Disappointing a number of television news anchors and so-called strategic experts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided on September 26 not to do harakiri on the Indus Waters Treaty issue with respect to Pakistan. While he employed usual rhetoric – “blood and water cannot flow together” – to placate his core constituency, India will, however, stay and abide by the treaty. Modi now has plans to set up an inter-ministerial task force to go into the details and working of the treaty in order for India to exploit the maximum possible amount of water from the three western rivers – the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab – of the system.

Anyone with basic knowledge of the treaty knows the procedural limitations of India unilaterally taking up any water development projects on these rivers in the absence of Pakistan’s consent. Under the provisions of the treaty, Pakistan can complain about any Indian project upstream and the World Bank has the power to appoint a “neutral expert” to decide. Even if India’s projects upstream are within the provisions of the treaty, as was the case in the Baglihar hydropower project, Pakistan can delay India’s plans for a long time if it decides to.

Thus, the mandate of the inter-ministerial panel to find ways to exploit more water within the treaty is nothing but to deceive public opinion in India. If Modi is really serious about making better use of the Indus waters, he should ask his ministerial panel to explore the possibility of how to make the treaty wider and better to meet the increasing water and energy needs of the region.

Festering problem

Much before the Uri attacks, water sharing in the Indus basin had become a major political predicament in the face of increasing water demand and climate change-related uncertainties. The Indus Waters Treaty has stood the test of time for the last 56 years, but the deep mistrust between India and Pakistan has thwarted the implementation of a number of seemingly advantageous water development projects in the basin.

Though the treaty is over river waters, it is designed primarily to split the river system in two, not to encourage cooperative sharing of its waters. David Lilienthal, who had suggested that his friend and the then World Bank president, Eugene Black, mediate between the two countries, had envisaged the agreement to be one that would treat the whole basin as a single unit so that the two riparian states could cooperate in more effective ways for the sustainable management of river and land resources.

But the Indus Waters Treaty, in facilitating the partition of the river system between the two countries, has in fact contributed to reducing the scope of engagement between them. The treaty is not a marriage of two consenting adults to lead a life together, but has turned out to be a mutually agreed divorce settlement. Though the best possible use of Indus waters needs both the major riparian countries to work together for the development of water infrastructure, the treaty, unfortunately, does not encourage any incentive towards joint basin management.

The frequent fight over the interpretation of the treaty has also raised serious doubts over any peace dividend coming out of it for the two countries. Moreover, conflict over water sharing is not limited at the bilateral level between India and Pakistan only.

While the Indus Waters Treaty provides a formal river-sharing agreement between two riparian countries, the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan continue to fight over their rightful share of the waters of the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej). The same is the case among the provinces of Pakistan, who regularly quarrel with one another over the waters of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.

Even Kashmiris believe that the state of Jammu and Kashmir has the potential to produce 20,000 MW of hydropower, enough to make the state energy self-reliant. Their main concern is that the Indus Waters Treaty does not allow the harnessing of the full hydropower potential of the state.

Domestic politics

Domestic politics in both India and Pakistan has impeded the implementation of several critical water development projects in the basin. The half-completed Yamuna-Sutlej Canal in India and the long-planned Kalabagh Dam in Pakistan are clear testimony of the costs implicit in the lack of working cooperation over water sharing, not only between but also within India and Pakistan.

For over 10 years, the World Bank has been promoting a negotiation process, called the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, among the countries in the Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra basin to explore ways for basin-based cooperation on shared river systems. When this process started in 2006 in Abu Dhabi, I had written the background paper for it and argued that the Indus Waters Treaty has outlived its utility and both India and Pakistan should work towards revising it. They also need to bring two other riparian countries of the basin, Afghanistan and China, to the ambit of the new treaty.

Recent plans to develop hydropower in Afghanistan, part of the Indus basin, have fuelled political sensitivity in the region. Speculation regarding Indian support to Afghanistan for a proposed 12 dams on the Kabul river, an Indus tributary, with a combined storage facility of 4.7 million acre feet has added to Pakistan’s water worries.

The Kabul river is one of the most important rivers for Afghanistan as it supports a large population and also the capital city, Kabul. The country has enough water, but due to lack of infrastructure, the water supply is not available for human consumption. Moreover, the economic recovery of Afghanistan requires investment in irrigation and hydropower. For peace and stability to return to Afghanistan, it is crucial that the water sector development is absolutely essential and unavoidable.

It is not only Pakistan that is worried about Afghanistan’s planned cascade of dams on the Kabul river. Similarly, India is tense about China’s dam projects on the upstream of the Indus river. Even a small-sized Chinese dam near Demchok, Ladakh, on the Indus has ruffled Delhi, and it suspects that China might soon go for building dams on the Sutlej upstream.

Lasting solutions

Climate change-induced glacier melting in the Himalayas threatens future water supply in the Indus basin. There is increasing global warming, but the rise in temperature in the Himalayas has been much higher than the global average. Thus, harnessing the Indus river system sustainably is a crucial issue for improving human development and contributing to regional peace and security in South Asia.

Considering the complex nature of future challenges in the Indus basin, there is a need for exploring options for basin-wide cooperation. With the help of integrated development of the basin, there are possibilities of building more storage facilities across the Indus and its tributaries to ensure better use of the scarce water.

For appropriate and competent management of Indus systems, it is necessary to explore establishing an effective and independent river basin organisation, involving all the four riparian sates, which will have the capability of taking decisions on its own and remain out of the political control of any national government. Under an integrated programme of basin development, water projects can be situated at optimum locations, notwithstanding geographic divisions along political lines.

Any prospects of integrated development of the Indus waters, which is the only long-term answer to the basin’s growing thirst, have not yet materialised, basically due to lack of trust and confidence between the riparian countries. Thus, it is important for India to explore the possibilities for a new Indus treaty that can address fast-evolving water-sharing challenges in the basin.

Instead of the urge to take revenge against Pakistan, if India takes the opportunity to work for a comprehensive and integrated form of basin management, the benefit sharing of the Indus river system will not be limited only to water resources; it can have other peace-enhancing effects and significantly contribute to regional peace, security and development.

Ashok Swain is professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden, and director of the Research School for International Water Cooperation.