February 2019 was marked by a downward spiral in diplomatic relations between the two South Asian neighbors of India and Pakistan. Among the threats and cross-border strikes, India’s water minister also issued a statement threatening to utilize all the waters of the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi Rivers, letting “not even a single drop of water to reach Pakistan.” The minister was reiterating the statement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi following the Uri attack in 2016 that “blood and water can’t flow together.”
Some observers in India have even gone to the extent of calling for an abrogation of the 50-year old Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), which has survived two full-fledged wars between the nuclear-armed neighbors. The preamble of the treaty asserts that IWT was entered “in a spirit of goodwill and friendship.” Since neither goodwill nor friendship exists at the moment, critics argue that India has no obligation to continue with the treaty.
All these differing views call for a thorough examination of the importance of the IWT and the examination of normative questions embedded in the larger hydro-politics of transboundary rivers in South Asia.
Indus Waters Treaty: A Look Back at What Worked
The IWT is often hailed as a nearly impossible feat that was achieved under the arbitration of the World Bank in 1960. India-Pakistan cooperation over this vital resource was a watershed moment in global hydro-diplomacy. Some researchers attribute the breakthrough to the requirements of the time. Pakistan and India needed financial support from the World Bank to expand their irrigated areas and create infrastructure for water storage and transport. The total amount of this contribution was well over $1 billion (in 1960 rates) through the Indus Basin Development Fund (IBDF).
Another reason working in favor of this cooperation is the fact that both countries were “water rational.” They had realized that cooperation was a prerequisite for safeguarding their country’s long-term access to the shared resource. The political opinion in the two countries was clear. Cooperation was the only way forward, in spite of water scarcity and the competitive use of this limited resource under a hostile environment of mutual distrust. A war over water would not have guaranteed either country’s water supply in the long term.
A Look Ahead at What Needs to Work
Contemporary times call for water rationality to prevail once again. India needs to look back at why it entered the agreement in the first place. While financial requirements are no longer a prerogative for the continuation of the treaty, what remains important is the principle of water rationality.
By keeping to the IWT, India could leverage its position as a responsible upstream riparian when it engages with China over water issue. China is an upstream riparian to some of the major rivers flowing into India from Tibet, as well as a self-proclaimed “all-weather friend” to Pakistan. The Sutlej and Indus are two major rivers that originate in Tibet and a sizable length of the rivers are located in Chinese territory.
Moreover, meltwater from the Tibetan plateau contributes around 35 to 40 percent of the total flow into the Indus basin. This effectively means that meltwater and seasonal snowmelt constitute a major chunk of the estimated 181.62 cubic kilometers in total annual inflow of water from China to India within the Indus basin. Currently, India only has a data sharing agreement with China and it will definitely be at a loss if China proposes to obstruct or divert the flow of water in the Indus basin – a very possible scenario, should India similarly obstruct Pakistan’s access to water.
The Indo-Pak Water Conundrum and Its Global Repercussions.
India is globally seen as a nation that abides by international rules and norms. In fact, it has an upper hand when one considers the disputes concerning the projects on the western rivers of the Indus system. The IWT allows India to build a dam to generate hydroelectricity. It also allows for irrigation on a small scale – up to 700,000 acres in total, spread among the Inuds, Jhelun, and Chenab Rivers.. However, Annex D of the IWT bars India from constructing movable gates, as it would allow for the manipulation of water storage.
This position changed following the arbitration of the Baglihar Project by the World Bank’s appointed arbitrator, Professor Raymond Lafitte, in February 2007. In his verdict, Lafitte curtailed certain flow control capabilities of the earlier design but outright rejected the objections that were raised by Pakistan regarding height and gated control of spillways. These corrections were consistent with what India had offered to Pakistan before it went to the World Bank for arbitration. Moreover, it also set the precedent that the economic and technical viability of projects on the western rivers superseded the criteria outlined in Annex D of IWT.
The Kishanganga Hydropower Project was also completed within the ambit of the treaty, in spite of a dispute surrounding it and the subsequent impasse over the project. The World Bank had asked the two countries to mutually agree on how to proceed since Pakistan was reluctant to involve a neutral expert regarding the technical aspects of the dispute and instead sought to place it in a court of arbitration. India also decided to review the suspension of the Tulbul navigation project following the terror attack in Uri. These moves are sufficient to send a strong message across the border. Any further move to withdraw from the treaty would only result in India being seen as an aggressor to the entitlements of a downstream riparian. It could also jeopardize the bilateral treaties that India shares with Nepal and Bangladesh.
India should also consider that the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (UN Watercourses Convention) entered into force in 2014. To date, India has not joined the convention and China has opposed it, arguing that the Convention favors a downstream riparian state. However, in spite of this reluctance to accede to it, certain provisions of the 1997 UN Convention have almost attained the status of customary norms of international law, like equitable apportionment of water and the prior notification to co-riparian states for planned measures on the watercourses.
Walking away from the IWT might result in India facing flak from the global community during a time when states are coming together and cooperating to improve the status of water security. Therefore, it is definitely in India’s best interest to continue the IWT and avoid its termination.
Sayanangshu Modak is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation.