POLITICS

Why Engaging In Water Wars With Pakistan Is Not Really An Option For India

This could potentially have far-reaching and devastating consequences for millions of people.

28/09/2016 5:23 PM IST | Updated 28/09/2016 11:30 PM IST
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Andrea Pistolesi

Relations between India and Pakistan have hit rock bottom after four terrorists attacked an Indian army base in Kashmir on 18 September, killing 18 soldiers. Besides trying to isolate Pakistan internationally, as well as in the region, for sponsoring terrorism, the Modi government is reviewing its stand on the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty in order to hit back at its neighbour.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said, "Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously."

To begin with, the Indian government is planning to suspend the annual meeting to take stock of outstanding issues and disputes around the treaty. This is the first time since the 2001 Parliament attack that India will be suspending the meeting, which was held even when India and Pakistan were at war with each other in 1965, 1971 and 1999.

Under the treaty, signed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan's president General Ayub Khan, Pakistan gets the waters of the three western rivers, the Jhelum, Chenab and the Indus, while India gets the waters of the three eastern rivers: Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. But in effect, India gets to keep only 19.48 percent of the water from the six river-Indus system.

Warning that any action to impede the flow of water to Pakistan would be an "act of war," Islamabad has already approached the World Bank, which brokered the agreement between the two neighbours, and the International Court of Justice.

While some experts have suggested that India should withdraw from this treaty, which is heavily skewed in Pakistan's favour, others have warned that such a move could trigger water wars in the region, involving not only the two neighbours but also China. This could potentially have far-reaching and devastating consequences for millions of people.

Nothing that the Modi government has said so far suggests that abrogation is really on the table. "Clearly after the official review, the government learnt that there is nothing much that they could do and so they gently backtracked," Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management in Delhi, told HuffPost India.

Blood and water cannot flow simultaneously.

Why Withdrawing Is A Bad Idea

Geopolitical strategist Brahma Chellaney has argued India must use water as a leverage to bring Pakistan to heel, and unless circumstances change, Pakistan's sponsoring of terrorism constitutes reasonable grounds for India to withdraw from the treaty. "Pakistan is repaying India's largesse with blood by sponsoring cross-border acts of grisly terrorism," he wrote in The Times of India.

While Nehru was lauded for having gifted to Pakistan 80 percent of the water, which he termed a "goodwill gesture" at the time, some see it as an albatross around India's neck. Not only does Pakistan get a larger share of water, Islamabad has objected to almost every hydroelectric project which India has tried to set up in Jammu and Kashmir, impeding development in the northern state.

In 2003, the Jammu and Kashmir government passed a resolution, calling for a review of the treaty which did not take into account its development needs. Pakistan has taken India to the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration over the 330 MW Kishanganga and 850 MW Ratle hydropower projects on the Jhelum and Chenab respectively, which, it says are being constructed in violation of the treaty.

Despite the skewed nature of the treaty, there exist a host of practical as well as moral conundrums that should give pause to those who favour withdrawing from the pact.

Experts have pointed out that even if India could stop the flow of the water from the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab from flowing to Pakistan, it would take years to construct the dams and canals needed to divert the water. In the absence of these structures, large swathes of Jammu and Kashmir would be in danger getting flooded.

Not only would this displace millions of people, it would cause unimaginable damage to the environment. While India will be reeling from floods, withholding the water could cause severe drought in Pakistan, bringing untold misery to its civilian population.

Not only would this displace millions of people, it would cause unimaginable damage to the environment.

Then, there is the fallout on the international stage. Over the past two weeks, India has managed to isolate Pakistan as a sponsor of terror in front of the world and in the region. Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Bhutan have joined India in withdrawing from the SAARC summit in Islamabad.

But unilaterally withdrawing from the treaty would make India as untrustworthy to its neighbours, especially Nepal and Bangladesh, countries with which it has water-sharing agreements. India would also lose face on the global stage if it turns out that civilians are bearing the brunt of its retribution.

"It isn't really an option. We signed the treaty after eight years of negotiations, we can't just abrogate," Uttam Sinha, water and security expert at the Institute for Defence Studies Analyses, told HuffPost India.

Instead, Sinha suggested that India should "maximise" the usage of the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus for irrigation, storage and producing electricity. So far, India does not even utilise its 20 percent quota of the western rivers, which it is allowed under the treaty. "Pakistan has an easy flow of water because of India's stupidity and lack of developmental planning," he said.

Yogendra Kumar, a retired Indian Foreign Service official, who served as the Ambassador to Philippines and Tajikistan, also pointed out that by making full use of its share of the waters and adopting a more assertive stand on the treaty, India can create "psychological uncertainty" for Pakistan.

"As a diplomat, I do feel that Pakistan should come under psychological pressure. They can't do what they want and then say you must follow the treaty," he added.

As a diplomat, I do feel that Pakistan should come under psychological pressure.

Sahni said that there was no "silver bullet" which would put an end to terrorism, but steps such as denying Pakistan "Most Favoured Nation" status, exploiting the western rivers to the maximum, and isolating Islamabad, would collectively yield results in the long-term.

"Just by utilising its share of the water, India will send a message, without any international fallout. It won't turn Pakistan into a desert, but it will impose a certain cost," he said.

It won't turn Pakistan into a desert, but it will impose a certain cost.

Don't Forget China

Observers have pointed out that another problem with India reneging on the Indus Water Treaty. Any attempt by New Delhi to stop the flow of water to its neighbour could also backfire since two of the six rivers (Indus and Sutlej) originate in China and Tibet, and Beijing could take up Pakistan's cause by diverting the water coming to India.

Beijing has subtly communicated to New Delhi the danger of abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty, The Telegraph reported. Experts are divided on the danger posed by China. Chellaney, for instance, has argued that China has little clout in the Indus basin, and the "bugbear of Chinese retaliation has been invented."

What we do on the Indus could challenge progress made on the Brahmaputra.

But by acting unilaterally on the Indus front, Sinha pointed out, India would send out a wrong message in the neighbourhood, and trigger a cooling of relations with China, the upper riparian of the Brahmaputra river. "We have worked very hard to have a water dialogue with China in order to get key hydrological data. What we do on the Indus could challenge progress made on the Brahmaputra," he said.

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