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The use of ‘oil as a weapon’ by the Gulf and North African nations in early 1970s had forced the world to pay heed to ‘energy security’ and take urgent steps to build oil reserves in their respective countries. But if future conflicts are mainly going to be over water, how will most countries respond?
Fortunately, that prediction of doomsday pundits has so far not come true. Despite the outbreak of conflicts at regular intervals, the focus of warring parties has not been limited to water. As experts point out, though many conflicts involve water, it is rarely their sole motivation.
Yet, water as a weapon of war has been used many times in the past, as did China in 1938 by breaching dykes along the Yellow River to check the advancing Japanese army, or more recently in Somalia, when al-Shabab terrorists, according to reports, diverted water of the Jubba river, forcing government soldiers to take shelter on higher ground and be ambushed.
In recent years, leaders in India too, have twice toyed with the idea of using water as a weapon against Pakistan by either stopping or diverting the water from the Indus—the lifeline of Punjab and Sind—or by abrogating the Indus Water Treaty that had been in place since 1960, to force the neighbour mend its recalcitrant ways on using terrorism as a tool against India. It has refrained from doing so thus far. The first was in 2016, when PM Narendra Modi asserted that “blood and water” cannot flow together in the wake of the terrorist attacks at the military camp in Uri. India once again came close to disrupting the flow of the Indus into Pakistan after the Jaish-e-Mohammed strike in Pulwama against the CRPF convoy that killed 40 jawans. India opted for a military strike against Pakistan on both occasions.
But responding to terror attacks from Pakistan-based groups with military strikes is also fraught with the danger of a full-fledged war between the two nuclear-armed neighbours and poses its own challenge. Thus the option of using water as an instrument to counter terrorist strikes remains with New Delhi. How and when it is to be used is a topic of speculation among Indian strategic thinkers.
If India were to use the Indus waters as a tool against Pakistan, it would have a devastating effect not only on the western neighbour, millions of whose people are dependent on it for their daily survival, such a move will have a seismic effect on the region. Most importantly, it will create a precedent that can easily be used by China, from where most rivers in South Asia originate. In addition, countries like Nepal, which is an upper riparian country in relation to India, can be convinced by New Delhi’s detractors to use the water of its rivers against India. An Indian action on the Indus might also make neighbours like Bhutan and Bangladesh nervous. As it is, Bangladesh and India have a running dispute over the former’s demand for the waters of the Teesta, a river that flows through Sikkim and north Bengal and then through Bangladesh.
It is not without significance that of the five rivers identified by the Joint Research, a thinktank under EU concerned with transnational conflicts and as possible flash points, two—Ganga-Brahmaputra and Indus—involve India. It thus obtains that what India may do vis-a-vis Pakistan using the Indus river water can be a model for others to follow. In a situation like that, India—which has shown extreme restraint about any misadventure with the waters of common rivers—will have no moral standing to oppose any such move against it.
Geographically, India is both an upstream and a downstream nation in relation to the two major river systems—Ganga-Brahmaputra and Indus—and may face a serious challenge from its neighbours on sharing their water. However, the domestic problems it faces on this critical yet emotive issue involving various states, can prove to be a bigger problem.
The manner in which India handles the Cauvery water dispute or other similar disputes involving its states is befitting of a nation with high economic progress and of its standing as the primary power in South Asia. Its ability to convince bickering regional parties and state governments to strictly go by the ruling of water tribunals will help in building confidence not only within the country but also among its neighbours. It will allow India to look for cooperative arrangements with neighbours, irrespective of whether it comes to the negotiating table as an upstream or a downstream nation.
Such a path of prudence means India will be seen as a country which not only honours and respects the right of its neighbours to the region’s common resources—as transnational rivers indubitably are—but also bolster India’s claim from upper riparian neighbours to its fair share of water. This can lead to better use of water within and outside the country and pave the way for perhaps an umbrella agreement among all nations in the region where water from the common rivers are fairly shared by all.