The Ravi Enigma

The Ravi River holds profound strategic implications for the simmering conflictual bilateral relationship between India and Pakistan.

Recently, India, as an upper riparian state, has halted the flow of the Ravi River into Pakistan, heightening con­cerns regarding agricul­tural and humanitarian issues in Pakistan. This can lead to the open­ing of another conflict zone between the two countries. Amidst the challenges posed by the worsening climate change situation in South Asia, these water problems can diminish the prospects of a normal bilat­eral relationship between Paki­stan and India.

In the 1960s, the World Bank mediated the signing of the In­dus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan, halting the decade-long water dispute be­tween the two conflicting neigh­bors. The IWT has stood the test of time, surviving wars and dip­lomatic tensions for more than six decades. However, in Febru­ary 2024, India completely halt­ed the flow of the Ravi River to Pakistan after the construction of the Shahpur Kandi Barrage project. Under the IWT, the three eastern rivers, Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas, were allocated to India, the upper riparian state, and the three western rivers, Indus, Jhe­lum, and Chenab, were allocat­ed to Pakistan, the lower ripari­an state. The construction of the Shahpur Kandi Barrage by India and the blocking of the Ravi Riv­er flow will have severe ecolog­ical, social, and strategic reper­cussions for Pakistan.

Agriculture stands as the pri­mary means of livelihood and subsistence for almost half of the Pakistani population, with near­ly 45% of the labor force direct­ly and indirectly associated with this sector. Any attempt to under­mine it would jeopardize well-being, living standards, employ­ment, and other crucial areas of life. Moreover, 70% of Pakistan’s agricultural land is concentrated in Punjab. Pakistani cities bear­ing the brunt of India’s strategic decision include Lahore, Faisal­abad, Multan, and Gujranwala, which rely heavily on the Ravi River. Water scarcity in industri­al cities like Sialkot, Sheikhupu­ra, and Narowal, and agricultural hubs and urban centers like Sahi­wal and Bahawalpur, could pose serious socio-economic chal­lenges to these areas.

The Ravi River holds pro­found strategic implications for the simmering conflictual bilat­eral relationship between India and Pakistan. Sanjay Dixit, Ad­ditional Chief Secretary to the Government of Rajasthan, has characterized Pakistan as be­ing embroiled in a three-front war. He also highlighted that the Afghan government is reach­ing out to Indian counterparts regarding the construction of dams on the Kabul and Kurram rivers, which contribute 50% of water to the Indus River, poten­tially a move aimed at coercive diplomacy. This water crisis has added another layer of complex­ity to the geopolitical dynamics of the South Asian region.

Disruption of water flow from India not only jeopardizes the agrarian landscape of Pakistan but also aggravates the humani­tarian crisis in regions heavily re­liant on the Ravi as their primary water source. The river plays a pivotal role in sustaining agricul­ture, providing drinking water, and sanitation, and fulfilling var­ious essential needs like provid­ing food security to around 110 million people in Punjab.

The international community has responded to the situation with varying degrees of involve­ment. The United Nations has called for both countries to re­solve the dispute through negoti­ations and dialogues. The World Bank has also been involved, providing technical assistance. However, the need of the hour is to address the underlying causes of the dispute by taking signif­icant proactive measures. In 2023, India had sent a notice to Pakistan to modify the IWT.

The BJP, seeking popular sup­port, has consistently used an­ti-Pakistan sentiments. Trac­ing back to the tactics of the RSS against partition in the 1950s, the BJP follows the same line, us­ing Uri and Pulwama in their re­spective election campaigns. In 2016, Modi and his various allies had referred to stopping every drop of water flowing into Pak­istan. As the 2024 General Elec­tions loom ahead, the BJP aims to use this water dispute to seek popular support from eastern states like Punjab. Water shar­ing has always been a source of interstate conflict within India. Even in 1948, it was from Pun­jab that water flow to Pakistan was disturbed. By suspending the water flow of the Ravi into Pakistan, the BJP aims to garner political support in the upcom­ing elections.

To conclude, the Ravi River dispute highlights the complex interplay of geopolitical, envi­ronmental, and humanitarian factors that have far-reaching implications for regional stabil­ity and socio-economic security. Indian domestic politics and the strategy to damage Pakistan’s socio-economic fabric have fur­ther complicated the situation. In this context, the two coun­tries need to strictly implement the clauses and provisions of the IWT. In this hostile environ­ment, it would be difficult for the two countries to renegotiate and modify the treaty in a way that is acceptable to both. In­dia’s attempt to halt Ravi River water flow should be a wake-up call for Pakistan.

Shafaq Zernab and Muhammad Ahmad Khan
Shafaq Zernab is a Research Intern at India Study Centre, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. Muhammad Ahmad Khan is a Research Associate at India Study Centre, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.

Shafaq Zernab and Muhammad Ahmad Khan
Shafaq Zernab is a Research Intern at India Study Centre, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. Muhammad Ahmad Khan is a Research Associate at India Study Centre, Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.

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