October 25, 2020
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What Water Wars?

In the case of issues such as Kashmir or the nuclear issue, there are points to discuss or counter and positions to take, but how does one discuss a non-issue with Pakistan?

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What Water Wars?

Pakistan, for reasons of its own, has decided to raise water as a major new issue with India. This is an ominous development, perhaps the most ominous ever in the troubled history of the relations between the two countries. If the Kashmir issue were to be miraculously resolved tomorrow, water will be the new core issue.  

There has been a vicious anti-India campaign in the Pakistani media for some time now, and it is getting worse. India is accused of “stealing” Pakistan’s water; reducing river flows; stopping the Chenab; constructing “illegal” projects on the western rivers; desertifying Pakistan; and so on. Terrorist outfits have picked up this issue and given an ultimatum to India: “Let water flow or face war”. As for civil society, it is likely to find the slogan of “water in danger” persuasive. The whole of Pakistan, including intellectuals, liberals, and advocates of good relations with India, are likely to allow themselves to be mobilised against the perceived Indian threat to Pakistan’s water.

This outcome is perhaps exactly what the Pakistan army wanted. Is not a national sense of insecurity the best guarantor of the continuance of the army’s dominance? As for the government of Pakistan, one does not know whether it is raising this issue in strong terms at the behest of the army, or for reasons of its own. What is their rationale?

One possibility is that, faced with the Indian focus on terrorism and the discomfort that it causes to Pakistan, the latter has decided to turn the tables on India. Another explanation is that this is an attempt to deflect bitter inter-provincial dissensions over water within Pakistan by attributing water problems to Indian action, and rousing anger against that “national enemy”. A combination of the two is perhaps the full explanation.

The fact that needs to be stated clearly and categorically is that there is no water issue between India and Pakistan. Water-sharing on the Indus stands settled by the Indus Treaty 1960, and the sharing is so simple (three rivers to India, three rivers to Pakistan) that no misunderstandings or misinterpretations are possible. (There is indeed some dissatisfaction in both countries with the water-sharing under the treaty, but they have to live with it as it was the agreed outcome of prolonged negotiations approved at the highest level in both countries.) For monitoring the operation, there is a joint Indus Commission mandated by the treaty. The differences that can arise and have arisen under the treaty relate not to water-sharing but to questions of conformity of Indian projects on the western rivers (permitted by the treaty) to the technical and engineering stipulations laid down in the treaty. There are provisions and procedures for dealing with such “differences” or “disputes”. Those arrangements have been working. Internationally, the Indus Treaty is regarded as a good example of successful conflict-resolution between two countries otherwise locked in a bad relationship. The Indus Commission meets regularly. In one case (Baglihar) the differences were arbitrated by a neutral expert as provided for by the treaty. Pending or future “questions” or disputes can similarly be dealt with in the Indus Commision, through reference to a neutral expert or through submission to a court of arbitration. There is thus no case at all for including water in the agenda for future India-Pakistan talks.

By handing over a “non-paper” on water to India, Pakistan has succeeded in putting India in a dilemma. If India were to refuse to include water in the agenda for talks on the ground that there is another forum for water-related issues, namely the Indus Commission, it may give the appearance of intransigence or negativism to the people of Pakistan and to the world. On the other hand, if India were to agree to the inclusion, the very inscription of water on the agenda may be interpreted as an implicit admission by India that there is a water issue to discuss.

In the case of other issues such as Kashmir or the nuclear issue, there are points to discuss or counter and positions to take, but how does one discuss a non-issue? All that India can say — and must keep saying — is that there is no water issue; that the Indus Treaty is in operation; and that any question or difference or dispute that arises in the course of such operation can and must be discussed within the ambit and framework of that Treaty.

However, such a statement will not remove the misperceptions on the part of the people of Pakistan. India must somehow find ways of telling them that they have been deliberately misled; that India has not “stolen” Pakistan’s water; that it has not even made use of or stored the waters of the Indus to the very limited extent permitted by the treaty; that it has not reduced river flows and cannot do so because there are stringent provisions regarding the maintenance of flows; that the treaty does not permit India to construct storages on the western rivers; that the treaty also provides safeguards to Pakistan against the danger of being flooded; that India has not constructed and is not constructing any “illegal” projects on the western rivers; that everything is being done within the ambit of the treaty; that there are provisions for dealing with any differences; that those provisions have been utilised in the Baglihar case and can be used again; that the water issue is therefore a bogus issue manufactured by the army and the government for strategic and political purposes, and a massive confidence trick on the people of Pakistan.

Ramaswamy R. Iyer is former secretary, water resources , and is currently at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. This article first appeared in the Indian Express and has since been expanded into a longer piece for the Economic and Political Weekly


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