The water war

By Ayaz Ahmed

The right-wing government of India is bent on accusing Pakistan of terrorism and militancy. After facing diplomatic failure in its smear campaign against Pakistan, the supremacist BJP has lately displayed its inclination to employ water as a weapon against Pakistan.

In this context, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi convened a special meeting of top Indian water experts on September 26 to ponder over the possibility of scraping the 56-year-old Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). This short-sighted move of the war-mongering BJP is primarily calculated to dry up the already faltering water reservoirs of Pakistan so that it collapses economically.

This flagrant decision of India will be in direct violation of provisions 3 and 4 of Article 12 of the IWT which make it crystal clear that the treaty cannot be altered or revoked unilaterally. Such Indian threats are also against international law which does not permit the unilateral suspension of a treaty.

The lingering water issues between Pakistan and India date back to the ill-conceived demarcation of the border by the British in 1947. Under the influence of some Congress leaders, Mountbatten and Sir Cyril Radcliffe drew the political boundary right across the Indus Basin, thus making Pakistan the lower riparian. Therefore, India gained the main headwaters and the physical capacity to cut off Pakistan’s irrigation water.

After Independence, cash-strapped Pakistan was required to purchase water from India under the short-lived Inter-Dominion Accord signed on May 4, 1948. But, due to some political issues and the fateful Kashmir conflict, the agreement soon reached a stalemate, hence creating pressing water issues in Pakistan.

To resolve the simmering water dispute, Pakistan and India signed the IWT in September 1969 under the auspices of the World Bank. Therefore, Pakistan gained rights over the three eastern rivers – the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab – while the eastern rivers, namely the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej went to India. This agreement has prodigiously managed to survive the wars of 1965, 1971, 1999 and a host of severe border skirmishes between Pakistan and India.

As per the provisions of the IWT, India should not interfere with Pakistan’s share of water, except for domestic and non-consumptive use. However, in addition to domestic and non-consumptive use, the treaty allows each country to use the waters of the rivers allocated to the other party for agricultural use (as set out in Annex C) and generation of hydropower (as set out in Annex D). This has provided India the opportunity to build mega water storages along the western rivers, to the detriment of Pakistani farmers.

Despite Pakistan’s repeated protests, India has been engaged in covertly constructing some mega dams along the western rivers and stopping Pakistan’s due share of water. The major among these water projects include the 690MW Salal Hydroelectric Project, Wullar/Tulbul Barrage Project and the 330MW Kishanganga Hydroelectricity Project. These three dams openly violate the basic provisions of the IWT, but India claims that they are in accordance with the treaty.

Although these dams are still under construction, this has threateningly reduced the normal water flow into Pakistan’s major rivers. For instance, due to Indian construction of more than a dozen hydroelectric projects, the water flow to River Chenab has sharply declined to around 6,000 cusecs from a ten-year average of about 10,000 cusecs.

After completing these mega projects, India will presumably further decrease the flow of water into Pakistan by storing it into its dams. This will help India employ the water card to threaten Pakistan’s security and economy. The Indian government will be able to ruin Pakistan’s agricultural sector by substantially reducing the flow of water or instigate flash floods in Pakistan by deliberately releasing stored water in monsoon season.

India should be cognizant that the IWT is in the greater interest of both South Asian nuclear powers. Prime Minister Modi’s disruptive intention of completing blocking Pakistan’s share of water could cause a full-scale war between both the countries as warned by Adviser on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz.

Moreover, such a step will directly backfire by creating pressing geopolitical and geoeconomic issues for India. First, since there are no mega water reservoirs in Indian-held Kashmir, this will cause massive floods in the valley thus further stoking the ongoing unrest.

Second, China will definitely come forward if the IWT is unilaterally abrogated. China also possesses the requisite technology to divert the direction of the Brahmaputra River towards Punjab, Delhi, Aryana and other northern states. All this will not only bring about severe drought, but also flash flooding in these developing states of India.

Lastly, because of its central location in the region and its sharing of borders with most Saarc countries, India is at the centre of water disputes in the region. Apart from Pakistan, India has perennial water disputes with Bangladesh, Nepal and China. It has been trying to conclude IWT-like treaties with these countries. If India unilaterally abrogates the IWT, these countries will be reluctant to conclude any water treaty with India.

India will resort to blocking or reducing water flow into Pakistan for economic and political objectives. Pakistan is already grappling with ever-increasing water shortages owing to the fast shrinking Himalayan glaciers and lack of rainfalls. Some international organisations have repeatedly warned the slumbering government of flash floods and drought in the next 10 to 40 years. This projected situation will compound the country’s water issues if India blocks water flow into Pakistan in the near future.

All this should serve as a clarion call to our leaders who are busy in power politics and political squabbling. If the incumbent leadership does not build an adequate number of small and large dams, the country will face recurrent drought and threatening floods in the future.

The writer is editor of The Asia Watch.

The article was originally published in The News on October 04, 2016.

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