The water conflict

Accusations and barbs were constantly exchanged until the World Bank mediated between Pakistan and India and brokered the Indus Waters Treaty on September 19, 1960.

Water is the basic ingredient that maintains life on this planet. Countries or nations sharing the same flow of water have often been in turbulent conflicts as the misuse of water has the potential to cause agricultural, economic, climatic and political disturbances in the region. In recent times, many countries around the globe have fallen victim to water-conflicts. For example, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan by the Ethiopian government is a reason of serious concern for Egypt and Sudan.

In South Asia, water sharing and the usage of some six rivers is the second biggest issue between Pakistan and India after the Kashmir problem. Flowing through India, five of the rivers reach Pakistan’s Punjab and then all join the Indus at Mithinkot – this point of convergence is called Panjnad.

At the time of partition of the Subcontinent, the head projects – hydro-electric generation, water storage and transportation projects – of these rivers were given to India. In January 1948, India took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations Security Council; and the Standstill Agreement between India and Pakistan expired on March 31, 1948. On the very next day, India stemmed the flow of waters to Pakistan thus initiating a never-ending conflict between the two nations. That was sowing season, and the blockade of the Central Bari Doab Canals by India considerably damage crops in Pakistan. The conflict needed immediate resolution or else the situation could turn devastating. Negotiations between the two countries brought them to the Inter-Dominion Accord on May 4, 1948, requiring India to release sufficient water to Pakistan in return for annual payments from the government of Pakistan.

Sometime later, David Eli Lilienthal, known for leading the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), visited India and Pakistan to ascertain the reality of the issue. He observed, “No army, with bombs and shellfire could devastate a land as thoroughly as Pakistan could be devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the sources of water that keep the fields and the people of Pakistan alive.”

Pakistan was alert and alive to the gravity of the conflict. In July 1951, India cut off water supplies to Pakistan’s Wagha and Bhaun villages again. Accusations and barbs were constantly exchanged until the World Bank mediated between Pakistan and India and brokered the Indus Waters Treaty on September 19, 1960. Under the treaty, control and use of water over the three eastern rivers — the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej and their tributaries — were given to India, while Pakistan was allocated three western rivers — the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum and their tributaries.

The Indus Waters Treaty can be taken as the sole success story in this water conflict as it stood the test of time even in the harshest of wars, skirmishes and conflicts. But presently, India has given indications to tamper with the treaty. The hardliner Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been whipping up ideas to scrap the treaty by building new hydro-power plants and diverting the waters of three rivers that flow into Pakistan. Indian writers, media-men and politicians have started heated debates in favour of the abrogation of the treaty.

But the question is if it is as easy to scrap, abrogate, revoke, suspend or annul the treaty. The answer is ‘no’. There are legal and international obligations that would bind India to comply with the words of the treaty.

First, under the International Water law, an upper riparian cannot block water to a lower riparian. In case India attempts to interrupt the waters of three rivers allocated to Pakistan, it sets up an example for China which is an upper riparian in the case of Brahmaputra River that flows down to India from China. Another fact is that India itself is middle riparian when it comes to Indus and Sutlej as both the rivers originate from Tibet in China.

Second, India has water sharing accords with other neighbouring countries – the Ganges treaty with Bangladesh and the Gandak treaty with Nepal. Fiddling with Indus Waters Treaty may jeopardise India’s position and thus set a bad example for other countries in cooperation with India.

Third, India cannot revoke the Indus Waters Treaty on its own as the treaty does not contain any article concerning unilateral exit. Article 12(4) entails that both India and Pakistan must agree in writing to revoke the treaty and then ratify the revocation. The treaty, moreover, is not time-bound or regime-specific rather it is state-specific and with no unilateral exit provisions.

Fourth, the three rivers given to Pakistan flow from Kashmir. Tinkering with Pakistan’s waters will highlight the Kashmir issue with more vehemence internationally. So, it stands as one of the reasons India hesitates creating much disturbance for Pakistan.

Last, stopping waters of Pakistani rivers and thus going back of the treaty would tarnish India’s image regionally and internationally as a violator of an international treaty brokered by the international agency.

The crux of the discussion is that there is no option for India to mess with the Indus Waters Treaty, and also no use of issuing threats to render Pakistan’s lands barren.

Adhering to treaties are states’ obligations, and there should not be any thought to breach them in times of dispute. Even if the political atmosphere is not congenial, the states must stand high and pose mature behaviour devoid of vituperations, accusations and disapproving rhetoric.

n             The writer is a lecturer at Punjab Group of Colleges, Lahore.

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