Kashmir for Indus: India can hurt Pakistan with a drought

New Delhi should let Islamabad know that Pakistanis, over the years, have got their geography wrong.

 |  6-minute read |   01-10-2016
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Indian media is abuzz with the prospect of the Indian government squeezing Pakistan's lifeline - the Indus river. The Indian Twitterati is busy dishing out contrarian opinions whether India should or can turn off the Indus tap. Shekhar Gupta found such ideas akin to being a Sheikh Chilli.

The other commentators cautioned that such actions amounted to belittling India's soft power that could dent our moral high ground at international forums, which in the past have helped our nation la affair nuclear deal. A cacophony of know-all journalists, former generals, politicians and abrasive social media trolls are having a field day.

One wonders if geopolitics of the subcontinent is actually discussed and debated in the North Block or in the prime time media studios. Speculations and suggestions have sprung up from various quarters and many, if not the most, seem to have little understanding of the hydrological system of the Indus basin and its linkages to Pakistan's economy. The large majority of the discussants have not even cared to go through the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) document signed on September 19, 1960 between India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan's Martial Law President Ayub Khan. The result of our cumulative ignorance of geography, hydrology and the international agreements equals shrill jingoism of the media warriors and their opinionated guests on the opposing sides of the debate.  

induss_100116014309.jpg India can and should invoke the Preamble of the IWT, which unambiguously states and emphasises its fundamental premise - "in a spirit of goodwill and friendship" and "in a cooperative spirit". Photo credit: trust.org

There are three important questions that need to be answered in this Indus narrative. One, would upstream water withdrawals in the Indus river system by India severely impact Pakistan? Two, can India do it? Third, should India do it? The first question has a straightforward answer that can be summed up in one sentence. Beyond any doubt Pakistan's economy, human lives and their livelihoods are inextricably linked to the Indus waters.

Therefore, the upstream water regulations and withdrawals could potentially bring life in Pakistan to a standstill and the Pakistani establishment to its knees. It is one thing for Pakistan to exhort her military establishment to be belligerent and resort to churlish response like exercising fighter jets over the highways, but it is a completely different matter to deal with empty granaries and hungry soldiers. Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan premier's advisor on foreign affairs, has already termed any action of India related to Indus as "an act of war", according to media reports. Beyond the political rhetoric, there would be serious repercussions in Pakistan on the agriculture and domestic water supply, if India were to go back on IWT and turn off the Indus tap.

Pakistan's arable land is almost entirely dependent on the Indus waters. Indus river system distributes about 175 billion cubic meters of water to Pakistan of which over 70 per cent is used for irrigation of arable land. This irrigated land produces about 90 percent of Pakistan's food grains and contributes about one-fourth of the nation's GDP.

Indus river dependent agriculture provides employment to a little less than 45 per cent of Pakistan's labour force and supports, directly or indirectly, three-fourth's of the country's human population. More importantly, Indus basin agriculture contributes more than 60 per cent revenue in foreign exchange earnings to Pakistan's national income. This important water-agriculture-economy nexus is surely well understood in Pakistan.

Yet another problem for Pakistan related to the Indus waters vis-à-vis India is the glaring shortage and rapidly declining freshwater resource availability. The 2014 World Bank estimates indicate that Pakistan has abysmally low renewable internal freshwater resource availability of 297 cubic meters per capita per year, as compared to India's 1,116 cubic meters per capita per year. Pakistan depends on 76 per cent water coming from outside her territory, mainly India.

Should India prefer to squeeze Indus river waters a large-scale catastrophe looms large on Pakistan and they are aware of it.

In any case, Pakistan in the foreseeable future would be the most calamitous nation of South Asia as the Himalayan region gets warmer under the impact of climate change. Our studies have shown that the Himalaya in the last century has warmed at much higher rates than any other mountain region on the globe.

Of the three large Himalayan river systems (Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra), Indus is the most vulnerable to warming. Essentially a glacier-fed river, nearly half of Indus waters come from the progressively depleting Himalayan glaciers.

Taking a long-term view of the region, even if India did nothing, Pakistan would disintegrate on its own under the burden of diminishing agriculture productivity, burgeoning human population and human strife exacerbated by drying up of Indus.

A repeat of history of the Indus Valley civilisation is in the offing; this time it would not take hundreds of years. In the short term, if India were forced to bring about an artificial drought and famine in Pakistan, there is very little Pakistani establishment can do. They cannot use the China card, for there is little India may need to worry about in terms of Indus. Pakistan's overdependence on China's friendship would teach them some glum lessons of history.

Only if their advisors read Henry Kissinger's On China, they would realise that China has often bitten the territories of its neighbors and kept them on a tight leash. China can hardly take any punitive or retributive action against India as far as Indus is concerned.

If the Chinese could harness Indus, they would have done so long back without caring for any downstream nation's interests or the international opinion. They are busy planning transfer of southern waters into the north. China is executing numerous water resource projects on Brahmaputra without the slightest consideration for downstream riparian nations.

It is out of the Pakistan-India equation with regard to Indus except if it decides to enter into direct military engagement with India.      

That said, any Indian activity on the Indus front cannot happen overnight. Notwithstanding the attendant environmental and social risks, the diversion of rivers and constructing storage dams would take years, if not decades. The Indian threat, to have a relook at the IWT, therefore, is an instrument we can use to put international pressure on Pakistan to see reason and start behaving. It is highly unlikely that the IWT that survived three wars between two nations in nearly 70 years would disintegrate so soon.

Indian political and strategic apparatus would have to think through their skins before taking a final call on this. India can and should invoke the Preamble of the IWT, which unambiguously states and emphasises its fundamental premise - "in a spirit of goodwill and friendship" and "in a cooperative spirit". In absence of these conditions being met by Pakistan, India's response could be justified at international fora.

Indian action must be measured and well thought through, for any half baked action might induce Pakistani establishment to do something unprecedented. They would either succumb or retaliate with a more bellicose response.

An equally important outcome could be that Pakistan's military establishment is forced to climb down the high horse and also curb the incessant barking and braying of irresponsible zealots like Hafiz Saeed. India should let Pakistan know that Pakistanis, over the years, have got their geography wrong - Kashmir is not her jugular vein, the Indus surely is.


Maharaj K Pandit Maharaj K Pandit

The writer is Professor and Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University.

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