Indus Water Treaty: Next Victim of Water Wars? Part – I

This article is Part 1 in a 2 Part series covering the historic Indus Water Treaty (IWT). With the world facing an acute water shortage and water crisis being inevitable in the future, this treaty is cited as a model of cooperation between two sworn enemies that has even stood through three wars and a prolonged low intensity conflict. Will this continue to be the same in the future or will it become a victim of Water Wars? This gets more alarming in the India-Pakistan context when one adds the issue of dispute over Indus waters to the historical Kashmir dispute between the two nuclear armed countries which may become a potential trigger for a future war in the subcontinent. 

In the first decade since Partition of India in194, one of the most intractable issues left over was the sharing of river and canal waters. What was developed as a single irrigation system over millennia had to be divided between two Sovereign States and to make matters worse, the waters in question flowed through Kashmir, a region that had led to armed conflict soon in the formative years of the two states and repeatedly after. It took the good offices of the World Bank to negotiate a fair and acceptable treaty for the sharing of the waters of the Indus River System between India and Pakistan.

The Indus river system consists of the Indus River and its major tributaries that include Kabul, Kurram, Swat, Jhelum and Chenab rivers in the West and Ravi, Beas and Sutlej in the East. The Indus originates near the Mansarovar Lake and travels through Tibet before entering India in the South-Eastern part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Thereafter, it passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and then Pakistan before finally draining into the Arabian Sea near Karachi.

However, lately there have been a lot of stresses and strains on the treaty that may make water sharing a politically charged issue between India and Pakistan, possibly even overtaking the issue of Kashmir as the primary source of conflict. Though there is a lack of mutual trust and accommodative spirit between India and Pakistan on most bilateral issues including sharing of water, it is in the interest of both countries to resolve all issues of water sharing on a technical basis within the consultative and reconciliatory framework provided in the IWT rather than letting these be taken over by political or emotional narratives.

Before Partition, The British developed an elaborate system of irrigation canals in the Indus basin in the 19th century. Most of the canals were constructed in the provinces of Punjab and Sind. However, each province built its own works independently due to lack of an integrated approach. Due to a lack of storage facilities, competition for the run-of-river flow increased and led to a dispute between Sind and Punjab in the 1930s. Events leading to the Partition obstructed any final settlement of the dispute. Upon Partition, India became the upper riparian in all five rivers of the Indus Water Basin in Punjab due to the location of headworks on the Indian side of the international boundary. The standstill agreement lapsed on 31 March 1948 and India stopped the water supply to Pakistan on 01 Apr 1948 due to nonpayment of revenue. This is considered to be the start point of the escalation of the dispute as it created a fear psychosis in the minds of Pakistan that India could hold Pakistan to ransom on the issue of water. The two countries signed a temporary Inter Dominion Agreement (also called the Delhi Agreement) in May 1948 to maintain the pre-partition status quo n water sharing till resolution of the dispute over revenue payment. However, India and Pakistan failed to resolve the dispute at a bilateral level due to lack of trust and political will on account of hardened domestic opinions. Pakistan wanted to escalate the dispute by referring it to the International Court of Justice which was rejected by India. On 01 Nov 1949, Pakistan declared the Delhi Agreement to be null and void and stopped making revenue payments with effect from July 1950. However, India continued to supply water to Pakistan without any disruption.

The World Bank’s Involvement
India and Pakistan had both applied for loans from the World Bank for development of works on the disputed waters of Sutlej, which were initially rejected. Later, the World Bank President, Eugene R. Black visited India and Pakistan and proposed the formation of a joint working group of engineers from India, Pakistan and the World Bank. He was of the view that the issue of sharing / division of water should be treated from a ‘functional’, rather than a political perspective. India wanted to use the eater flowing through its territory to develop its own irrigation network. Pakistan was concerned about the resultant damage to its existing usage and the need to ensure uninterrupted supply of water for agriculture. As the negotiations were not making any headway, the World Bank put forward its own settlement proposals in Feb 1954, offering the three Eastern Rivers to India and the three Western Rivers to Pakistan. Under the proposed plan, Pakistan had to construct replacement works to channelize the waters of the western rivers to compensate for the loss of waters of the eastern rivers. The World Bank proposed that India should bear the cost of replacement works in Pakistan. While Pakistan wanted the Indian financial liability to cover the cost of all transfer works as well as developmental works, the huge financial liability of USD 1.2Billion was not acceptable to India. The World Bank President then proposed a solution as per which, India was required to pay a fixed sum of £62.060Million in ten equal yearly installments while the Bank would raise additional funds for Pakistan with the help of Western donor countries. The donors pledged an additional $900Million, clearing the way for the conclusion of the treaty.

Given the inimical and belligerent attitude of India and Pakistan, the mediation by the World Bank acted as a facilitator for continued engagement and negotiations. The World Bank was able to leverage its position as the principal financer to both nations in taking the negotiations ahead. In addition, mid-course correction by the World Bank proposing division of rivers rather than joint development was able to break the deadlock created due to differing positions of India and Pakistan on the sharing of the waters. Intervention by the USA and other developed countries by the way of supporting the World Bank efforts for settlement of the dispute gave the necessary impetus to the negotiation process. In addition, financial contributions by international donors to the Indus Basin Development Fund was an important pre-requisite for the treaty as India and Pakistan were not in a position to bear the huge cost of replacement and development works involved.

The treaty was signed in Karachi between the Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and the Pakistani President Field Marshal Ayub Khan, along with the World Bank President W.A.B Illif, in September 1960. It was deemed effective from 01 Apr 1960 but was only ratified by the two governments later in January 1961.
When analyzing any treaty, it is imperative that both sides must be given equal weightage along with a similar cost-benefit ratio in order to have a balanced perspective. Policy making is relatively easy but history is witness that when the vision has been myopic, it has only led to long term strife rather than a clear acceptable long term solution. After all, Geopolitics is very dynamic and balances of power can drastically change by the turn of the decade. However, mutual acrimony aside, it’s important to separate facts from paranoia.

An Uneasy Partnership

The Partition of India left Pakistan as the lower riparian with most of the headworks on the Indian side. The experience of India shutting off water in 1948 led to the issue of water security and availability, assuming great importance for Pakistan since its inception making it both an emotive and a political issue during an already sensitive time.

Indus basin accounts for nearly 65% of water available in Pakistan. As an agrarian economy which follows ‘flood irrigation’ techniques, Pakistan relies heavily on the Indus waters for sustaining its population and irrigation needs. A bulk of Pakistan’s settled population depends upon the Indus and its tributaries for sustenance. The lower riparian states of Sindh and Balochistan have been accusing the Punjab province of Pakistan of gross misappropriation and over utilization of the river waters, leading to inter province rivalry within Pakistan and consequent water politics. The dams on the Indus Rivers have been conspicuous sources of conflict amongst the states in mainland Pakistan and a source of discontent amongst the people of PoK.

The political hierarchy of the country leaves no opportunity in linking the shortage of water to the alleged violations of the IWT by India. In addition, terrorist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba have also found a scapegoat in India for the growing water scarcity in Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-e-Taiba has warned that “Muslims dying of thirst would drink the blood of India.”

Pakistan’s fears that India may dry out the rivers before reaching Pakistan by manipulating the storage facilities in various projects are unrealistic as all major Indian projects including the Baglihar Dam are located well inside the Indian Territory and any attempts to dry out the rivers or tributaries will first affect the Indian downstream projects. Moreover, the treaty specifies the maximum and minimum daily/weekly releases from the projects. This has never been violated by India even during wars. In fact, Indus has shown a markedly increased flow over the last decade which belies Pakistani claim of shortages.

Pakistan also fears that India may flood areas in Pakistan by opening gates of Pondage Facility; however due to the physical location of major India projects; the devastation due to flooding will primarily affect areas on the Indian side with minimal damage on the Pakistani side. Releases from run-of-the-river projects cannot cause major floods downstream. It also states that India is violating the IWT by undertaking too many Hydroelectric and Water Storage Projects on the Western Rivers. The IWT permits India to create capacity to store up to 3.6MAF water, number of projects being immaterial. Detailed specifications of hydropower projects by India on Western Rivers as laid down in the IWT have been strictly adhered to. Thus, the Pakistani claim is more political than technical. Its other bizarre claim that India is stealing the Indus Waters, leading to water crisis in Pakistan has been negated by former Pakistani Foreign Minister SM Qureshi, who has said in a TV interview on a Pakistani channel that Pakistan’s water problems are a result of inefficient irrigation and water management, not because of India.

Pakistan’s basic premise since the commencement of negotiations has been that the distribution of Indus waters between India and Pakistan should be based on the theory of ‘Historical Use’ as it sought to gain from the extensive development of canal system in areas of West Pakistan during British rule. However, as a result of the IWT, Pakistan had to let go of its rights over the three Eastern Rivers. So far, Pakistan has attempted to disrupt all such Indian projects by raising unqualified objections. The narrative of the water dispute has been hijacked by politicians. Sardar Asaf Ali, former advisor to the Pakistani Prime Minister has said, “The impending issues over sharing river water between India and Pakistan could trigger a war. Pakistan could pull out of IWT if India does not stop violating the treaty by construction of new dams on Indus River”. Most of the Indus Rivers receive 70-80 percent of water during the monsoon months which requires dams and storage works to achieve optimum utilization. As Pakistan is not in a position to build storage dams on the Western rivers due to geographical challenges, a huge amount of water goes waste into the Arabian Sea. In addition, the monsoons are generally accompanied by huge floods which cause loss of crops and infrastructure in rural Pakistan. As per Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, approximately 21 percent of arable land in Pakistan suffers from salinity and water logging due to excess waters in the Indus basin and the practice of flood irrigation techniques.

India has maintained a position of absolute sovereignty over all Indus waters in its own territory as per the ‘Harmon Doctrine’ and thus stopped the release of Indus waters to Pakistan over nonpayment of revenue once the Standstill Agreement lapsed. The primary Indian concern soon after independence was to exploit the potential of its river basins for development of agriculture and it has always stood by the provisions of the IWT in letter and spirit and continues to do so. India also believes that the Permanent Indus Commission is the best forum to resolve all bilateral disputes related to sharing of Indus waters. There is however there is a serious debate amongst the strategic thinkers and experts in India on the need to abrogate or modify the IWT for better exploitation of the common water resources.

Modification of IWT

Some analysts in India opine that India should leverage its position as the upper riparian to get Pakistan to act on other contentious issues. They argue that Pakistan has not violated the IWT like it did to the treaties of Shimla and Lahore only because of its disadvantageous position of being the lower riparian. The abrogation of the ABM Treaty by the USA and Panchsheel by China are quoted as precedents. India has been forced to function within the restrictive provisions of the IWT and has failed to exploit the hydroelectric opportunities over Jhelum and Chenab Rivers over Pakistani objections to every single project planned by India. Some argue that the signing of the IWT by Mr. Nehru had as an unstated quid pro quo, the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. As the upper riparian, India enjoys a substantial leverage which it has never exploited or even threatened to exploit despite grave provocations from Pakistan. Mr. MS Menon, an Indian security expert says that the IWT is more favourable to Pakistan since it got 80% of Indus waters even though the Indus Rivers chart a large part of their course in India. According to him, India should have got more than 40% of the total waters of the Indus basin and that India should move the World Bank for an overall review of the IWT.

The IWT needs to be renegotiated in order to optimize water utilization by both countries. Optimal utilization of Indus waters can only be done by ‘Integrated Basin Management’ by both countries. Though the initial World Bank proposal envisaged this, but it had to be dropped due to lack of mutual trust as also the politicization of the issue. Through Article VII of IWT that deals with future cooperation, India and Pakistan recognized their common stake in development of Indus river basin in the most optimal manner and committed themselves to cooperate in all fields, including engineering works. However, no action towards joint development has occurred. The essence of the proposed IWT-II centers on joint management of future schemes and optimization of basin plans in Western rivers. Due to geographical constraints, Pakistan cannot build dams on Western rivers while India isn’t allowed to do so by the IWT, resulting in under-utilization of Indus waters. The proposal envisages India being allowed to build storage dams on the upper Indus, Jhelum and Chenab to utilize the waters jointly.

There is a growing demand from the Indian state of J&K to annul the IWT since it prohibits them from exploiting the potential of water resources for irrigation, energy and transport. The state of J&K has a hydroelectric power potential of 20,000 MW.  However, due to restrictions on storage of water of the Western Rivers, the state imports 80% of its power requirement from neighbouring states. The Indian attempts of sharing Ravi River’s water with J&K too have been unsuccessful. It is estimated that more than 200,000 hectares of agricultural land in J&K has remained un-irrigated despite the technical feasibility of utilizing water from Jhelum River on the Indian side. The J&K State Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution in 2002 calling for the abrogation of IWT. Sections of state media also reported that the state is suffering a loss of approximately Rs80 billion per annum on account of import of electricity. Mr. BG Verghese, a prominent water expert has opined that one of the main reasons for Pakistan to seek the state of J&K is that the headworks of the major Indus Rivers are located in J&K and POK. By abrogating the treaty, India may end up strengthening the Pakistani claims on J&K.

Some strategists have proposed certain formulae based on exchange of territory in the state of Jammu and Kashmir to ensure long term water security. One such formula is the ‘Chenab Formula. This was proposed by Sir Owen Dixon, a UN representative for India and Pakistan in 1950. It assigned Ladakh to India, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) TO Pakistan, split Jammu between the two countries and proposed a plebiscite in the Kashmir Valley. Contrary to the ‘visible’ demand for Kashmir Valley, parts of Jammu in the Chenab formula explain Pakistan’s compulsion to secure the control over the Indus Rivers. Similarly, the ‘Vale as the Base Formula’ envisages control of the vale of Kashmir by Pakistan by waging proxy war, to secure the Indus waters.

The potential advantages of an IWT-II cannot be denied; the lack of trust between India and Pakistan may not let it come into existence in the foreseeable future since the basic proposal of dam construction by India would mean a loss of control by Pakistan over Western rivers. This may not be politically acceptable in Pakistan. This is further underlined by the fact that India and Pakistan have not taken any steps towards joint development of the Indus river basin despite such provisions existing in the IWT. The IWT is an international agreement signed after prolonged negotiations. It will be detrimental to its international credibility if India were to walk out, especially since the treaty has stood the test of time for over 5 decades. Additionally, mere abrogation without any follow up agreement on water sharing will be counter-productive since the genuine requirements of the lower riparian cannot be wished away. Hence, abrogation is not a viable option.

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