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Indus Water Treaty: Zardari ups the ante on Water Issues

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 30, 2009

    In an article published by Washington Post on January 28, 2009, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari hinted that Pakistan regards water as a major issue in bilateral relations with India. The article, titled “Partnering with Pakistan,” was a plea to US President Obama to continue to recognize Pakistan’s role in the US’ war on terrorism and regional stability. But Zardari did not miss the opportunity to make a mention of the water. He wrote:

    “The water crisis in Pakistan is directly linked to relations with India. Resolution could prevent an environmental catastrophe in South Asia, but failure to do so could fuel the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism. We applaud the president’s desire to engage our nation and India to defuse the tensions between us”.

    This passage in the article clearly conveys that Pakistan holds India responsible for the “water crisis” in Pakistan. Zardari wants to involve the US and the international community in the resolution of water issues between India and Pakistan. He is also warning that if the water issue remains unresolved, it could lead to intensification of extremism and terrorism.

    President Zardari’s latest outburst should be seen as a continuation of his public statements in October 2008 in which he had alleged that India was interfering with the flow of river Chenab’s water in violation of the Indus Water Treaty between the two countries. According to media reports quoting Zardari, the issue was taken up by him with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly and also with the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad. Zardari alleged on that occasion that the diversion of water by India from the Chenab river was causing agricultural losses in Lahore, Kasur, Okara, Sialkot, Hafizabad, Shekhupura, Faisalabad and Jhang districts in Pakistan. The issue had also reportedly been discussed by the National Security Advisers of the two countries. A delegation of Pakistani officials led by the Pakistani Indus Water Commissioner Jamat Ali Shah visited India to inspect the Baglihar dam project. Pakistan is seeking compensation from India for the diversion of water.

    What is the water “issue” between India and Pakistan? The two countries signed the Indus Water Treaty in 1960 with the help of World Bank’s mediation. Despite several wars and crises between India and Pakistan, the Treaty has been hailed as a shining example of cooperation between two states on water-sharing. India never stopped the flow of water to Pakistan even during the height of India-Pakistan wars.

    India and Pakistan share six rivers of the Indus basin, grouped into two categories – the Western Rivers (the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum) and the Eastern Rivers (Sutlej, Ravi and Beas). Under the Indus Water Treaty, India has complete right to the use of the waters of the Eastern Rivers while Pakistan has the right to use the waters of the Western Rivers. The Treaty and its annexures are detailed technical documents which contain the restrictions on the usage of the waters. For instance, Pakistan can use the waters of the Western Rivers but India can also use them for irrigation purposes. India is also allowed to build run–of–the- river dams on the Western Rivers. The Treaty also permits India to store 3.5 million acre feet of water. The fact is that India has so far not constructed any storage projects on the Western Rivers. The people of Jammu and Kashmir have demanded abrogation of the Treaty as it restricts the use of the Western River waters which flow through their state.

    Whatever Pakistan might say, the Treaty is extraordinarily generous to Pakistan. Of the total water carried in the six rivers, 80 per cent flows through the Western Rivers and only 20 per cent through the Eastern Rivers. Thus, Pakistan gets over 4/5th of the Indus basin water.

    Under the Treaty, the two countries have set up an Indus Water Commission which is a body of engineers from both sides who are entrusted with the task of implementing the Treaty in letter and spirit. The Indus Water Commission has been holding regular meetings since the inception of the Treaty. The officials of the two sides regularly exchange technical information with regard to the flow of water from the rivers, construction of projects etc.

    Pakistan has often used the provisions of the Treaty to raise objections to the projects proposed by the Indian side and permitted under the Treaty. The Treaty has been used by Pakistan to obstruct and delay the projects allowed under the Treaty on the Western Rivers. The latest example is that of the Baglihar Dam constructed by India on the river Chenab and commissioned in 2008. Pakistan objected to the design of the dam holding that it was contrary to the provisions of the Treaty. Pakistan took the case to the “Neutral Expert” appointed by the World Bank in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty to go into the objections. The neutral expert gave a ruling upholding the soundness of the Indian design and suggested some minor changes. The dam was, commissioned eventually but after an avoidable delay of four years as a result of Pakistan’s objections.

    Another project that has been held up due to Pakistani intransigence is the Tulbul Barrage which involves the construction of a barrage at the Wular Lake to improve local navigation. The project will also help Pakistan as it would ensure the flow of water to Pakistan in the lean season. But Pakistan continues to block the project ignoring the benefits that will accrue to both sides. There are many such examples of Pakistan’s obstructionist attitude.

    The Pakistani propaganda on the water issue is aimed at projecting India as a country which is exploiting the river waters of the Indus basin to the detriment of Pakistan. Several Pakistan based terrorist groups have also linked water with jihad in Kashmir. The former “Prime Minister” of the so called “Azad Jammu & Kashmir” Sardar Sikander Hayat used to say clearly, “the freedom fighters of Kashmir are in reality fighting for Pakistan’s water security and have prevented India from constructing a dam on the Wular Barrage”.1

    Pakistan’s propaganda must be responded to. The fact is that the Indus Water Treaty is generous to a fault to Pakistan. It is unlikely that if the Indus Water Treaty were to be negotiated, Pakistan would get a better deal than what it got in 1960. With water becoming a critical issue in India’s relations with Pakistan and also with China, India has to evolve a well considered strategy aimed at securing its national interest and at the same time minimizing the potential for conflict with neighbours.

    By raising the water issue at this juncture Pakistan is trying to deflect international attention from Pakistan-based terrorism and instead rekindling the international community’s interest in Kashmir.

    India should recognize that Pakistan is upping the ante and trying to make water an “issue” between the two countries. India should call Pakistan’s bluff and suggest renegotiation of the treaty in line with current political, economic, environmental and geo-political realities. That will test Pakistan’s sincerity about “resolving’ the water issue between the two countries. In the meanwhile, India should go ahead with the construction of the Tulbul barrage in the knowledge that it is a win - win project which will pass muster of a neutral expert if Pakistan decides to take it to the World Bank. Likewise, India should build the Kishenganga dam, to which it is entitled. India should also identify storage projects which are in accordance with the Treaty provisions. India should urgently plug the leakage of water flowing to Pakistan through the Eastern Rivers on whose waters it has complete right under the Treaty. While India should favour cooperation over conflict in its relations with Pakistan, it should not let itself be pressured by Pakistan unjustifiably over water related issues.