Geography and present damming structures ensure India has limited ability to flood or choke water flow to Pakistan. Scrapping the treaty will needlessly pit India against the people of Pakistan by playing on an insecurity that has a deeper psychological effect than the threat of a war.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat down for a Power Point presentation on the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) on Monday, he must have seen two crucial slides on earlier Indian attempts to squeeze Pakistan’s jugular on water. Both came unstuck because of frenzied international mediation as well as the fear of self-damage to India’s reputation in the world.The first incident took place shortly after Independence.
Angered by Pakistan’s attempts to settle the Kashmir dispute by force, India had shut down sluices on canals carrying water into West Punjab. As the blocked water began backing up into Indian agricultural land and the world community started getting the jitters, the government was forced to backtrack. This episode played havoc on Pakistan’s sense of insecurity about river waters from India. A couple of years later, when the IWT was finalised, the neutral mediator made India cough up over Rs 15,000 crore (in today’s value) to help Pakistan build an independent canal network.
The second incident happened barely six years back. India had at long last completed the Baglihar hydropower project over the Chenab. As is the case today, bilateral relations were going through a rough patch. The time chosen by India for one-time filling of the dam’s pondage coincided with the sowing season in Pakistan and low water flows in the river. Pakistan agriculture in a few districts was affected during the one month it took to fill Baglihar.Today, the options for punishing Pakistan through a water war essentially remain the same as they were half a century ago. But there is an added complication. In the absence of trust, India undergoes the same insecurities as Pakistan when it comes to sharing the river waters of the Brahmaputra with China in the east. If the Pakistani media periodically raises the bogey of water terrorism by India, the media at home is not far behind in raising a similar flag against China.But before this logic runs away with the ball, here is a reality check.
Any Indian attempt to put a squeeze over water flowing to Pakistan suffers from two infirmities. First, there is no way to control the fast flowing waters of the Indus, at least in India. Unless, India builds dams and forces the India-friendly population of Ladakh to undergo the trauma of massive displacement. Not only will this move punish a region that has never associated itself with the unrest in Kashmir’s streets, Indian military camps located on the banks of the Indus will also have to be shifted. It is not without reason that Indian planners have never even toyed with the idea of setting up a hydel project on the Indus.Having scared Pakistan once by filling up Baglihar during a period of lean flow, India can be tempted to try this option again. It also has plans ready with a virtual procession of dams planned on the Jhelum and the Chenab with names like Sawalkot, Dul Hasti, Pakuldul, Gyspa and Bursar. If Baglihar is an example, Pakistan is bound to approach an international tribunal to contest India’s construction parameters – the height, pondage, etc – for each dam. The possibility of litigation slowing down the pace of work coupled with the extremely difficult terrain will mean it will take an enormous amount of the nation’s resources to build a single dam.The minimum period will be at least a decade.
The Prime Minister cannot hope to scare Pakistan into submission with such a long range plan filled with several ifs. India has squeezed the maximum out of the three eastern rivers – the Beas, Ravi and the Satluj. Any effort to control the residual flow will mean a large-scale appropriation of prime agriculture. This strategy is unlikely to resonate well with the people of Punjab.Skeptics may ask if China may pay back India in the same coin to take the pressure off Pakistan? Theoretically, China can do so. In Pakistan, China is racing to complete a dam where the Jhelum and the Neelum (called the Kishanganga in India) converge.
In case India build its dams and decides to release the water in one go to trouble Pakistan, the pondage (water storage of a hydel dam) of this Chinese project would absorb most of the excess flow. In China, the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra are now dotted with dams under construction. And India is copying the China/Pakistan’s Jhelum-Neelum hydel project strategy by building dams in Arunachal that are close to the border. So in the unlikely eventuality of China releasing copious amounts of water sometime in the distant future, the pondage in Indian dams should stop the overflow from inundating agricultural land.
A closer examination shows the fears of both lower riparian states (India vis-à-vis Brahmaputra and Pakistan about the three Western Rivers) may be misplaced. This is because bulk of the catchment area of the Brahmaputra falls in India. A great scare was raised when China was constructing the Zangmu dam. Today, the dam is operational but no new element has been added in the India-China discourse on common rivers.The same is true for the Indus, the mightiest and most consequential of the common rivers to Pakistan’s agriculture. Over 70 per cent of its catchment area is in Pakistan and it increases after the Kabul river joins the Indus.Therefore, whether it is Brahmaputra or the IWT rivers, one-time filling of pondage may give rise to a temporary shortage, especially if it is done between December and July, when the flows are lean. This was tested while filling up Baglihar, but the impact was limited to a few Pakistani districts. To keep Pakistan in perpetual anxiety, several more dams will have to be built. But if Pakistan also readies a few dams on its side, as it is doing with the Neelum-Jhelum project, the excess water released by India will have no impact.
The other option is to deny Pakistan water during the sowing season by undertaking the one-time filling of a dam around the same time. As Baglihar has shown, it is only a one-time tactic.Even China realises that it cannot blackmail India by water terrorism.However, India has more to fear from China’s tactics than Pakistan with respect to India. This is because the IWT has a large number of in-built confidence and trust building measures. These were the product of a neutral expert and India’s willingness to be generous in sharing the waters. But China has played hard ball with India (as well as other countries such as Kazakhstan and Vietnam) in parting with data on water flows of common rivers. Should India then play the same game of obfuscating exchange of data and building projects on the sly with Pakistan when it vigorously protests China trying the same trick with India?Idealists would want to widen the discourse and suggest that all countries sharing the waters of a common river should sit together and formulate plans to jointly develop the entire basin. The idea is altruistic and worthy of consideration. But it is impractical in a situation where states don’t want to share water with their neighbours. It would be too much to expect countries to indulge in a bit of give and take to settle their water disputes.
This possibility can only happen if there are statesmen like former Brazil President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. When Bolivia and Paraguay objected to a massive hydel project in Brazil on a common river, Lula was reported to have told his countrymen: “Look we are within our legal rights to be harsh with them. But these are poor countries and we have to show generosity to them.” With these words and the country behind him, Lula doubled the compensation to Paraguay and tripled it to Uruguay.The threat over choking off water to Pakistan is not just vacuous.
It needlessly pits India against the people of Pakistan by playing on an insecurity that has a deeper psychological effect than the threat of a war. The IWT has never been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan. In the case of Baglihar and Tulbul (navigation project), both sides have shown the willingness to listen to a referee. It would be best to allow sleeping dogs lie than open up a time-tested settlement on an emotive issue like water.
The good in IWT
- Long-drawn negotiations led to closure on all possible issues.
- Simple-to-implement formula: eastern rivers to India, most waters of western rivers to Pakistan.
- Exchange of river flow data keeps away Pakistani fears and insecurities.
- Neutral experts competently dispose of prickly disputes: Baglihar, Tulbul
- Can be an example for India-China water-sharing pact for the Brahmaputra.
- India appears too generous in letting Pakistan have most of the water in western rivers.
- Constant Pak meddling despite clear non-consumptive rights to India on western rivers.
- Pak raises the ante over poor flows in eastern rivers despite full rights to India.
- Treaty unable to advance despite 56 years of existence – no joint monitoring or joint projects.
- Pak unappreciative of India not asserting its upper riparian status.