India-Pakistan talks on Indus waters likely to be a non-starter; Islamabad appears bent on blocking Kishenganga project


The very first talks between India and Pakistan under the new administration of Imran Khan will, unsurprisingly, be on the dispute over the Indus Waters Treaty. Usually, the Permanent Indus Water Commissioners hold the bilateral meeting once a year, the last held in March 2018. This second meeting in such a short time seems to indicate that the new Pakistani government is keen on portraying itself as a tough administration on what is perceived as “India’s water terrorism”. While jihadi parties use this phrase commonly, the mainstream press in Pakistan prefers to use the term “Water Wars“.

It is difficult to understand where the “war” comes in. By any standard, the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 has, so far, been one of the world’s few success stories in terms of resolving an inter-nation dispute. Despite four wars and terrorist attacks by hundreds, India has kept to its side of the bargain, providing Pakistan with all information required under the terms of the treaty.

And here’s the irony — India has yet to fully use even the water storage allowed under the pact. So far, difficulties of terrain, land acquisition and flood control have prevented India from optimally enjoying the benefits sanctioned by law.

A suspension bridge over the Indus river in Pakistan's Gilgit. Reuters

A suspension bridge over the Indus river in Pakistan’s Gilgit. Reuters

The deal, brokered by the World Bank, essentially divides the waters of the Indus river and its tributaries that flow in both countries. It gives India rights over all the eastern rivers — Beas, Sutlej and Ravi — while Pakistan has rights over the western rivers — Jhelum, Chenab and Indus. However, each country can use the waters of the other for “non consumptive” purposes like power generation, where the design does not allow full storage. It is this clause that Pakistan uses to object to every project India initiates on the Chenab, in particular, and also on the Jhelum.

In the past, Delhi had agreed to changes to accommodate Pakistan’s concerns, leading to projects like the Salal Dam being virtually written off because of heavy silting arising from design changes. Of late, however, India has refused to yield to its neighbour’s demands and has gone ahead with the Kishenganga project, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated in May. Despite this, Pakistan continues to demand that the whole treaty be taken up for arbitration.

The cry of “Water Wars” has been getting louder in recent years even, as water pressure on Pakistan has increased. According to a report by the Pakistan Council of Research on Water Resources, the country moved from being “water stressed” in 1990 to the more serious “water scarce” in 2005. The manifesto of Imran’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) focused rather heavily on water management, taking into consideration a scenario where Pakistan could “run dry” by 2025. The PTI manifesto also marked lack of water in mega cities, problems faced in agriculture and promises to implement the Water Policy brought out by the Ministry of Water Resources.

This report indicates that the government is fully aware of the looming dangers of water scarcity in Pakistan and has recommended a series of actions that emphasise sensibly a reduction in water loss during distribution and recycling and at desalinisation plants and more water storage through medium and small dams. It is a well-thought-out plan, with specific timelines and oversight mechanisms.

This was all part of the manifesto, which said “solving Pakistan’s water scarcity will undoubtedly be our top priority”. In the same paragraph, the PTI manifesto also committed to addressing “regional water disputes”. So it does not need a great deal of analysis to understand that one of the government’s first tasks will be to “address” the dispute over the Indus Waters Treaty. And that, in Pakistan’s idea of the rightness of things, will include getting more concessions, particularly during the dry season.

The government of Pakistan is already under pressure. Just last month, the country’s Indus River Systems Authority (IRSA) had warned that both the Tarbela and Mangla dams had reached dead level. This was due to unusually low temperatures in Skardu in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region and its adjoining areas, leading to poor water flow. IRSA had already cut water flow earlier, but it was forced to reduce it even further, adversely affecting Kharif cash crops such as sugar, rice and cotton. Worse, it predicted that with storage at an all-time low, there would be difficulties in the forthcoming Rabi season, as well.

In June, the Supreme Court had also stepped into the matter. It had directed that the government furnish a report on the impact of India’s construction of the Kishenganga dam on Pakistan. This spells trouble, and any head of state would be alarmed at such reports.

Imran himself would have little idea of the ins and outs of the Indus Waters Treaty. The PTI manifesto quite clearly accepts that there is a strong “internal” element that the country has to address to sort out its urgent water problems. However, the “external” aspect in the present round of discussions will likely include Pakistan’s long-standing objections to the 1000 megawatt Pakal Dul dam and the 48 megawatt Lower Kalnai hydro power project on the Chenab river.

Pakistani officials have been allowed to visit the site and have made 118 visits overall so far as part of the implementing the treaty. However, the fact that New Delhi went ahead and laid the foundation stone of the project in May as part of the prime minister’s visit to Kashmir would have annoyed Pakistani officials considerably. Islamabad does not seem to have considered that the project will benefit Jammu and Kashmir, for which it claims its heart bleeds. Pakistan can be expected to press for arbitration in a attempt to delay the completion of this and other projects.

In India, the cry to “abrogate” the Indus Waters Treaty is getting equally strong, particularly by those who have little idea of its details. Besides, even if India did throw out the pact in its entirety, it would still be bound by international law in terms of the obligations of an upper riparian state. Few will acknowledge that Pakistan is also bound by the same international law when negotiating with Afghanistan, as China is with India on the Brahmaputra.

The trouble is that both sides come to the table under considerable domestic pressure. Neither will be willing to be seen as “giving in” to the other. So far, the biggest strength of the treaty has been that it was framed almost entirely by engineers and professionals from both sides, and therein lies the basis for its relative success. There are always engineering solutions or concessions to a problem, and this is also probably the case with regard to providing Pakistan some concessions during the dry season. The problem is that such generosity — even in the unlikely event of it being considered — will not be reciprocated or even acknowledged by Islamabad. The Indus Waters Treaty has the potential to change the bilateral equation, but only when both sides accept the need for good relations. In Pakistan’s case, that’s a non-starter.





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