Wednesday, July 2, 2014

India and Pakistan: Escalation of water issues

“Water Flows or Blood”, “Water or War”, “Indian Water Bomb”, “Liberate Kashmir to Secure Water” – these are some of the man slogans used by groups such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). They are using the simmering water issue to call for a jihad against India. The slogans allude to Pakistan’s anxiety, as a lower riparian, that India could turn it barren by cutting off water supplies of the Indus.

A 2013 report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) showed Pakistan as one of the most “water stressed” countries in the world. In a recent statement by Chaudhry Abid Sher Ali, Pakistan’s minister for water and power blamed India for the shortage of water in Pakistan as it constructed dams and other hydropower project along the Indus and warned that such shortage will “spell catastrophe for Pakistan”.

Such incidents lead to perception raised by Indian scholars and politicians that Pakistan is politicizing trans-boundary water issues. Water becomes inevitably linked to politics and affects ongoing tensions between the two neighbours. Parts of the Indian intelligentsia go as far as to hypothesize that water may replace Kashmir as the most explosive political issue determining the future of Indo-Pakistan relations.

In 1960, both India and Pakistan complied and signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) assigning the entire flow of the three eastern rivers – the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi – to India, the western rivers – the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus – to Pakistan. Through its administrative organ, the Indus Commission, composed of Indian and Pakistani representatives, the IWT provides for specific conflict resolution mechanisms. If the Commission is unable to resolve a dispute then it will be handed over to the governments of India and Pakistan who then consult a neutral expert as a last step before the dispute is finally settled in a Court of Arbitration. With this multi-step settlement mechanism and its detailed wording the founding fathers wanted to ensure the IWT’s ability to settle water disputes between the two are on a functional rather than a political basis.

Even though India’s compliance with the restrictions of the IWT was assured, Pakistan in 1966 first raised concerns that India was interfering with the flow of the western rivers violating certain provisions of the Treaty. As the lower riparian of the Indus, Pakistan is anxiety ridden. It perceives its geographical disadvantage and vulnerability as a security threat and is constantly worried that its neighbour could either run the country dry by cutting off necessary water supplies or release excess water causing flooding downstream. Pakistan’s fears have led to disputes over many Indian hydropower projects on the western rivers that could be resolved bilaterally by discussions on government level.

One such project is the Baglihar dam on the Chenab which caused greater hurdles for the IWT’s dispute resolution mechanism. It marked an important “turning point in the history of the IWT”, when Pakistan in 2005 decided to refer the matter to a neutral expert. It was the first time in the history of the Treaty a dispute was referred to a neutral expert; the findings were known to be of precedent-setting importance for future disputes. The report suggested some minor technical adjustments on the dam but generally supported the Indian project’s accordance with the IWT. Pakistan was of course, dissatisfied and accused the neutral expert of jeopardising the future of Pakistan by “re-interpreting” the Treaty.

On the bilateral, national level, water is not treated as the major subject for discussions and disputes. On the sub-national level, with heated discussions in the Pakistani media and agitation by terrorist groups, a different picture begins to emerge. As previously mentioned, organisations like the JuD have fervently started using the water issue to inflame public opinion and accuse India of “water terrorism.” They have organised public rallies, delivered anti-India speeches on TV and use publications like Zarb-e-Momin (a publication of Al-Rasheed Trust), Jarrar (a publication of Jamaat-ud-Dawa) and Al-Qalam (a publication of Jaish-e-Muhammad) to spread their message. The actions and rhetoric of militant groups show that they have taken on the water issue to be utilised as an instrument to gain public support for their general anti-Indian agenda.

In recent years, the Baglihar dispute has re-entered the political arena on a national and, foremost, sub-national level. It has gained prominence in the public arena and serves as an instrument to engender resentment against India.

If the two nations are able to put aside their political differences and collaborate, they can reap huge benefits from the water, energy, food and environmental security viewpoints, as well as in trade and transport. This could potentially become a missed opportunity for development due to lack of cooperation. These opportunities have existed for decades for collaborative efforts in hydropower generation, agricultural development, and flood control and drought management.

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