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Listen to the river

India, Pakistan must recognise that Indus waters could be the basis for a very different relationship between them

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Last week, experts from India and Pakistan met in Lahore to hold technical discussions on the welter of issues arising from the two countries’ joint administration of the Indus River waters system — the last remnant of significant diplomatic engagement between the two nations. The permanent Indus Waters Commission, which has survived through 57 years punctuated by four wars, has proved the most robust bilateral institution the two countries have created. It is also, however, the most fraught.

In water-scarce Pakistan, farmers’ organisations have threatened mass protests against what they cast as Indian plans to choke their irrigation systems; jihadists have been quick to cash in, using the issue to warn of a coming apocalypse. Islamabad used the talks to focus attention on three Indian projects that it claims violate the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, the 1,000 megawatt Pakal Dul on the Chenab, the 120 MW Miyar, and the 43 MW Lower Kalnai. Pakistani media reports have claimed India has agreed to halt work on the Miyar project; New Delhi, for its part, has refused to comment on what it describes as “hypothetical contingencies”.

In essence, New Delhi has decided to push forward with a series of major projects on the Indus system that evoke strategic fear in Pakistan. The most important of these new projects are the 1,856 MW Sawalkot dam, which promises to wipe out Jammu and Kashmir’s power deficit, and the Tulbul project, which would ease river transport between Srinagar and Baramulla. Though the projects are consistent with the IWT, Pakistan fears these — along with the dams at Salal and Baglihar — will give India the strategic capacity to devastate agriculture in Pakistan, should it choose to do so, by impounding water during critical periods of the agrarian cycle. Thus, water could become a weapon of war — a fear that has grown since Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned that “blood and water cannot flow in the same direction” after the Uri attacks.

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Fear, obviously, cannot be a reason for India to give up its legitimate treaty rights. Yet, India ought not to brush away Pakistan’s concerns; Pakistan, similarly, ought to be under no illusion that its use of terrorism to pursue strategic aims will be cost-free. This is because the Indus waters could be the basis for a very different relationship between the two countries. High dams in the inner Himalayas, inconceivable when the IWT was written, could provide Pakistan with the water it desperately needs. Those very dams could meet India’s bourgeoning power needs. The lesson is that a rational conversation between the two countries can open the way for win-win outcomes.

First published on: 27-03-2017 at 00:11 IST
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