Vivek Shukla

Return of the water diplomacy

Photo credits – Asad (CC)

Indus Waters Commissioners from India and Pakistan are likely to meet later this month for their routine annual meeting. The meeting had been postponed after India had declared that blood and water cannot flow together after the Uri attacks in September. The Indus Waters Treaty was signed in 1960 as a river sharing agreement between India and Pakistan and has worked quite smoothly between the two otherwise hostile neighbours since the last 57 years. Under the agreement, the control of the three eastern rivers, the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej was given to India, whereas the control over the western rivers, the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum was given to Pakistan. The World Bank is the designated facilitator for the agreement. The Indus Treaty does not permit India to build storage dams on the western rivers i.e. the rivers meant for Pakistan but allows limited use of the waters for power generation through runaway river schemes. Pakistan has objected to the Baglihar run-of-the-river project as well as two other similar projects i.e. Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant on the Kishanganga/Neelum river (a tributary of the Jhelum river) and the Ratle Hydroelectric Plant project on the Chenab river. Pakistan is seeking the help of World Bank for arbitration saying that these projects are not justified under the treaty. The Indus Waters Commission is mandated to meet annually or whenever either country demands it. If it is not met before March 31st this year, it could jeopardise the future of the treaty. Let us see why India has stepped back from its rhetoric on the Indus Waters Treaty and to discuss the cross-border sharing of waters between India and Pakistan.

Is it pragmatic on part of India to step back from the tough stance on the Indus Waters Treaty?
The temperatures were high in India after the Uri attack and a view was presented before the Government of India that we cannot allow the existing treaty mechanisms to go on while everything else around it has changed.
India had followed a twin approach on the Indus Waters Treaty after the Uri attack – Firstly, the Prime Minister of India has never said that the Indus Waters Treaty is in jeopardy. He repeatedly said that we will use all the waters assigned to us under the treaty and for this purpose an inter-ministerial task force was set up under the chairmanship of Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, Shri Nripendra Misra. Secondly, the meeting which was held after eight days of the Uri attacks, ‘sources’ told the media that ‘blood and water cannot flow together’ and that the commission can meet only in an atmosphere free from terror.

Should such issues be kept out of politics?
India never had the intention to jeopardise the Indus Waters Treaty but it was necessary to signal Pakistan about a pawn in the game that India could play in case the troubles emanating from Pakistan are not exterminated. Moreover, the treaties do not get jeopardise in practice if the meetings are not held in time. The temporary postponement of the Indus Waters Commission meeting could also have been an attempt to deny Pakistan a bilateral grievance redressal mechanism.

Did the pressure on Pakistan work?
Primarily, the intended objective was to manage the domestic public opinion after the terrorist attack. The unease among the Pakistani media over the unintended consequences of the suspension of Indus Waters Treaty is certainly visible.
As a result, Pakistan wants to include Indus Waters Treaty negotiations under the composite dialogues. It has called the Indus Waters Commission under the Indus Waters Treaty as an ‘inefficient forum’ for resolving water issues.

Impact on Pakistan if India implements the Indus Waters Treaty in letter and spirit –
India is allowed to use 3.6 million acre-feet of the water of the western rivers (for non-consumptive purposes) which are otherwise under the control of Pakistan as per the treaty. Despite such an arrangement, India uses only about 4% of the assigned water from the western rivers.
Although the real issue in Pakistan is the mismanagement of waters from their share of the western rivers, Pakistan would be in serious trouble if India starts utilising its allotted space as per the treaty conditions. The structure of agriculture in Pakistan is such that it needs a continuous flow of water from Chenab and Jhelum for the irrigation purposes during ‘Kharif’ season. It should be noted that the Chenab, Kabul and Jhelum rivers are called the ‘early risers’ in Pakistan as they start getting water in the month of March itself which is the time of sowing of ‘Kharif’ crops such as sugarcane and cotton in Pakistan. If the waters from Chenab and Jhelum are stalled and Afghanistan also stores about 4.7 million acre-feet of waters from the Kabul river as per the Kabul river basin agreement, it will seriously impact the Kharif sowing season in Pakistan.

Why has the Indus Waters Treaty come under so much strain?
There are a number of reasons for this issue such as inefficient water management by Pakistan, climate change variables like melting of glaciers and alleged upstream consumptive use by India. Pakistan has nothing substantial to blame about the Indus Waters Treaty provisions as it already favours it substantially even to the extent of disfavouring India’s interests. But the treaty has become a domestic political football for Pakistan whereby it showers the blame of its water woes on India and not on its inefficiency in management of river waters. The political elite and strategic thinkers in Pakistan are aware that the treaty provisions favour the interests of the lower riparian interests i.e. the interests of Pakistan, in general.
Pakistan’s population in 1951 was 31 million and currently, it stands at about 94 million. By 2020, it is expected to touch a whopping number of 220 million. Therefore, to feed this exorbitant increase of population, Pakistan would require almost another two-thirds of another Indus river. The inefficiency of storage facilities in Pakistan is forcing the entire waters from Chenab to flow into the sea i.e. the wastage of about 30 million acre-feet of waters. It also has the most inefficient agriculture in the world and compounded with the rising water woes, it is playing the political football by blaming all its inefficiencies on India to save their face domestically.

Would it benefit India is the Indus Waters Treaty is renegotiated?
The current Indus Waters Treaty was premised on political considerations. The political consideration was shaped in the form of an assurance that India will not dry out Pakistan in the future. It was hoped that the waters of the Indus would bridge the gaps of hostility prevailing in the minds of Pakistani leadership towards India. Unfortunately, it never happened. The treaty is highly unpopular in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir because it is devoid of its river waters itself to favour the interests of Pakistan. Therefore, if the treaty is renegotiated, India’s claim will only increase and it is in India’s interest to push for renegotiation. Similarly, it is in Pakistan’s interest to adhere scrupulously to the current treaty provisions, but the voices for renegotiation are rising in Pakistan which is almost like music to the ears of Indian Government.
In the case of renegotiation, India should put up this fact on the table that Pakistan is an irresponsible state which allows more than 30 million acre-feet of water to get wasted into the sea and if Pakistan cannot make productive use of it, the waters of the Chenab should be placed under India’s control.

Conclusion –
There is no explicit ‘exit clause’ to the treaty and it is doubtful that anyone would opt for it because, in the end, all water related issues are sensitive. India has already seen the examples of it during the inter-provincial water disputes. Quite pragmatically, the present Indian Government is allowing the dispute resolution mechanisms under the treaty provisions to function effectively, which would work in India’s favour. Indus Waters Treaty provides a cooperative mechanism and that spirit is important because, in the absence of it, there would be huge difficulties to proceed further on such a sensitive issue like that of international bilateral negotiation for river-water sharing.

About the Author
The author is an analyst who expresses his opinions on matters of global significance. He can be contacted at X (formerly Twitter) using the handle @postsfromVivek.