rate of only 17% households who use desperately needed additional water filtration treatment before drinking water. Absence of water, a very basic necessity of life (structural violence), is consistently resulting in alarming number of deaths (direct violence).

Figure 2 above shows a nexus between structural violence and water in Pakistan. As defined by Galtung, six dimensions of structural violence have been elaborated while on the right side, the issues generated by water and perpetuated by absence of credible policy and weak structures have been depicted. Implications of structural violence are applicable to almost every single case of policy failure.
Construction of dams besides eliminating structural violence on the issue will solve Pakistan’s energy problems, ensure clean drinking water, help in environmental upgradation, assist canal systems and consequently defensive capability and agricultural growth, prevent water wastage and floods and ensure better relations with neighbors. A more egalitarian structure of the society is the only solution to resolution of this intractable conflict in Pakistan.


The writer is a PhD scholar at National University of Sciences and Technology, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, Centre for International Peace and Stability (CIPS).

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