Turning off Indus tap easier said than done

It is an idea that keeps returning to the table — but India probably can’t consider it without risks, including those of flooding its own cities and provoking even bigger waves of terror.

Written by Amitabh Sinha | New Delhi | Updated: September 23, 2016 5:46 am
pakistan, kashmir issue, pakistan un, indus water treaty, nawaz sharif kashmir, india pakistan kashmir, india kashmir, pakistan kashmir, india news The Treaty has survived wars and innumerable phases of frosty relations. It is held up as an example of a global model of cooperation between countries.

Amid the clamour for avenging the Uri attack, a non-military option being suggested — including by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha (The Indian Express, September 22) — is the abrogation of the 56-year-old Indus Waters Treaty that defines the water-sharing arrangement for six rivers of the Indus basin that flow through both India and Pakistan. The argument is that India, being upstream, can stop the flow of waters to Pakistan and bring it to its knees.

Pakistan’s dependence on the Indus system cannot be overstated. About 65% of its geographical area, including the entire Punjab province, is part of the Indus basin. The country has the world’s largest canal irrigation system, thanks to its development of the basin, which accounts for more than 90% of its irrigated area. Its three biggest dams, and several smaller ones, are located here. These are sources for hydroelectricity, irrigation and drinking water for millions of Pakistanis. If the tap could indeed be turned off from the Indian side, Pakistan’s capitulation is expected to be swift.

Indus Waters Treaty

In stark contrast to their dealings in other matters, India and Pakistan have managed their shared river waters quite amicably, thanks to the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. The Treaty has survived wars and innumerable phases of frosty relations. So much so, it is cited as the global model for cooperation on the use of trans-boundary river waters. The success of the Treaty also lends weight to the theory that when it comes to water, nations tend to cooperate rather than get into a conflict.

The Treaty, which came after a decade of World Bank-brokered negotiations, classified the six rivers of the Indus system into ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ rivers. Sutlej, Beas and Ravi were eastern; Jhelum, Chenab and Indus itself were western. The categorisation was relative — the western rivers flow almost parallely to the west of the eastern ones. Indus, the largest river, originates in China, so does the Sutlej. The other four rise in India; all enter Pakistan from India.

The Treaty gave India full rights over the waters of the eastern rivers, while it had to let the western rivers flow “unrestricted” to Pakistan. India could use the waters of western rivers as well, but only in a “non-consumptive” manner. It could use it for domestic purposes, and even for irrigation and hydropower production, but only in the manner specified in the Treaty. With the eastern rivers, India could do as it pleased.

A Permanent Indus Commission was established to implement the Treaty. Each country has an Indus Commissioner, and they meet regularly — every six months these days — to exchange information and data, and to settle minor disputes. Meetings of the Indus Commissioners have never been suspended — more than 110 rounds of meetings, held alternately in India and Pakistan, have taken place so far.

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Armtwisting through Indus

The idea that India can armtwist Pakistan through the Indus Waters Treaty is not new. It has been floated every time relations have soured between the two countries. It is seen as the easiest and most effective option, and the one with practically no collateral damage. But there is no evidence to suggest it has been given any serious thought, even during the Kargil war or Operation Parakram, the two most serious standoffs in the last couple of decades.

That is because not everyone believes it would help India in achieving its desired objective — that of forcing Islamabad to act on cross-border terrorism.

“It would be detrimental to India’s interests in the long run. There is already strong discomfort in Pakistan with the fact that India controls its rivers. This despite the fact that India has always complied with the provisions of the Treaty. In fact, the eagerness in a section of Pakistani society to wrest Kashmir originates in the desire to take control of its rivers. Any tinkering with the Treaty is likely to see an intensification of Pak-backed activities in J&K,” said Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of the Earth Sciences Department at Kashmir University in Srinagar.

Romshoo pointed out that river waters cannot be stopped or released at the turn of a switch. “Waters cannot be immediately stopped from flowing to Pakistan unless we are ready to inundate our own cities. Srinagar, Jammu and every other city in the state and in Punjab would get flooded if we somehow were able to prevent the waters from flowing into Pakistan,” he said.

Uttam Sinha of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses said Pakistan could be pressured even without stopping the waters or violating any other provisions of the Indus Treaty.

“We have never used our rights on the western rivers. Under the Treaty, we can make use of the waters of the western rivers for irrigation, storage, and even for producing electricity, in the manner specified. If we just do what we are entitled to under the Treaty, it would be enough to send jitters through Pakistan. It would be a strong signal without doing anything drastic,” Sinha said.

Indeed, the Treaty allows India to construct storage up to 3.6 million acre feet on the western rivers. But India has developed no storage capacities; nor has it utilised the water it is entitled to for irrigation.

Sinha also argued for India’s greater engagement with Afghanistan on the development of the Kabul river that flows into Pakistan through the Indus basin. “This again can make Pakistan extremely nervous. It is in our strategic interest in any case to enhance our engagement on developmental issues with Afghanistan,” he said.

Stopping the waters of the Indus rivers, on the other hand, can be counterproductive, Sinha said. “We have water-sharing arrangements with other neighbours as well. Not honouring the Indus Treaty would make them uneasy and distrustful. And we would lose our voice if China, decides to do something similar.”