In Focus

Threatening the Indus

While climate change is already threatening the available water resources in Pakistan, the unabated water aggression by India to prevent or disrupt the water flow of Indus River system to Pakistan forbodes an existential crisis for the country.



The Indus River is the lifeblood of Pakistan. It is critical to agriculture, drinking water, livelihoods, the economy, and the lives of millions of people. For thousands of years, human civilisation has thrived in the Indus Basin. From its source on the Tibetan Plateau, the Indus River and its tributaries cross the international borders of China, India, Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIOJK), Afghanistan and Pakistan, flowing 3,200 kilometres before merging into the Arabian Sea near Karachi. But the future of this mighty river system is under threat from more than one direction.
Water is vital to human existence and to be without, is unimaginable.  But no matter how many times this is stated, the risk of ‘running dry’ seems remote and the alarm bells don’t ring loudly enough amongst the population. Conserving water is a responsibility for all. Today, Pakistan is already one of the world’s most water-stressed countries and is heading towards acute water scarcity by 2025. The Indus, on which so much depends, faces multiple threats. In a world struggling with the immense impact of climate change and global warming, melting polar ice caps and glaciers, changing weather patterns, rivers and aquifers drying up, waterways and oceans polluted with plastics, water security is a critical issue that can no longer be ignored.  The burgeoning population, urbanisation, weak management of domestic water resources, and threats from neighboring India to cut off the water to Pakistan, all have a profound impact on water security. Reviving and protecting the wellbeing of the river, and the flow of water is a matter of utmost urgency for all stakeholders.


The growing impact of climate change is not the only threat facing the Indus.  Pakistan’s share of the water is also a hostage to geopolitics and constant aggression.


UN Water describes water security as, “The capacity of a population to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality water for sustaining livelihoods, human well-being, and socio-economic development, for ensuring protection against water-borne pollution and water-related disasters, and for preserving ecosystems in a climate of peace and political stability.” 
The growing impact of climate change is not the only threat facing the Indus.  Pakistan’s share of the water is also a hostage to geopolitics and constant aggression.  The Indus Waters Treaty, signed on September 19, 1960, was originally envisaged and negotiated after the hostility of Partition, to divide the water from the Indus River system between India and Pakistan in a fair and equitable way. But it did not look very far into the future. While, the treaty has survived 62 years, it needs a ‘makeover’ to build a stronger mechanism which takes into account the new threats that have arisen in recent decades – climate change and conflict.
The discussions on resolving the future of water from the Indus began in 1952. A survey of the Indus waters for the development of the treaty was conducted by engineers from Pakistan and India under the direction of General Raymond Wheeler, a retired three-star General from U.S. Corps of Engineers, who had joined the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development after his retirement from the military. But it became clear that no agreement could be reached for a settlement until the two countries agreed on how to divide and use the waters in a fair and equitable way. After eight years of proposals and negotiations between governments of India and Pakistan and external parties, the agreement was finally signed in September 1960.
The treaty gives India control over the eastern Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers, while Pakistan controls the western Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab.  The treaty was signed by Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, President of Pakistan, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan, and Vice President of the World Bank, Mr. W. A. B. Iliff, in the absence of the World Bank President. Simultaneously, an international financial agreement was executed by representatives of the governments of Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Pakistan, United Kingdom, United States, and of the World Bank, to support aspects of the treaty implementation and development.
The press release of the World Bank on September 19, 1960 on the signing of the treaty, stated, “Signature of the treaty marks the end of a critical and long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan and opens the way to peaceful use and development of water resources on which depends the livelihood of some 50 million people in the two countries”. It was hoped that it would bring peace and prosperity to the people of both countries and good relations. Unfortunately, it has not turned out that way. The Indus faces severe threats.


During the Modi era, it has been wielded regularly as a weapon against Pakistan. After an incident at Uri, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that “blood and water can’t flow together” and ordered the suspension of the Permanent Indus Commission. 


What the parties to the treaty did not, or could not, have envisaged was what lay ahead as industrialisation, population explosion, urbanisation and the impacts of a rapidly changing climate overtook the world around us. Reference to ‘development’ in the treaty is more about dams, canals, and barrages, but it never contemplated ‘development’ in the multifaceted context as it is known today.
In 1960, the population of Pakistan was 44.99 million people. Today, it is past the 220 million mark and expected to reach 230 million by 2025. Approximately, 90 percent of the population resides in the Indus Basin. It also accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s irrigated land. Nine of the largest cities in Pakistan are within the basin area and dependent on the waters of the Indus. This is a far cry from the ‘50 million’ (which encompassed both countries) envisaged in the World Bank’s press release of September 1960. The water demands have accelerated enormously.
The treaty also established a Permanent Indus Commission of two Commissioners, appointed by the governments of each side, with a mandate to reconcile any points of disagreement that may arise, arrange inspections, and report once a year. Where differences cannot be resolved by an agreement between the Commissioners, the next step is to resort to a ‘Neutral Expert’ (to be a highly qualified engineer) for a final decision and if still unresolvable, to a Court of Arbitration. The World Bank, also a signatory to the treaty, acts as a mediator.
Fragile bilateral relations and frequent security issues between the two countries give rise to threats by India to stop the water which flows into Pakistan, placing in jeopardy the original intent of the treaty. Should that ever happen, it would be catastrophic for water-stressed Pakistan. India’s unabated hostility towards Pakistan over IIOJK through which the rivers run, is always a flashpoint in bilateral relations.


What the parties to the treaty did not, or could not, have envisaged was what lay ahead as industrialisation, population explosion, urbanisation and the impacts of a rapidly changing climate overtook the world around us. Reference to ‘development’ in the treaty is more about dams, canals, and barrages, but it never contemplated ‘development’ in the multifaceted context as it is known today.


Since 1960, three wars have been fought between the two countries, and numerous escalations in tensions have resulted in skirmishes but the treaty has survived, though not necessarily harmoniously. During the Modi era, it has been wielded regularly as a weapon against Pakistan. After an incident at Uri, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that “blood and water can’t flow together” and ordered the suspension of the Permanent Indus Commission. Upping the ante further, he established a high-level task force to evaluate the treaty. India’s Water Ministry officials called for full exploitation of the Eastern Rivers. India fast tracked several hydropower projects including the Ujh Multipurpose project, the Shahpurkandi Dam and the Ravi-Beas Link, aimed at preventing excess water from flowing into Pakistan.
India again threatened Pakistan’s access to waters from the Indus following the Pulwama incident in February 2019. Another Indian Minister, Nitin Gadkari, threatened to stop the flow of rivers to Pakistan. In that same month, during a general election rally at Haryana’s Charkhi Dadri, Prime Minister Modi said, "For 70 years, water that belonged to Haryana's farmers and to us flowed to Pakistan, but we will stop that. I have already started working on it. The water belongs to India and farmers of Haryana. That is why Modi is fighting this for you.”
Should India ever take any such drastic step, it would be considered an ‘act of aggression’ by Pakistan, and a profound contravention of human rights. India would be in legal breach of various articles of the treaty, particularly that, which states India’s obligation to “let flow all the waters of the Western rivers and not permit any interference with these waters.” Such threats can never be unheeded.
A weakness in the treaty was never being specific on how many dams India could build on its side. This leaves the way open for India to plan and build multiple dams not previously envisaged at the time of the treaty signing and hinder the flow of water into Pakistan. For Pakistan to protest and seek mediation via the World Bank, neutral expert assessments, and possibly from judgement through the Court of Arbitration, is a lengthy and challenging process taking years. Meantime, India continues with the site works making the outcome almost unstoppable.  
Over the years, Pakistan has accused India of violating the treaty by initiating the construction of Baglihar Dam, and new projects such as the Ratle Dam on the Chenab river, Kishanganga Dam on the Neelum-Jhelum river, and other hydropower infrastructures, all of which have led to lower water tables in rivers on the Pakistani side. This is devastating for the communities residing along the Pakistani rivers where the water levels have dropped. The damage to agricultural production, livelihoods and the economy has been significant as has the damage to the environment and ecosystems. 
Since 1960, the governments of both countries have changed many times and will likely change again over the coming years. One day, Narendra Modi will be gone. Another tyrannical leader could do further and irreparable harm in the future if mechanisms are not strengthened to ensure that Indus does not remain hostage to the dangerous geopolitical intentions.


As we have seen in 2019 when India abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution of India to illegally annex IIOJK, the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is willing to risk international condemnation and challenge international conventions, rules and principles to do as he pleases.


With multiple threats of climate change and conflict as a reality, the Indus Waters Treaty is out of sync with the world as it is today. There is no easy solution to amending the treaty, nor is there a unilateral exit clause. A break in diplomatic relations cannot terminate it. Any attempt to abrogate it would lead to international condemnation and be of great concern to other countries including China and Bangladesh, linked to India by the Indus and other rivers. However, as we have seen in 2019 when India abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution of India to illegally annex IIOJK, the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is willing to risk international condemnation and challenge international conventions, rules and principles to do as he pleases.
The plight of the Indus needs immediate attention. Combined with the impacts of climate change and increasing water scarcity, the existential threat of India attempting to block water supply to Pakistan cannot be neglected. Even small steps to introduce another forum would be challenging but must be considered. Currently, the Permanent Indus Commission comprises two Commissioners from Water Ministries from India and Pakistan. Although, the Commissioners are supported and informed by their national and provincial water-related departments, should there be greater participation of relevant stakeholders? Is it not time to consider a new mechanism, a roadmap, to expand the scope of the Indus Waters Treaty arrangements to formally include officials from both countries from Ministry of Climate Change, Planning and Development, academics and other experts in water security and climate change to properly inform each aspect of decision-making to avoid a future catastrophe? 
The development of a comprehensive roadmap addressing the severe threats from climate change and the risks of further conflict as an annexure to the Indus Waters Treaty, would provide a more robust, sustainable future for all, enhance water security and peace in the region, and prevent the waters of the Indus being held hostage to India’s geopolitical chicanery.


The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction & Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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