Indus Waters Treaty: Future of India-Pakistan pact bleak as water shortage could intensify rift

Indian and Pakistani officials wrapped up a two-day meeting of the Indus Water Commission on Tuesday. India cancelled last year’s meeting in Delhi following the Uri attacks. Though the Indus Treaty is regarded as one of the most successful international pacts, having survived three major wars and numerous twists and turns in a volatile relationship, the future of the treaty looks bleak as water shortage on both sides of the divide will compel the government to talk tough.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself declaring that blood and water cannot flow together, there was the talk of India using water as a diplomatic tool to put pressure on Pakistan. But in an abrupt turnaround, India decided to send Indus Water Commissioner PK Saxena assisted by MEA officials for the meeting with his Pakistan counterpart Asif Baig Mirza.

Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

With India-Pakistan ties at an all time low, the treaty is coming under enormous pressure. Add to this the fact that global warming is melting glaciers, water resources across the world are under stress. Water scarcity is already a major global problem and experts predict that future wars in the world will be over water.

India and Pakistan have had heated exchanges over water. Islamabad accuses New Delhi of not fulfilling its treaty obligations. Pakistan regards India’s decision to build two major hydro electric power stations, the 330 megawatt Kishanganga project and the 850 megawatt Ralte plant in Jammu as breaching the Indus protocol. It wants to take the issue before an international court while India wants a neutral observer.

New Delhi maintains that run-of –the river dams are allowed by international law. According to the treaty technical objections by either party are referred to neutral experts if the countries cannot resolve it bilaterally. Only disputes that require interpretation of the treaty are handled by a Court of Arbitration. The World Bank, which helped in the negotiations is a guarantor of the Indus Water Treaty, signed in 1960 between Jawaharlal Nehru and President Ayub Khan.

The treaty gives India control over the three eastern rivers of the Indus basin — the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej— while Pakistan has the three western rivers— the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum.The Permanent Indus Commission, which includes a commissioner from each country ensures the smooth working of the treaty. Since the treaty officials of India and Pakistan have met 112 times.

Hardliners in India believe that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was over generous with Pakistan and want the present government to redress the wrong. Asked if he believed the Treaty is lopsided, Himanshu Thakkar of South Asian Network on Dams and Rivers, said "I do not think so.’’ Commenting on the current logjam over reference to a neutral observer or taking the arbitration path, Thakkar had this to say.

"The logical sequence is to first go for neutral expert and then appeal to the court of arbitration. For Kishanganga since the Court of Arbitration has already given its view, I guess if the issues Pakistan wants to raise are the same, it can go to CoA. But for Ratel, since this is the first dispute, it may go to Neutral Expert. Pakistan may be thinking that if the neutral expert gives its views, the project may become fait accomplice. Difficult to say who is right since the specific disputes Pakistan wants to raise is not fully in public domain.’’

Pakistan had earlier dubbed India’s water threat as an act of aggression and an act of war. There will be more trouble ahead, as India is planning on building several more run of the river projects, much like what the Chinese are doing on the Brahmaputra. Pakistan has also raised concerns about the design of the 1000 mw Pakal Dul on the Chenab, the 43 mw Lower Kalnai, on another tributary of the Chenab and 120 mw Miyar hydroelectric plant again a tributary of the Chenab. The details of the conversation behind closed doors are not known. The two sides usually also exchange data on the flow of water from India to the Pakistan side.

Gopal Krishna of Citizens Forum for Civil Liberties, has an entirely different view of river water sharing. "A river does not respect borders,’’ he said. Krishna has been watching with concern the assault on rivers by people living on both sides of the border and believes that : "When nations negotiate river pacts, the river should also be made a party. By this I mean, the health of the river must be uppermost as depletion of water will harm people on both sides. The third party in any deal should be the river.’’

There is growing concern that the India treaty will not survive beyond a few more years. But Krishna is optimistic : "I am an optimist and hope that better sense will prevail on both sides keeping in mind the importance of water to people living on both sides. I don’t think India and Pakistan will go to war over the Indus waters. I believe ordinary citizens dependent on the river will not allow their government to do so. Water is essential for the people of both India and Pakistan.’’ Himanshu Thakkar agrees with Gopal Krishna and said : " Yes, I think it will survive.’’

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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2017 08:12:08 IST

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