Undertones Of A Potential India-Pakistan Water War

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By Renuka Paul and M Matheswaran 
Last week saw India-Pakistan tensions touch a crescendo as India, for the first time, executed a punitive strike into Pakistan. While Pakistan’s retaliatory strike was thwarted by IAF’s air defence mechanism it also resulted in a MiG 21 aircraft being shot down and the Indian pilot taken as prisoner. While international pressure forced Pakistan to release him within 48 hours, it also led to quick de-escalation. In the bargain, India’s pressure on Pakistan became diluted significantly. The genesis of this spike in tensions between the two nuclear powered neighbours, relates to the event of February 14th, 2019 when Pakistan based Jaish-e-Mohammad launched a terror attack in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir that killed over 40 Indian paramilitary personnel.


Blaming Pakistan for the incident, New Delhi has revoked the ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status granted to Islamabad, imposed 200 percent duty on imports from Pakistan and vowed to end the flow of unutilized water from India’s shareflowing to Pakistan. On February 26th, India carried out “non-military, pre-emptive” airstrikes to destroy terrorist camps in Balakot, Pakistan. The tough and unprecedented (since 1971) retaliatory measure of crossing Pakistan’s airspace makes sense given the political pressure due to the upcoming elections and the media fuelled public sentiments. This changed discourse proves that Pakistan’s approach of employing Islamic proxies to cause destructions and using nuclear weapons as a safeguard to deter Indian response does not hold true any longer. Moreover, the international community including China and Saudi Arabia, usual Pakistan allies, has condemned the terror activities.

Some argue that the strongest threat India has made since the Pulwama incident is the decision to alter the course of water flowing into Pakistan towards Punjab and Kashmir instead. The recent claim, however, seems irrelevant as it is in fact a two-year-old announcement that the excess of Indian waters that flow into Pakistan will be used for hydroelectric projects. But what this has sparked is a boost to those advocating abrogation of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) and has highlighted a potential water conflict in the subcontinent.

Post partition, in 1948, Pakistan argued that it needs Kashmir partly for its water security as it is nearly 65-percent dependent on the Indus river system. Following escalated issues, India partially cut off water supply to Pakistan by shutting off water from Ferozepur Headworks to Dipalpur Canal, portions of Lahore and main branches of the Upper Bari Doab Canal. To de-escalate the situation and to prevent further water crisis, the World Bank, after years of negotiations, brokered the IWT in 1960. According to this deal, India is allocated the eastern rivers- Ravi, Beas and Sutlej- while Pakistan has the western rivers- Indus, Chenab and Jhelum- and it mandates a bilateral meet twice a year to share data regarding flow, flooding etc. However, over the years the undertones of looming water dispute is evident. Being the upper riparian state, India has a clear advantage that sustains Pakistan’s insecurities. For instance, it has built multiple dams and barrages over river Jhelum. While 1.50 MAF water is allowed to India from Jhelum under IWT, constant disputes exist regarding the amount of water diverted (stop the flow or flood).

In 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed accused India of water terrorism, followed by Pakistan government in 2010 claiming that India chokes water supply consistently. In the aftermath of Uri attacks in 2016, Modi proclaimed that “blood and water cannot flow simultaneously” and dismissed the bilateral meet of IWT committees. In addition, New Delhi set up dozens of small and medium hydroelectric and irrigation projects like Wular barrage, Baglihar Dam, etc that obstruct Pakistan’s water share. Though India cannot unilaterally end the treaty, it can reduce the water flow to Pakistan utilizing the provisions of IWT that allows India to use water from Western rivers for non-consumptive needs like irrigation, hydroelectricity production, etc. Islamabad responded that revocation of IWT “can be taken as an act of war” and garnered international support to stop India’s project efforts.

Given that Pakistan is allotted 80 percent of the water from the Indus river system, many in India call for ending IWT. However, the potential consequences of retraction from IWT are manifold. As signatory to the international agreement, backing out from IWT will invite international condemnation affecting India’s global image and its bid for UNSC seat. Moreover, the trust relation with neighbours (Nepal and Bangladesh) with whom India shares water treaties will be affected. Additionally, India does not have the infrastructure to use the extra water and this could result in the flooding of Kashmir. Even the underutilized water that belongs to India (from eastern rivers) is free flowing to Pakistan. Despite continued claims of diverting the water that flows to Pakistan to other parts in India, New Delhi is yet to materialize these claims.

Experts argue that this is to avoid water crisis within the country. Water disputes within states in India are common. For instance, it was only after 40 years of interventions that Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Haryana signed an agreement in 2018 on the Shahpur Jandi dam project for access to and use of the water from these rivers. There is also the risk of China following India’s steps and reducing water flow to the Brahmaputra river. They have already done so by building the Lalho project on the Xiabuqu river, a tributary of Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra as known in India). Realizing the disadvantages of withdrawing from IWT, India has looked at other alternatives.

New Delhi is engaging in water power play by further limiting Pakistan’s water supply through Afghanistan – India investing on the $236 million Shahtoot Dam on Kabul river in Afghanistan is an example. Using water as a political weapon is not new. Turkey completely stopped water flow from Euphrates to Syria, Israel cut fresh water supply to Gaza, and so on. In the absence of a water sharing agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, India is investing in river and dam projects on Afghanistan’s eastern rivers- Kabul and Kunar- that eventually flow into Pakistan. However, this seems to set a dangerous precedent and will further worsen the distributional conflicts in the region. In parallel, India has also taken up multiple projects utilizing the provisions under the treaty that can potentially reduce the water flow to Pakistan. Though it takes time, given the costs and objections involved, this seems to be a move in the right direction.

With political tensions and water stress rising in both nations, water diplomacy needs to be an important factor to be considered in Indo-Pak negotiations. Moreover, issues like climate change and global warming were irrelevant when IWT was brokered and left out of its gambit. Intermittent floods and droughts could be controlled through mutual coordination. Therefore, water should be seen as a factor for cooperation and not conflict.

Renuka Paul is a Research Analyst with The Peninsula Foundation. She holds a Masters in Public Policy from Mumbai University. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Air Marshal M Matheswaran AVSM VM PhD (Retd) is the Founder President and Trustee of TPF.

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