Blood and water can’t flow together. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comment on the river Indus, with the dark hint of retribution, sends out a chilling signal to Pakistan. It also disturbingly hyphenates the link between terrorism and water. This is reinforced by the frenzied talk of avenging Uri by revoking the 56-year-old Indus Water Treaty. To what extent has India’s political signaling on the Indus taken into account the possible payoffs?
International experience on using water as a weapon to stop terrorism is a sobering one. Turkey used water as a weapon to punish Syria for its alleged role in supporting the terrorist activities of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) directed against it. In 2014, Turkey completely cut off water from the Euphrates leaving seven million downstream Syrians without access to fresh water. By doing so, Turkey reneged on a 1994 international agreement to guarantee a minimum share of the waters of the Euphrates to Syria and Iraq. Earlier this year, Israel stopped water supply to several Palestinian towns and cities for weeks. Each of these instances brought serious collateral damage to civilian populations and proved to be a cure worse than the problem.
Advocates of a similar strategy on the Indus would do well to remember that it could only end up worsening future distributional conflicts over water in the sub-region. Given that nearly 65 per cent of its territory is part of the Indus basin, Pakistan’s dependence on its flows cannot be overstated. If downstream communities hold the upper riparian state responsible for their livelihood setbacks, can India’s public diplomacy afford to ignore their sentiments? Article 54 of Protocol I to the Geneva Convention prohibits actions targeting civilian populations that may result in “inadequate food or water as to cause its starvation”.
India would also do well to remember that its actions as an upper riparian country run the risk of seriously undermining its position as a lower riparian state vis-à-vis China. On the Brahmaputra, India has stakes in institutionalising norms of first-user rights, joint management and consultative processes. India’s plan to build 168 mega dams in Arunachal Pradesh and the moves to expedite hydroelectric projects on the sub-basins of the Siang, Lohit and Subansiri rivers are part of its attempts to establish user rights. If it chooses to renege on its own international obligations, how realistic are India’s chances of getting China to invest in process-oriented, institutionalised norms in a transboundary basin?
How would a planned move to abrogate international obligations be read in Dhaka, Kathmandu or Thimphu? Is it likely to inspire confidence in India’s credentials as a leader with an inclination to design regional norms of benefit-sharing? Or would it further reinforce the perception that India has a strong unilateralist streak? What is worse, contradictory political signalling can result in a high degree of uncertainty. For instance, on the one hand, India provides flood-forecasting data to Pakistan and Bangladesh free of cost but on the other, it has not been averse to occasionally flexing its muscles as an upper riparian country.
It will also be in India’s interest that the exercise of its power as an upper riparian state is seen as legitimate and credible. International experience validates this quite clearly. Be it Brazil’s binding agreements with Paraguay on the Parana or the US-Mexico freshwater treaty on the Colorado, hegemonic upper riparian states have found it worth their while to invest in the creation of regional public goods.
Political signalling is a game all nations play. Some just happen to play it better than others. But signalling almost always involves costs, especially in fraught situations of international conflict. A review of the Indus Water Treaty could prove to be a double-edged sword for India. Pakistan could just as well use it to signal that the Indus framework is increasingly inadequate, call to question India’s intentions and demand additional international guarantees to ensure uninterrupted flows. The non-military option on the Indus is hardly the silver bullet solution it is being bandied to be and India could end up shooting in the foot.