Don’t tinker with the treaty

Although considerable attention has been given in mainstream media to Pakistan’s water crisis, narratives vary greatly in India and Pakistan. In the context of these varying accounts, Gitanjali Bakshi and Sahiba Trivedi’s paper “The Indus Equation” is a commendable work that provides perspective on water dynamics in the subcontinent and highlights the scope, extent and causes of Pakistan’s water crisis. However, while some enhancements to the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) can be envisaged, a large-scale reshaping of the IWT itself is not entirely desirable for India at this time. While it could be argued that the Treaty is less than optimal today, it has come further than any India-Pakistan agreement and has stood the test of time by providing a framework for sharing IWT waters and amicably resolving issues of contention. Introducing substantial changes to the IWT could conceivably damage the agreement itself.

Anxiety over water scarcity and cognizance of Pakistan’s vulnerability as a lower riparian led General Ayub Khan to seek a treaty with India over the sharing of the waters of the Indus River system. The treaty, brokered by the World Bank, was signed in September 1960 in Karachi by Ayub Khan and Nehru. The IWT gives exclusive use of the Western rivers of the Indus River system — the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum — to Pakistan, and the Eastern rivers — the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas — to India. The IWT also established a Permanent Indus Commission, with representation from both India and Pakistan, to cooperate on matters related to the Treaty.

Image: World Bank

Today, the IWT is crucial to the survival and sustainability of agriculture in Pakistan’s Indus Basin. Pakistan’s economy is largely agrarian, accounting for 25 percent of GDP, and employing 50 percent of Pakistan’s work force. As a water intensive sector, agriculture in Pakistan consumes about 95 percent of available water annually according to the Asian Development Bank, while the rest are allocated for rural, urban and industrial use.

Unfortunately, the undeniable benefits of the treaty to Pakistan have been obscured by misplaced apprehension and aggression. Ayub Khan’s fears of Pakistan’s water insecurity did not prevent him from waging war against India in 1965. Since then, Pakistan has imposed war on India twice and provoked India through insurgencies and terror. Yet, India continues to respect the IWT in letter and spirit, not denying Pakistan its share of water even during times of war. Indeed, India itself, as a lower riparian to China, does not have the luxury of a treaty over the use of the Brahmaputra. Nor do Pakistan and Afghanistan have an equivalent treaty over the use of the Kabul River.

However, overwhelmingly popular themes in Pakistan on IWT accuse India of using water as a means to further its strategic objectives. Pakistan’s far right Urdu newspaper Nawa-i-waqt accuses India of “water terrorism” and has opined that Pakistan must use its nuclear weapons to resolve its problems with India. Former chief of ISI, Lt Gen Hamid Gul urged Pakistan to be determined in the face of India’s “aggression,” adding that “if necessary, India’s dams will be blown up.” The view that India’s calculated construction of dams obstructs the flow of the western rivers in Pakistan is so popular, and the pressure on the government to “resolve” this so great, that Islamabad has attempted to make the “issue” of water a component of potential “composite dialogues” with India. This, despite there already being a mechanism to resolve water-related differences and disputes between India and Pakistan via the Neutral Expert and the Court of Arbitration, per the IWT.

Although it is true that Pakistan suffers from water shortages, India’s imagined role in contributing to these shortages is minimal, at best. Pakistan’s water problems are due to a historic mismanagement of resources by Pakistan and lack of any credible strategy to address either current or future water requirements. Pakistan suffers from a lack of adequate water storage capacity, and by some estimates, can only store about 15 percent of annual river flow. Despite projections of acute future water shortages, Pakistan has not invested in developing adequate storage capacity since the building of the Tarbela dam, over 35 years ago. Worse, sedimentation has significantly affected overall storage capacity of its dams. According to a report published by Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, sedimentation has resulted in a reduction of Tarbela’s capacity by 28 per cent.

Pakistan’s poor construction and maintenance of canals has caused a significant amount of water loss in the Indus Basin. By some estimates, water losses from unlined canals ranged from 64-68 percent. Indeed, water loss even in lined canals in Pakistan, which are old and poorly maintained, was estimated at 35 to 52 percent, according to a paper published by the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. Further, the use of saline groundwater for irrigation has significantly impacted agricultural yield in areas where river water is inaccessible.

Other factors such as climate change and population growth will continue to pose considerable challenges to Pakistan’s water security. Himalayan glaciers that form a primary water source for the Indus, are rapidly melting and will negatively affect water availability in Pakistan in the long term. Further, Pakistan’s population growth rate of 1.56 percent (the fastest in the subcontinent), and the lack of any concrete plans to address already existing water shortages will mean that Pakistan will very soon make the transition from a “water-stressed” country to a “water-scarce” country, according to a report published by the World Bank.

Certainly, transnational water sharing is a complicated subject. In our own region, the sharing of water between states and provinces has been an emotive issue, as evidenced by the disputes over the Kalabagh dam between the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh, and the Kaveri dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. There is no denying that Pakistan’s water challenges are real, notwithstanding the dubious causes suggested. And it behooves India, as a neighbour, to help Pakistan address some of these challenges, where possible.

However, one must recognise that Pakistan’s water problems are its own and that to a great extent, the solutions to these problems lie in Pakistan. India cannot be expected to display magnanimity towards Pakistan when Pakistan itself has not demonstrated a basic desire to tackle structural and governance issues in water management. While forums such as the Pakistan-U.S. Dialogue on Water are encouraging steps, Pakistan needs to do much more to convince its people and neighbours that it accepts responsibility and is endeavouring to address these issues.

In India, a national debate is necessary before committing to any significant changes to the IWT, and whether these changes would be in India’s national interests. Any potential Indian magnanimity runs the risk of being perceived from across the border as either a sign of weakness or accepted with a sense of entitlement. India must consider whether, and to what extent, any changes or compromise will enhance its own national interests. Certainly, Islamabad’s own inflexibility and insensitivity towards addressing India’s core issues, including Pakistan’s continued use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy, may make any possible Indian accommodation on Pakistan’s water problems remote.