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India Re-thinking Indus Water Treaty

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“Many of the wars of the 20th century were about oil, but wars of the 21st century will be over water”, said Dr Isamil Serageldin, former Vice President of the World Bank. Water is surpassing oil as the world’s scarcest critical resource as water has no substitute. There’s an increasing feeling in the world that everyone has a basic right to a minimum 13 gallons of water a day for basic human health. Today, the world stands divided between water haves and have-nots and Pakistan is facing critical water issues. Water management and distribution has always been an important but cumbersome process in Pakistan being a semi-arid country and its economy based mainly on agriculture and related industry.

The positive thing is that Pakistan has the largest contiguous supply-based canal irrigation system in the world. In Pakistan, the muddy plains of the Indus basin cover approximately 25 percent of the land area of Pakistan. Whereas in India, the basin includes only 9.8 percent of the total geographical area of the country. On negative side, the aqua environment of Pakistan has been shrinking since last two decades as the World Bank had put the country in the category of “water-stressed” in 2000. The availability of water in Pakistan has been declining over the past few decades from 5000 cubic meters per capita 60 years ago to 1200 cubic meters per capita in 2010.

Unfortunately, Pakistan’s water problem is not new, as soon after independence, the country faced water problems due to blockage of its water in canals by India. Political boundary between Pakistan and India was drawn right across the Indus Basin making the country the lower riparian to India. The headwaters went to Indian side leaving Pakistan vulnerable as India got the physical capacity to cut-off vital irrigation water. Adding insult to injury, India started demanding proprietary rights on the water of Punjab Rivers, denying Pakistan its due share as a lower riparian.

Indus Water Treaty (IWT) 1960

Negotiations commenced between Pakistan and India in 1951 under the World Bank and resultantly the famous Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) was signed on September 19, 1960. It was the partition of waters like land in 1947. Pakistan got the rights of the waters of the three western rivers, i.e., Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab, while the three eastern rivers, i.e., Beas, Sutluj, and Ravi went in total jurisdiction of India. India was not allowed to build storages on the western rivers except to a very limited extent and also restrictions were imposed on the extension of irrigation development in India. The permanent Indus Commission was appointed for both states. International financial assistance was given to Pakistan for the development of irrigation works utilizing the waters of western rivers.

a. Strain & Stress on IWT and Violations by India: There is no denying the fact that the IWT survived in the midst of wars and border clashes between the two states but the Indian projects on Pakistani rivers created stress and strain as India could either reduce water flows to Pakistan or cause floods by releasing the stored-waters. There are numerous water disputes between the two, e.g., Wular Barrage, Kishanganga Project, Baglihar Dam, etc. Salal Dam was started by India without informing Pakistan, in violation of the IWT. Though an agreement was reached between the two countries, yet there is no guarantee that India would not do the same in future. Now India has got the leverage to hold water for 25-26 days which can cause acute shortage of water for winter crops in Pakistan. This, besides causing electricity shortage, can greatly affect wheat crop in the Punjab. According to Dr John Briscoe, Professor of the Environmental Engineering and Environmental Health at Harvard University and former Senior Water Advisor to the World Bank on the Baglihar case, “in case of Baghliar, Pakistan’s vulnerability was driven home when India chose to fill Baglihar exactly at the time when it would impose maximum harm on farmers in downstream Pakistan. Following Baglihar is a veritable caravan of Indian projects, i.e., Kishanganga, Sawalkot, Pakuldul, Bursar, Dal Huste, Gyspa…The cumulative live storage will be large, giving India an unquestioned capacity to have major impact on the timing of flows.”

b. Implications for Pakistan: Water flows in river Chenab declined to about 6000 cusecs from a 10 year average of 10000 cusecs, mainly because of construction of over a dozen Hydro-electric Projects (HEPs) upstream by India. To fill Baglihar Dam, India had consistently obstructed River Chenab’s flow. Resultantly, Pakistan received lesser water when it should have been receiving a minimum of 55,000 cusecs per day. In order to achieve the required growth targets in agriculture, Pakistan needs an estimated 277 MAF in 2025. Otherwise, the shortage of surface water will result in drought and more dependency on ground water for irrigation; hence water table will go down causing water constraints to the population. Indian water regulation capability has increased as with the completion of Salal Dam, India has enhanced its water regulation capability over river Chenab by 6-7 times. After completion of Baglihar Dam, India will be able to stop the flow of water in the river for 30-40 days as compared to previous capability of only 8-10 days. Kishanganga HEP will also enhance Indian storage capability over river Jhelum with a stoppage capability of 14 days. Also, Wullar Barrage will further enhance Indian storage capability in river Jhelum for additional 30 days. So, depending upon the degree of water regulation capability, India can create three types of effects:

  • Drying up of rivers-related canal
  • Flooding of rivers
  • Fluctuate discharge of rivers

c. Possible Impacts on Global Security: Since water security has become a principal concern for sustainable development, so availability of freshwater is one of the greatest challenges that the world is going to face in the near future. As water shortages are growing, the result could be a series of disasters and confrontations leading to regional crises. Nowhere else on earth are the prospect of water wars more serious than in South Asia, where two of the world’s greatest river systems crisscross the international boundaries of the world’s largest and most densely-populated countries being:

  • Indus River System (IRS)
  • Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM)

Water issues are likely to continue as a major source of conflict between India and Pakistan in coming decades as forecasted by many analysts. As populations rise, levels of economic development increase and the adverse effects of climate change become more extreme, the South Asian region will struggle to meet its growing demand while managing dwindling water supplies and the trans-boundary rivers, especially those in the IRS and GBM basins. These disputes could prove to be dangerous for world security since war over water between two nuclear armed states, i.e., Pakistan and India, would be dangerous. The possibility of such a war can not be ruled out since water poses a survival issue there is no substitute of this commodity.

India Re-thinking IWT

Indians consider IWT generous to Pakistan and Pakistan thinks it discriminatory right from its inception. At official levels, there is no such demand by the Govt. of India/Indus Water Commission India and so is the case with Pakistan as there is no such demand from the Govt. of Pakistan/Indus Water Commission Pakistan. But at non-governmental level, intellectuals/academia in India have started asking for re-visiting/re-thinking the IWT and probably they are making a case for the future. Brahma Chellaney, a Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, said that “Pakistan’s reopening of the water-sharing agreement could backfire, as it might prompt India to rethink a treaty that was extremely generous to Pakistan. There was no treaty in the world which had been so generous on the part of the upper riparian to the lower riparian state. India was starving its own northern regions and reserving four-fifths of the water for Pakistan. If Pakistan played this dangerous game, they would make India review its generosity.”

  1. IDSA Report: Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) had published its book/task force report in 2010 titled “Water Security for India—The External Dynamics” in which they have given reasons and plans for re-visiting the IWT. According to the report, “…with Pakistan, given some stringent provisions in the IWT that thwart India’s plans of developing projects on the western rivers, a ‘modification’ of the provisions of the treaty should be called for. Whether it is done through re-negotiations or through establishing an Indus-II Treaty, modifications of the provisions are crucial in case of the western rivers. Under the draft provisions of the International Law Commission ‘Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, 2001’, India can consider the abrogation of the treaty…Pakistan aids and abets terrorist actions from its soil. India should quantify the damage it has sustained over the decades because of Pakistani support to terrorism and seek as a first step suitable compensation. If Pakistan does not comply, India can possibly threaten to walk out of various bilateral agreements including the IWT.” Pakistan is using water propaganda to get international attention on Kashmir so India should “talk” to Pakistan but not “negotiate”. The talks should be about “water needs” and not “water rights”.
  2. Five Constituencies/Point of Views in India on Re-thinking the IWT: According to the same IDSA report, there are five constituencies that ask for revision or a re-think. “The first constituency seeks to evolve an Indus-II under the provisions of Article VII and Article XII of the IWT for an integrated or joint development of the Indus water basin. Indus-II should be fed into the current peace process as a means both for defusing current political strains over Indus-I and managing adverse impact of climate change.”

“The second constituency while understanding the merits of a new hydrologic relationship on the Indus does not see any viability of Indus-II and contends that a totally new treaty has to be negotiated. The IWT was a partitioning treaty, like the partitioning of the land. How can cooperation be built on that basis?”

“The third constituency is the domestic pressure group in [Indian occupied] Jammu & Kashmir which feels that the IWT has restricted the state’s overall development by not allowing it the usage of “its” rivers, i.e., Jhelum, Chenab and Indus. It has been calling for a complete review of the treaty. The [Indian occupied] Jammu & Kashmir government has been contending that in spite of having an untapped hydro-electric potential of 15,000 MW, the state continues to suffer from acute power shortage and related agro-economic underdevelopment.”

“The fourth constituency springs into action when the political climate between India and Pakistan becomes acrimonious. While war over water is not an option, this group suggests strong-arm tactics in dealing with Pakistan and using water as a coercive tool and a bargaining instrument in the larger politico-strategic objectives of India.”

“There is a fifth constituency that argues that any attempt to review the treaty, can be done only after India exploits the potential already permissible under the treaty. Only a crying child, it is argued, gets the mother’s milk. This constituency argues that first India should fully exploit the existing potential and then cry for more. Any attempt otherwise to review the treaty may not be seen as logical. The IWT is a product of its time and could be fruitfully modified and renegotiated to bring it more in line with contemporary international watercourse law, the Helsinki rules, and emerging concerns with water quality, environmental sustainability, climate change, and principles of equitable sharing.”

Pakistan’s serious projected shortages, India’s trend of damming and diverting waters and global warming’s expected depletion of water in the IRS are a source of increasing tensions between Pakistan and India. Based on supply and demand projections, India faces its own water scarcity, which would provide India an excuse to store or divert river water that would otherwise reach Pakistan. Water shortages would pressure the Pakistani government to increase its share of water drawn from the Indus system under the treaty as Pakistan is heavily reliant on the Indus and has few alternative water supply sources unlike India. In this environment, renegotiation of the IWT may become an important diplomatic issue between India and Pakistan. With India, water issue will be far more political and strategic than just water. India has also started propagating that Tibet’s water is for humanity, not for China alone. But they (Indians) forget that the Indus-Ganges basins are also for humanity, not for India alone.

The Way Forward

As for as the existing treaty is concerned and keeping pros and cons in mind, there is no need to revisit/review/rethink the IWT.  Due to India’s continuous hegemonic attitude, Pakistan would not be in a better position to have any revision in its favour. Instead, Pakistan should continue lobbying that India has been violating the IWT and India should be compelled to abide by the IWT in its true letter and spirit. Also, Pakistan should engage with India within the context of the IWT in a comprehensive way. International lobbying should be intensified on the point, i.e., water being the “lifeline” issue for Pakistan and this could trigger war.

Pakistan should be calling for a sophisticated forecasting system, accurately estimating how much water flows into the IRS, as almost 90% of the water in the Upper Indus River Basin comes from remote glaciers of Himalaya and Karakorum mountain ranges, which border Pakistan, China and India. This region is so remote that the authorities in Pakistan do not know the exact weather conditions there. This system will also help in alleviating droughts in the country. The water forecasting system could ultimately help Pakistan in optimizing water allocation at national level by working out how much water is used for irrigation, industry, and domestic purposes.

Internally, water management in Pakistan has been poor. So, keeping in view the dwindling water resources, water must be made part of new “security agenda.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer, and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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IPRI is one of the oldest non-partisan think-tanks on all facets of National Security including international relations & law, strategic studies, governance & public policy and economic security in Pakistan. Established in 1999, IPRI is affiliated with the National Security Division (NSD), Government of Pakistan.


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