The Indian government, in the aftermath of Pulwama, announced its intention to maximise the use of water flowing to Pakistan via the Indus system. As a multipronged strategy, India shifted its focus on the Indus Water Treaty (IWT).
The geographical setting of the Indus river system has facilitated partitioning of the six rivers in equal numbers between the two riparian countries under the 1960 IWT, which was achieved after nine years of intense negotiation under the aegis of the World Bank.
Pakistan, being one the world’s most arid countries, with an average rainfall of less than 240 mm, is quite dependent on Indus waters. Under the Treaty, India was given control over the water flowing in the three 'eastern' rivers of the Indus River System (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej) with the mean flow of 33 million acre-feet (MAF), which is 20 per cent of the annual flow of all Indus Rivers (168 MAF). In contrast, Pakistan was given control over the water flowing from the 2 'western’ rivers (Chenab and Jhelum) with a mean flow of 80 MAF that corresponds to 80 per cent of the annual flow.
Although India has retained the right to use the 'western' rivers on the non-consumptive basis (power generation/industrial consumption/navigation) so as not to affect the volume of water flowing into these rivers, it has done little in effectively addressing the severe water crisis afflicting the Indian portion of the Indus Basin.
Political ecologists and critics of the scarcity discourse have established that social power dynamics shape water issues in the Indus basin, especially when both countries deal with acute drought.
In 2003, the Jammu & Kashmir state assembly passed an unanimous resolution for the abrogation of the Treaty, which further re-asserted the need for its revision in 2016.
On the face of it, this Treaty is heavily skewed in favour of Pakistan, which enjoys a lion’s share of the water and its utilisation. The treaty has not considered Gujarat – the lowermost riparian area - as part of the Indus river basin, as the Great Rann of Kutch area was disputed territory between the two nations. This was settled in 1968 by sharing the total disputed area in a 9:1 ratio between India and Pakistan.
Since the ratification of the treaty, over the past over 58 years, India and Pakistan have not engaged in any water wars. This is partly due to the fact that India has failed to utilise its share of the waters, allowing unused waters to flow into Pakistan.
Effective and complete utilisation of Indus waters falling in India’s share is the first step towards harvesting the Treaty and this has not been objected to by Pakistan, as evidenced from the February 21, 2019, statement of its Ministry of Water Resources. It is imperative that India should consider active utilisation of the 'western' rivers, albeit for non-consumptive basis.
The formal inauguration of the Kishanganga Hydropower project in J&K in May 2018 is a salutary step in this direction, even though it just marks a beginning.
India has an abundance of small dams and barrages in the Indus basin. Pakistan’s objection to such projects was overruled by the Court of Arbitration under the Treaty, which paves the way for India to install and run several projects on the `western’ rivers, hitherto flowing un-channelled into Pakistan.
These projects will serve as an effective tool in India’s hand to remind Pakistan that India will not hesitate to harness the waters flowing into Pakistan beyond the contours of the Treaty, in the event of a war or war-like situation between the two nations.
Every single dimension of human activity in this basin, whether economic, social, or political, is burdened with a huge handicap arising from the basin’s sovereignty-based, resource-dividing and relentless unilateralism.
India must consider setting up of a dedicated specialised body dealing exclusively with effective utilisation of the rivers under the Treaty. This body may be tasked with the study of the Indus river basins in India, determination of the needs of each state wherein the river basins exist, formulating state-wise projects on the rivers and their basins and time-bound implementation of these projects.
Besides ensuring the development of effective canal systems to ease the perennial water shortages for home consumption and agriculture, the body could also explore the feasibility of channeling excess water from these rivers to other river basins.
This will usher a new phase of infrastructure development and economic growth in this perennially neglected basin.
The two co-riparian neighbours are often at loggerheads over water resources. It is frequently asked whether India or Pakistan can unilaterally abrogate the treaty? The answer is No.
Article 12 of the treaty states that “the provisions of this Treaty, or, the provisions of this Treaty as modified under the provisions of Paragraph (3), shall continue in force until terminated by a duly ratified treaty concluded for that purpose between the two governments.”
The IWT is about sharing of water of six rivers — Indus, Chenab, Jhelum, Beas, Ravi and Sutlej — between India and Pakistan. The importance of the Indus basin to the co-riparian states extends far beyond the immediately tangible material benefits in terms of its waters and any failure to cooperate risks the future of this basin and the future water security of generations to come.