The Indus Water Commissioners need to be joined by experts in the field of glacier melts, forestry and disaster management. Don’t erode the treaty. Widen its scope

by Tara Kartha

Recently, it seemed that a spirit of rapprochement was in the air. India and Pakistan announced that Indus Water Commissioners of both sides would meet for talks after two-and-a-half years. This came on the heels of a ceasefire agreement between the Director Generals of Military Operations of both sides, an exchange of lists of civilian prisoners serving time in the other country’s custody, honouring a 2008 agreement, and a routine exchange of lists of either nuclear installations.

As both traded insults and threats, the business of bilateral relations quietly continued. So this is not yet a grand diplomatic thaw. But the Indus water issue could prove to be a valuable opportunity for both in quiet co-operation.

Fairest Treaty

The yearly meeting on the Indus Water Treaty, last held in August 2018, was delayed due to the 2019 Pulwama tensions, and the setting aside of Article 370 in Jammu & Kashmir, and was further postponed due to the pandemic.

The Indus Water Treaty signed in 1960 by Jawaharlal Nehru and Field Marshal Ayub Khan is one of the fairest treaties in the world, in terms of the concessions given by an upper riparian state to the lower one. Essentially, it allocates around 3 million acre-feet (MAF) of waters from three eastern rivers — Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi — to India for unrestricted use while around 135 MAF from three western rivers — Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab — go to Pakistan annually. It allows for yearly meetings, and tours to each other’s installations.

It also mandates the sharing of data on water flows — which is rather restricted by the technology deployed so far — but nonetheless places a premium on transparency and avoiding conflict. It is, therefore, one of the rare treaties worldwide that has continued unbroken despite wars and threats of war for more than 50 years.

Water, Terrorism And Jihadis

The treaty allows India to construct ‘run of the river’ power projects, which essentially means no storage of water. Pakistan has, however, regularly raised objections to every power plant, leading India to change the design, thus often ruining the whole project. One early example of this was the Salal project on the Chenab, which has since silted over due to these changes. Pakistan also objected to the Baglihar project on the same river, leading to the dispute resolution mechanism envisaged in the treaty being invoked. Pakistan lost that round after a neutral expert of the World Bank in 2007 confirmed “that India's design has been compliant with the basic principles of the Indus Waters Treaty”.

The details of that case put a spoke in the wheel of Islamabad in later years, though it again resorted to arbitration for the Kishanganga project. That was not all. To a large extent, its whole position on Kashmir, and the sponsorship of terrorism is aimed at destabilising the state through which runs the water lifeline of an increasingly water-stressed state.

That also explains why jihadi groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba declared that India was waging ‘water aggression’ and promised revenge. Right-wing groups joined the cry, accusing the then Pakistani Indus Water Commissioner Jamaat Ali Shah of being in India’s payroll, because he said the truth — that India was not stealing Pakistan’s waters. In fact at the time, India was losing some 5 MAF water into Pakistan because it could not even use its legally allocated waters. Shah had to flee Pakistan, while in India the cry has grown that the treaty is ‘so generous’ to Pakistan and must be abandoned.

After the 2016 Uri attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a meeting that “blood and water cant flow together”. The decision was made to set up an inter-ministerial task force was to review the treaty. The trouble here is that the treaty has no exit clause.

A one-sided abrogation would reflect badly on India, besides which a range of international laws already apply in terms of lower riparian states. Moreover, the treaty is hardly unfair to India, given topographic realties and clauses that allow power projects on even the rivers allocated to Pakistan, though with specific clauses.

There are far simpler options before both counties. New Delhi is already ramping up its own reservoirs; for example, at Shahpur Kandi on the Ravi, and projects at Basantar and Tarnah on smaller rivers, among others, are planned. India is focusing on fully utilising the water that rightly belongs to it. For Pakistan, the choice is something its own experts have been saying for years. Repair and redo its irrigation and canal systems, institute policy reforms, and stop Punjab’s domination of water resources.

The bottom line for both is simple — use the Indus Water Treaty to actually increase benefits to both sides. There are now enough forecasts that say climate change is going to see at first a huge flow of water from melting glaciers, followed by a drastic reduction of water flows. Floods and drought are both equally likely, with the Chamoli disaster a recent indication.

Given this, both India and Pakistan could choose to cooperate in this area. For this, the Indus Water Commissioners need to be joined by experts in the field of glacier melts, forestry and disaster management. Don’t erode the treaty. Widen its scope. It’s not just future generations who will thank you.