India’s Bargaining Chip?
‘Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over’, thus goes the oft-quoted line of Mark Twain, underscoring the momentousness of the water exigency that can foment messy warfare between and among the nation states. NASA’s satellite data in 2015 revealed that out of 37 large aquifers of the world, 21 are already moving past their tipping points. The state of the conflict particularly seems likely to worsen between the two hostile neighbours: India and Pakistan.
Pakistan, a single basin country, depends for its survival, on the sole source, that is, the Indus; the two other sources i.e. groundwater and rainfall, are neither quantitatively and qualitatively sufficient nor are they evenly distributed for Pakistan to pivot to. Essentially an agrarian economy, Pakistan sees an existential threat to its very life in India’s tampering with waters of the Indus. The Indus Waters Treaty, an engineering-cum-diplomatic feat of 1960, provides for a comprehensive framework for water-sharing and conflict-resolution mechanism between the two states. However, the Treaty is claimed by many to be soon bruised and finally jettisoned in the historical Indo-Pakistani melee. Indian analysts argue and press ‘to punish the troublesome neighbour to make it mend its ways.’ How far there is likelihood for India to throw the baby – the most-loved baby – out with the bathwater merits a critical scrutiny. This article addresses this question.
The genesis of the water conflict
Like most of the issues between India and Pakistan, the water conflict dates back to the partition of the Indian Subcontinent. Water emerged as a major fault line following the partition and subsequent splitting up of the Indus Basin. As a result, India emerged as an upper riparian with head-works such as Madhopur and Ferozepur, previously irrigating around 1.7 million acres of land in West Punjab, in its hands. Pakistan was now a lower riparian of India and the latter did not shy away from terrorizing the former with the help of water manipulation to force it into giving it concessions. The Arbitral Tribunal set up to ensure the resolution of the conflicts arising out of the division of assets, etc., was to last up to March 31, 1948. As long as it was alive, water flowed uninterrupted to Western Punjab. However, on April 1, 1948, the day the tribunal ceased to exist, water was stopped quite brazenly, thus wreaking an unimaginable havoc to the crops, and human and wildlife. However, after a rushed round of talks, the Communiqué, a joint statement known as “Inter-Dominion Agreement” was effected on May 4, 1948, according to which East Punjab (of India) was to progressively diminish supply to West Punjab (of Pakistan) in order to give it reasonable time to tap alternative sources. In return, India claimed the proprietary rights to all the eastern rivers. Against the backdrop of the dispute, David Lilienthal, former head of both the Tennessee Valley Authority and the US Atomic Energy Commission, having extensively toured India and Pakistan, wrote an article, which appeared in the August 4, 1951, issue of Collier’s, wherein he drew the attention of the world to the most sensitive transnational conflict. Among many other suggestions, the one of considerable importance was that the Indus Basin be treated, exploited and developed as a single unit. Another one, on whose basis the IWT was later concluded, was an engineering solution which called for the division of the basin between the two states.
The Indus Waters Treaty
The World Bank intervened, and extensive talks continued till September 19, 1960 when the Treaty was formally signed. According to the Treaty, waters of the three western rivers i.e. the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab, were allocated to Pakistan, and the three eastern rivers i.e. the Ravi, the Sutlej and the Beas, were given in perpetuity to India. Pakistan was also given a hefty amount of aid to help tap alternative sources in the form of dams and reservoirs to supply water to the areas irrigated by the three eastern rivers.
Pakistan’s Gains from IWT
1. Pakistan, like India, became fully independent to plan, construct and administer its own water projects.
2. Pakistan got more water than India did. Eighty percent of the total water flow of the basin was give for Pakistan’s use, whereas India got only twenty percent.
3. The construction of two mega dams to serve the following purposes:
(a) Facilitate the control of floods.
(b) Provide water storage for irrigation.
(c) Produce cheap and clean hydroelectric power.
4. Pakistan received a sum of $50 million to provide for drainage channels and tube wells to facilitate much-needed reclamation of water-logged areas.
5. Water availability became ensured, as eighty percent of total water flow of the Indus is produced during the monsoon period, that is, July to September. Thus, with more reservoirs, water is now available round the year even in lean periods.
6. We have confidence that the amount of water provided for in the Treaty will surely come to the system; otherwise, the sword of Damocles that India would shut off water supply at its whims and wishes would have always hung over our heads.
Losses for Pakistan
1. The Sailab irrigation in the flood plains of Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers disappeared forever. This was quite a vast area.
2. Due to the siltation of the channels, floods wreck great damages in addition to other environmental degradation.
3. The upkeep of the new canals and storages is very expensive. Furthermore, storages have a very limited life.
4. We lost 3 eastern rivers to India.
5. We got replacement works but the main channel of the rivers was quite huge. Moreover, the artificial flow cannot compete with the natural flow.
6. The flow of the western rivers is reduced to the diversion to meet the needs of the areas previously irrigated by the eastern rivers, thus leading to the interprovincial hydraulic disputes. Further, there are transit losses due to water being channelled over long distances from the western rivers to feed areas dependent on the eastern rivers.
7. To operate projects that we got, we did not get assistance.
8. We shall not get any monetary help from India or the world for the reconstruction of the water reservoirs.
After years of its enactment, the Treaty still invites mixed responses; some term it a diplomatic triumph for Pakistan to bring India on table, and extract such concessions while some dub it as a defeat the Pakistani politicians brought to the country. Some circles accuse Ayub Khan of having signed the Treaty under the duress of the big powers. The smaller provinces are also not happy and they allege that ‘Punjab sold the water to India’. Some water experts from Punjab consider the Treaty to be very harmful for Pakistan. The Sindhis see it as a device to hoodwink it of the Indus water while serving the interests of India and Punjab. Quite interestingly, the majority of the Indians berate the then Indian leadership for innocently surrendering eighty percent of water to Pakistan. Nehru had to face the music in hostile Lok Sabha for the conclusion of the Treaty.
Indian ventures on the western rivers
India has in contemplation a dozen of projects to be built on the western rivers; besides many others that have already been completed or are in operation. India is very much concerned about improving and expanding the base of its energy generation, and beefing up its economy. Its booming economy, the waves of globalization and the unstoppable process of urbanization push it to generate more and more hydel power. Mostly, the Indian projects that are in pipeline on the Indus are hydel ones. Among them, some controversial ones are:
1. Wullar Barrage/ Tulbul Navigational project
2. Baglihar Hydroelectric Plant
3. Kishenganga Hydroelectric Plant
4. Nimoo-Bazgo Hydroelectric Project
5. Chuttak Hydroelectric Project.
Pakistan objects to the Indian ventures on the western rivers as it finds them in direct contravention to the provisions of the IWT. India responds by arguing that in constructing different projects on the western rivers, it is utilizing the hitherto unutilized share of water allocated to it from the western rivers for the non-consumptive uses, thus perfectly abiding the spirit of the Treaty. Pakistani apprehensions are grounded in the following factors:
1. Flooding by India: Pakistan feels a terrible threat to its existence, as the stored water can flush out the land, property, etc.
2. Reduction of water flow: Pakistan fears that the said projects will leave the Indus dried up in critical times especially during the sowing season.
3. Strategic leverage: India is, in fact, securing a strategic advantage by means of these projects, like flooding Pakistan during a military clash – some analysts maintain that flood water would destroy Pakistan’s defence. India is also seeking to turn the tide to its own benefit to coerce Pakistan through water manipulation into giving it political concessions.
In the aftermath of the heinous Uri attack, India mounted pressure on Pakistan to admit to having engineered the terrorist assault; with Indian warmongers urging Modi government to scrap the IWT to teach a lesson to Pakistan. Some Indian analysts contend that in order for such treaties to work smoothly, mutual trust is an indispensable condition citing Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties that provides for the dissolution of treaties in case circumstances change drastically.
But, it is easier said than done. Indian hands are tied; scrapping treaty incurs quite an expensive price to India. Moreover, a conflict-resolution mechanism has comprehensively been provided for in the document entailing the settlement of any issue through three platforms, that are, (i) Indus Water Commission; (ii) Neutral Expert; and (iii) International Arbitral Court. Hence, the IWT appears to be a bad bargaining chip for India.
1. India is lower riparian in Himalayan Rivers while China is upper riparian in the river Brahmaputra. Tampering with the internationally brokered and acknowledged treaty will earn India a bad name; besides, setting a precedent not really honourable. Further, intervention by China is a foregone conclusion. What if China does the same in the rivers flowing through its territory?
2. Water issue is inseparable from the Kashmir issue. In fact, the IWT is very unpopular among the Kashmiris as they allege that both India and Pakistan have singlehandedly usurped the water of the Kashmir valley. They cannot utilize their own water. They have been pleading for the radical review of the Treaty. Hence, maintaining the status quo is necessary.
3. India has a number of water agreements with its other neighbours – in addition to the IWT with Pakistan. The Ganges Treaty with Bangladesh, the Gandak Treaty with Nepal, and the Teesta Water-sharing Agreement, to mention a few. Not abiding by the IWT will cast a nasty slur upon India’s reputation.
Some other factors holding India back from disposing of the Treaty are:
1. Indian anxiety about the targeted fruition of the dissolution of the IWT.
2. Fear of offending the world, and western powers who mediated the Treaty.
3. Fear of blemishing its image as a responsible, law-abiding country.
4. Scuttling the peace process with Pakistan.
“The controversy over Kashmir has been so heated that the real issue has largely been lost sight of. The real issue is not the plebiscite, but how best to promote and insure peace and a sense of a community in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent; how best to avoid a UN situation that will create another, though different Korea…The Kashmir issue, as an issue in itself, may not be solvable now, short of war. But the surrounding tensions can be reduced, one by one. It may then be possible to solve the matter of Kashmir’s political future. The starting point should be to minimize Pakistan’s fears of deprivation. Pakistan’s present use of water should be confirmed by India. The urgent problem is to store the water that is presently wasted, so that both countries can use it. This is not a religious or a political problem; it is a problem of the survival of a nation.”
— David Lilienthal