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Exclusive: Water Wars- Is it time for India to abrogate Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan?

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), giving Pakistan unfettered use of the Western rivers of Indus, Jhelum and Chenab while giving only non-consumptive rights like run-of-the-river power projects to India over the same rivers is the only Indo-Pak edifice that has stood intact for the longest time from its coming into effect (called the Effective Date), but time itself has changed beyond recognition.

With India-Pakistan ties at its worst following the Uri attack, the mood of the nation is to give a befitting reply to Pakistan’s audacious attempts to belittle India on the international platform. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday held a meeting with experts to weigh in on abrogating the Indus Waters Treaty — the 1960 agreement that governs how India and Pakistan share the five rivers that flow West through Pakistan’s Punjab. Pakistan’s nuclear capability deterred India from going to war in 2001-2002. But, it is being argued that abrogating the treaty would mount unbearable pressure on Pakistan, forcing it to scale back its proxy war.

As per the Indus Valley Treaty, much of the water-rich headwater of the Indus system lies with India, which Pakistan has just the water-short lower riparian in its kitty. Thus, India has the physical capacity to cut off vital irrigation water from large tracts of agricultural lands in Pakistan Punjab.

Since ages, man has lived, loved and rested on riverbanks. Be it the Euphrates or Tigris, Ganga or Sindh, Volga or Victoria, great civilisations have flourished generally along banks of rivers.

In that well-known fable about the wolf and the lamb, when the wily wolf accuses the lamb of dirtying ‘his’ water the lamb gently reminds him that it is he, the wolf, who is upstream and hence in a position of vantage while the lamb, being downstream, is in no position to sully the waters. The truth contained in the fable still holds as countries which are upstream, or upper riparians, have a great advantage over the downstream lower riparian countries when rivers flow across national boundaries.

Who uses how much of the water and in what manner upstream affects one who is depending on the same water downstream. According to the international convention, an upper riparian has an unfettered right of constructing run-of-the-river power projects but the consumptive use of waters is regulated to protect the genuine rights and requirements of the lower riparian.

Rivers while being visible, it is said, are not transparent. To begin with, flows in a river are never constant. Add to that difficulties in monitoring and measuring variable flows and you end up with a particularly prickly problem when rivers, that are the lifeblood of human habitat, flow across national boundaries.

Global warming has reduced the flow of water in the Indus, which depends mostly on glacial runoffs. The Himalayan rivers carry significant amounts of sediments that result in silting of dam reservoirs, canals and barrage systems reducing the level of usable water. The canals are also prone to loss of water through seepage. Depleted freshwater availability and intrusion of seawater into the coastal estuaries of Indus altering the sedimentation of the river into the sea also changes the calculus.

Mark Zeitoun and Jeroen Warner of the London Water Group in their defining work, “Hydro-hegemony: A framework of analysis of transboundary water conflict” 2006, marked out the contours of ‘hydro-hegemony’ thus: “Conventional analysis tends to downplay the role that power asymmetry plays in creating and maintaining situations of water conflict that fall short of the violent form of war and to treat as unproblematic situations of cooperation occurring in an asymmetrical context…… hydro-hegemony is hegemony at the river basin level, achieved through water resource control strategies such as resource capture, integration and containment.

The strategies are executed through an array of tactics (e.g. coercion, pressure, treaties, knowledge construction, etc.) that are enabled by the exploitation of existing power asymmetries within a weak international institutional context. Political processes outside the water sector configure basin-wide hydro-political relations in a form ranging from the benefits derived from cooperation under hegemonic leadership to the inequitable aspects of domination. The outcome of the competition in terms of control over the resource is determined through the form of hydro-hegemony established, typically in favour of the most powerful actor.”

Going beyond the optics, India just took the first substantive step towards taking control of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) as any upper riparian would. By deciding to make the routine half-yearly meeting of Indus Water Commissioners subject to cessation of terrorist activity by Pakistan, India has, finally, initiated a sequence of events that will have a defining influence on future Indo-Pak relations.

The Indus Water Treaty (IWT), giving Pakistan unfettered use of the Western rivers of Indus, Jhelum and Chenab while giving only non-consumptive rights like run-of-the-river power projects to India over the same rivers is the only Indo-Pak edifice that has stood intact for the longest time from its coming into effect (called the Effective Date), but time itself has changed beyond recognition. And nations must change accordingly. The geopolitics of today is more about control of unexploited and unconventional energy resources and trade thereof than about conventional military hegemony.

For half a century, water has been the most emotive issue within the sub-continental engagement matrix. Pakistan has ranted and railed at India, accusing it of stealing, or meaning to steal, ‘its waters’. Such has been the level and persistence of Pakistani propaganda on this subject that even senior Pakistani commentators have fallen prey to it. Actually, India has adhered to the Indus Water Treaty, not only in letter but the spirit as well, ever since it was signed in 1960. All under-construction and proposed hydroelectric and navigational plans of India like Baglihar, Kishenganga, and Tulbul Navigation Project are in conformity with existing provisions of the Treaty.

Still, Pakistan has routinely objected to sundry aspects of these plans and frequently sought the intervention of a World Bank-appointed neutral expert. Today, Pakistan says that India can’t, as per international law, unilaterally ‘separate itself’ from IWT. But India seems to be actually making it more robust in practice and integrating, rather than separating, itself into its provisions.

The die, as they say, is cast.

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