Indus Waters Treaty: Is India ready to drown itself trying to parch Pakistan?

Abrogation from this 1960 water sharing pact would have unprecedented environmental costs and precipitate another refugee crisis.

 |  Angiography  |  5-minute read |   26-09-2016
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Indus Waters Treaty isn’t only a relic of the Nehruvian times; this 1960 pact is a landmark in the history of watersharing agreements between countries the world over, and certainly the shining example of cross-country cooperation in Asia. Its “generosity” towards Pakistan (allowing over 80 per cent of the waters for use in the lower-riparian country) has come under scrutiny in the wake of the terror attacks, the latest being against the Uri Army base, and amid the clamour to abrogate the treaty will Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet the various departments and consultants today to mull over the course of action.

However, let’s be clear about this: reviewing the finer points of the treaty is one thing; withdrawing from it unilaterally is simply quite another. A river can’t be stopped overnight from flowing into its territory except in mythologies. A river doesn’t know borders, only how to flow. A river doesn’t respect petty rivalries between two warring nations, and any unthoughtout attempt to drastically alter its course would only bring upon misery for both the co-riparian states.

Hence, the line “blood is thicker than water”, though catchy, is an extremely misleading one. For one, water is the basic ingredient of blood, going by simply scientifically established facts, and without enough water that can be peacefully harnessed by the people, blood will be spilt.

Given that Pakistan is a single river-basin country, with only Indus and its tributaries to depend on, the treaty is certainly a huge safeguard. Unlike India, which is home to two massive river systems – Indus and the Ganges, Pakistan’s water lifeline comes with the control button in India.

Such is the unfinished project of Partition.

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Late former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru with Pakistan's President Ayub Khan signing the Indus Waters Treaty on September 19, 1960. [Photo: Agencies] 

The water wars

Despite being a bone of contention, until now the Indus Waters Treaty has been solemnly adhered to. It has survived two wars – in 1965 and 1971, and wasn’t really tampered with during the 1999 Kargil conflict. It’s a testament to India’s diplomatic patience that Pakistan’s repeated attempts to internationalise the IWT by taking the matter to the International Court of Arbitration has been met with stoic resilience on the Indian side.

In a geopolitically unstable region like South Asia, the water pacts that India is party to hold immense importance. Geographically, South Asia is a unit with interconnected and extremely co-dependent ecosystems, with rivers originating in the Himalayas and draining in either the Bay of Bengal to the east or the Arabian Sea to the west. Both the lower riparian countries – Pakistan and Bangladesh – therefore are directly reliant on the mighty rivers that flow into their territories after traversing swathes of India. Water cooperation for South Asia isn’t an ethical luxury, it’s an absolute necessity.

Indian largesse versus Pakistan’s obstructionism

The “generosity” of the Indus Waters Treaty has been a source of grievance for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, a power-starved state, because of which in 2003, the late Mufti Mohammad Saeed had passed a resolution in the J&K Assembly seeking a review of the treaty. Of course, it didn’t go through.

Strategic experts like Brahma Chellaney have been vociferously favouring a treaty review, in the wake of Pakistan trying to stall middle-level hydelpower projects on smaller Indus tributaries like the Kishenganga and Ratle by seeking new arbitration proceedings.

Pakistan’s water paranoia can be gauged from 1947 onwards, when it feared India would restrict the Indus water flow and create drought and famine across the border. But right from the Standstill Agreement of 1948 to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, India has met its water obligations to the last word.

Even though Chellany et al think that compliance with the treaty has in fact been counter-productive for India, with Pakistan building mega dam projects on the Indus tributaries while at the same time objecting to India building even middle-level ones for irrigation and power generation purposes, the treaty has ensured that a manmade drought or famine is averted in northwestern part of South Asia.

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Pakistan is a single-river basin country, heavily dependent on the Indus and its tributaries. [Photo: Maps of India]  

Water terror and possible refugee crisis

Global climate change, depletion of the Himalayan glaciers and rainfall shortages in the recent years have ensured that swathes of South Asia, particularly its northwestern part, comprising Pakistan and Afghanistan, must brace for severe water shortages in the times to come. Add to that pollution of the rivers, staggering quantities of industrial waste,  inadequately developed rainwater harvesting system and growing need for rural electrification.

That Pakistan is looking at a grim future of water-starved restiveness goes without saying. And abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty in an already tense situation of state-sponsored terror from that country would only aggravate the problem, not solve it.

Moreover, neighbouring Afghanistan is equally battling a looming environmental crisis due to soil erosion, increasing salinisation of precious ground water, devegetation and conflict-led pollution of natural resources.

Taken together, the Af-Pak region, in the wake of any serious revocation the water-sharing pact, would see an escalation of “environment refugees”, something that must be considered during any recalibration of the treaty. 

Abrogating the IWT will send Pakistan into a vortex of uncertainty and certainly hasten the water-stressed situation. When coupled with flash floods, avalanches and irregular rainfall, this has a capacity to devastate a huge riverine ecosystem, which will of course adversely impact India, flooding the cities and other terrains of Jammu and Kashmir.

However, as has been already said in the papers, turning off the Indus taps isn’t something that can be done without erecting a number of mega dams on the “western rivers” – Indus, and its tributaries Jhelum and Chenab, something that will invite international censure and endanger the sensitive balance of rivers in the region.

Also read: Disastrous for India to break Indus Waters Treaty over Uri attack

Also read: Indus Waters Treaty: If Pakistan wants blood, it will have to be threatened with water

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Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Opinionator at DailyO. Because criticism is the opium of the classes.

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