(Published in Hilal Magazine and Global Village Space)
What’s ticking between Pakistan and India is not the nuclear bomb, but the water bomb. For years international relations strategists have warned that wars in the future would be over resources.
Water: a diplomatic weapon
Post-recent tensions in South Asia, Prime Minister Narendera Modi suspended meetings of the committee that oversees water sharing between India and Pakistan, using water as a diplomatic weapon. International experts are of the view that Delhi is using the water issue to put pressure on Pakistan in the dispute over Kashmir.
The Indian strategy is to build huge storage facilities and canals over and around the rivers that flow through Indian-administered Kashmir but most of the water is allotted to Pakistan under the Indus Water Treaty. The 56-year-old treaty is under strain, and Modi’s stance and strategy is not conducive to its continuity. Like it is said, sharing the waters of the Cauvery has been an issue for decades but it is particularly contentious now.
The latest development is that Pakistan has yet again approached the World Bank to address the violation of the Treaty by India. India has successfully stalled the appointment of the chairman of the Arbitration Court of Justice, which Pakistan had requested, by immediately moving in with a request for a neutral expert.
This new twist to the treaty has come at a time when Modi government has chosen to publicly threaten Pakistan with the abrogation of the treaty. India is threatening to cut Pakistan’s water access.
The 56-year-old water sharing agreement has run into trouble as tensions have escalated between the rivals, post-Uri attack. Statements by Prime Minister Modi calling for a review of the Treaty where he said that blood and water cannot flow together, and then hinting at revoking the treaty were seen as confirmation of this apprehension.
India’s efforts of dewatering Pakistan
However, this is not new. India has been following a policy of ‘dewatering Pakistan’ since long. India already has 20 hydro projects on the three western rivers allocated to Pakistan. It is now building another 10 and more are being planned.
In the past also, Islamabad has complained to the international court that the dam in the Gurez Valley, one of dozens planned by India, will affect Pakistan’s river flow and is illegal. The court had halted any permanent work on the river for the moment but India got the permission to continue tunneling and building other associated projects.
In 1987, upon Pakistan’s objection, Delhi had to suspend the Tulbul Navigation Project on the Jhelum River. As per a BBC report, sources within Indian Water Resources Ministry have hinted that the project could now be revived. As part of Modi’s aggressive water policy, this will directly have an impact on Pakistan’s agriculture.
The former chairman of Indus River System Authority, Engineer Fateh Ullah Khan Gandapur said on record that India is using water as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ to convert Pakistan into a desert and is diverting the entire flow into the Indian territory of Rajasthan. Salman Bashir, former foreign secretary of Pakistan, categorically said that diversion of Indus water by India will lead to war.
India is using water as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ to convert Pakistan into a desert and is diverting the entire flow into the Indian territory of Rajasthan.
Prime Minister Modi in one of his pre-election speeches in Batinda said that water that belongs to India should remain in India. Diverting the waters of Indus is not realistically possible, and cannot be done without triggering a war between the two countries.
Pakistan, India and Afghanistan Water Triangle
India has also tried to use its influence to start interfering with the flow of water from Afghanistan to Pakistan. Islamabad has shown its concern over New Delhi’s increased help to Kabul for development of a number of storages on the Kabul River without addressing Pakistan’s concerns.
The Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his visit to Afghanistan back in 2011 had pledged $1.5bn in development assistance, with the special interest in dam-building on the Kabul River. This commitment, apart from other heads, is meant for building 14 small and medium dams with total water storage capacity of 7.4MAF. International financial institutions including the World Bank have agreed to provide $7.079bn for these projects.
In 2016, Indian experts completed the feasibility and detailed engineering of 12 projects to be built on River Kabul. If these 12 projects are completed, they will store 4.7 million acre-feet of water, squeezing river flows to Pakistan. Moreover, in the absence of major dams in Pakistan, Pakistan will eventually end up buying electricity from Afghanistan, which may be the underlying purpose of this extensive 12 dam plan of the Afghan government with Indian collaboration.
India and Afghanistan are actively exploring Chenab like run of the river projects on Afghanistan eastern rivers as a strategic offensive against Pakistan. Pakistan does not have any water treaty with Afghanistan. The rules governing flow of Afghanistan’s eastern rivers, mainly Kabul, Kunar and Chitral into Pakistan are just some internationally accepted principles.
Pakistan in retaliation had hinted at diverting Chitral River before its entry into Afghanistan in the event of attempts made to deprive it of its due share. The strained relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the constant Indian manipulation of the conflict also has Pakistan’s water security at stake.
Hydro-diplomacy between Pakistan and Afghanistan
The latest policy brief by Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan titled “Hydro-diplomacy between Pakistan and Afghanistan” says “planned water projects on Kabul River by upper-riparian Afghanistan will adversely affect lower-riparian Pakistan. It is critically important to arrive at a consensus by understanding issues, maintaining historical rights and arriving at benefit sharing options for both countries through the use of Kabul River waters.”
We need to showcase our water vision for the future which includes not only raising objections to what India is doing but having a water conservation plan and a strategy to respond to climate change. Pakistan’s water security is intrinsically linked to its food security. In Pakistan little or no dams are being constructed and to add insult to injury the two largest dams are silting.
India’s geostrategic interests in the region
India has never underestimated the significance of river waters to strengthen its geostrategic interests in the region. It is now working on a double-squeeze water policy against Pakistan by constantly building on the western rivers in occupied Kashmir and facilitating projects on the Kabul River. The establishment in Delhi has a very aggressive water mindset towards Pakistan. It has under successive governments, talked about reviewing the Treaty “to teach Pakistan a lesson”. Modi is just more vocal about it.
The statement by P.M. Modi was not taken lightly by Pakistan, and it immediately approached the World Bank to appoint a chairman for the Court of Arbitration because Pakistan claims that the design of the 330 MW Kishanganga Project violated the treaty. India followed with the demand for the appointment of a neutral expert.
The World Bank’s take on the situation is that both processes initiated by the respective countries were advancing at the same time, creating a risk of contradictory outcomes that potentially endanger the Treaty. Thus, the pause is to address this impasse. Arbitration has been halted over two Indian hydro-electric projects on the Chenab River; 850 MW Ratle and 330 MW Kishanganga.
The World Bank has counseled bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan. It has urged both the countries to sort out differences and problems by January 2017. The bank had initially agreed to initiate both the processes simultaneously, but decided to pause them post Indian objection.
India has welcomed the decision and is ready to talk to Pakistan bilaterally to resolve the issue. This sudden desire to talk to Pakistan over water has arised because it suits India for several reasons to achieve its end objectives. One; India has initiated this new twist in the Treaty by continuous violation and hurling threats at Pakistan. Two; India has been stonewalling all initiative for dialogue except on the Treaty, this happened only after the issue was taken to the World Bank. More interestingly, India has habitually sidelined the permanent Indus Commission, established under Article VIII of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), the primary channel of communication between the two countries.
Now the question arises why this sudden desire to resolve the water issue through dialogue? It is also important to note here that India, which is ready for bilateral negotiation with Pakistan after Pakistan approached the World Bank, had even suspended routine bi-annual talks between the Indus Commissions of the two countries, and had taken a principle decision to restart work on the Tulbul Navigation Project on the Jhelum.
Now the question arises why this sudden desire to resolve the water issue through dialogue?
The last time bilateral dialogue on the Treaty brought some success was in 1978. The situation between India and Pakistan is different today and we are in state of dispute paralysis. The trust deficit between the two countries is at its highest level. The LoC keeps blowing hot and cold. The theatre of conflict now also includes Afghanistan. Indian opposition to CPEC is an open secret. The atmospherics for dialogue to resolve a contentious issue, like water seem unlikely.
The Indian strategy of continuous building of projects and at the same time, threatening Pakistan with revoking of the Treaty and resorting to dialogue only are a time-gaining strategy because of international pressure to achieve its nefarious designs, does not induce any confidence.
Pakistan has made it clear that it will not accept any modification or changes in the IWT. Pakistan’s reaction to the World Bank brokered pause is not positive. Since it is seen as an Indian strategy of gaining time to continue building, till it becomes fate accomplished. A review of the Treaty is also not acceptable to Pakistan. The review, as already stated by Indian experts, is aimed at more rights over the western rivers, which is Pakistan’s agriculture’s lifeline.
Legal status of the Treaty
Ahmer Bilal Soofi, an eminent Pakistani lawyer’s take on the Treaty is that “The Treaty has no provision for unilateral “suspension”. It is of an indefinite duration and was never intended to be time-specific, event-specific or regime-specific — but rather state-specific. It will not expire with regime change. It is binding on both the states equally and offers no exit provision. The Treaty survived the two wars as well as other Pakistan-India conflicts because none of them was termed a war under international law.
In the event of a war, states are entitled to suspend treaties, including diplomatic relations by invoking Article 62 of the Vienna Convention. If India or Pakistan consider revoking the Treaty, it is itself signaling an act of war. This will equip both the countries with the right under international law to take up any other coercive or non-coercive measure as an act of reprisal”. This is not a pretty picture. Perhaps India should also be mindful of the fact that China is an upper-riparian country in Indus
It is of an indefinite duration and was never intended to be time-specific, event-specific or regime-specific — but rather state-specific.
India is playing with fire using water as a tool of aggressive diplomacy to mount pressure on Pakistan. Using a mutually used resource to gain geo-strategic advantage is a recipe for trouble. On the other hand Pakistan should not take this lightly. India has time and again successfully manipulated the World Bank brokerage to its advantage because of Pakistan’s delayed response and weak water diplomacy.
Pakistan needs to put its act together now, both internally and externally. Giving foreign policy statements, largely just for the consumption of the internal audience without any real plan on the ground, will not work. We need to showcase our water vision for the future which includes not only raising objections to what India is doing but having a water conservation plan and a strategy to respond to climate change.
Pakistan’s water security is intrinsically linked to its food security. In Pakistan little or no dams are being constructed and to add insult to injury the two largest dams are silting. Pakistani authorities have so far done nothing to develop water uses on River Kabul. There is also no progress on the Munda dam. It paints a very grim picture of our water
It paints a very grim picture of our water resources, like it is said, wars in today’s world are not fought on the conventional front but on the diplomatic, intellectual and economic front.