Interview: The India-Pakistan Water Dispute

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Interview: The India-Pakistan Water Dispute

Can the decades-long tensions over access to diminishing water resources ever be solved?

Interview: The India-Pakistan Water Dispute
Credit: Amit Ranjan

Muhammad Akbar Notezai speaks with New Delhi-based freelance journalist and scholar Amit Ranjan on South Asian water issues, the Indus Waters Treaty, and Pakistan’s water crisis.

How do you view the water dispute between India and Pakistan?

The water dispute between India and Pakistan is serious not only because of water, but also due to the political rivalry between the two countries. Their rivalry made things more complicated than they really are. The water dispute between them started soon after the partition of the subcontinent in 1947. Until the Indus Waters Treaty, arrangements  to share east and west flowing rivers were ad hoc.

Unfortunately, over the years the IWT, too, has failed to pacify the water conflict. Hindu right-wing groups in India call on [the government] to stop flow of water to Pakistan or flood it. In the meantime, Islamic radicals in Pakistan call for water jihad against India. Moreover, the water dispute between the two countries is embedded in their political relationship.

Pakistani Islamic radicals must realize that their water security depends on India given that Pakistan is a lower riparian. And their water jihad will only damage their national interest as well as their agriculture-based economy.

As far as the Hindu right-wing groups are concerned, they must also remember that India cannot unilaterally abandon a treaty mediated by the World Bank. Nations must abide by the treaties they have signed with each other.

Do you think the Indus Waters Treaty served the interests of India and Pakistan?

Yes. At the time, it was the best the two countries could get. It took eight years of negotiations to reach a conclusion both accepted. The IWT is not the best treaty, but it is the best treaty the two rival countries could get. Over time, things have changed because of growing water pressure on the both countries. To address the current situation, a few amendments are needed, but cannot be made because of bilateral tensions and intermittent conflicts.

Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif has said that the Indus Waters Treaty is not in Pakistan’s interest. Is his objection valid?

Khwaja Asif may say that but he must realize that the IWT is going to remain. Neither country can scrap it unilaterally. So, instead of making the cry that it is not in the interests of Pakistan, he should improve Pakistan’s management system and try to engage with India to make the IWT a source of cooperation instead of conflict. As has been said, both countries are destined by geography to live together and share resources. It is up to them how they do it. To date, they have fought and gained nothing. In the future, they will fight again and will gain nothing. This sounds cynical but it is true.

Pakistani officials say that India has violated the Indus Waters Treaty many times by constructing 3200 dams and barrages on the river Jhelum, which deprives Pakistan of this major source. What are your thoughts?

Not only India but all upper riparian states try to make maximum use of water in their catchment areas. This does leads to problems in lower riparian areas. Generally, when the two riparian states have good relations, these problems are resolved through negotiations. Under the IWT, India can use 1.50 MAF of water from Jhelum for its own use to fulfill the demands of catchment areas. This gives it the right to construct run-of-river multi-purpose projects. The problem here is how much water is being diverted through those projects and in which season. These two factors are what leave Pakistan feeling aggrieved.

In 2010, when the two countries had relatively good bilateral relations, India allowed Pakistan to inspect several Indian hydro-power projects then under construction on the western rivers. The two countries also agreed to set up a telemetry system to measure river flows.

How much impact do you think the water dispute has had on ties between India and Pakistan?

As Stanley Wolpert wrote: “In 1947, India and Pakistan were born to conflict.” I would suggest that it is many other conflicts that have had an impact on the India-Pakistan water relationship. Also, the entire Kashmir issue is being seen through the prism of water resources. For example, in 1948, Pakistan wanted Kashmir partly for its water security. Ayub Khan has mentioned this in his book. Today there is no change in Pakistan’s position. But yes, when other conflicts are being discussed or taken into account by the two governments, the water issue certainly exacerbates the degree of conflict.

What do you think are the factors behind Pakistan’s water crisis? And why is India not to be blamed?

Being a weak lower riparian is certainly one reason for Pakistan’s water woes. Also, Pakistan does not have a good supply side management structure, which means it loses 35 percent of its water resources. There is also an imbalance in the distribution of water in Pakistan. Punjab diverts more water to its region than others. This is because of the Punjabization of Pakistan, which is still strong.

Some analysts worry that the diminishing availability of water may actually culminate in a war between India and Pakistan in the future. What are your thoughts about this?

Of course, water stress will certainly lead to tensions between India and Pakistan. But it will not lead to a full blown water war between them. As both countries are suffering from water stress, they are taking steps in areas such as drip-in irrigation, desalination plants, and adaptation. But as I have said, water issues will emerge again and again between them because of political reasons.

If border skirmishes escalate or an all-out war takes place between them, the water issue can be counted as a factor but not the sole reason. Not just water stress, even floods create tensions between them. Due to climate change and deficiencies in supply side management, the intermittent floods are causing destruction to the lives and properties of people living in the catchment areas of the Indus Rivers System. These floods could be controlled if the two countries cooperated. The IWT has not talked about such cooperation but there are provisions in articles IV and VII that, if used, could help them in controlling destruction caused by floods.

What do you think India and Pakistan need to do to resolve their water dispute?

The water that was partitioned in 1960 has to be viewed as a single unit and a plan developed to utilize the resources objectively for the benefit of people living in the catchment areas. This is only possible when relations are cordial.

The Indus Water Commissioners meet regularly and the institutions are active but trust is absent. It is important to build that trust to resolve the water issues. There is also a need to change the water narrative. Instead of always calling it a cause of conflict, one must start calling it a source of cooperation. This may not have a major impact but it could certainly change the thinking for the better.