Inequitable apportionment of water resources is fast becoming the cause of tension in several regions of the world. Our region is no exception. In fact, it may well be the area most severely affected. The countries of SAARC region are particularly vulnerable and unless this regional organization wakes up to its responsibilities in this regard, things may take a turn for the worse. In this piece, one will confine oneself to the serious problems being faced by this country, as a lower riparian.
Past experience has shown that India has shown less than logical regard for its international obligations towards its neighbours, and in particular with regard to equitable apportionment of water resources. This is evident in its blatant disregard of Pakistan’s concerns, despite mutually agreed international commitments. The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 was a solemn agreement entered into by India and Pakistan. It was intended to ensure that – while affording India its full rights – Pakistan’s legitimate share of water as the lower riparian would not be adversely affected. The World Bank had provided its auspices for concluding this crucial Treaty, even though it stopped short of assuming the formal role of guarantor for its implementation in letter and spirit. Taking advantage of this, India has over the years adopted the policy of gnawing at the terms of the Treaty bit by bit.
Past experience shows that slow reaction or procrastination by Pakistan emboldened India to go ahead with projects that violate the provisions of the Treaty both in letter and in spirit. The dispute over Baglihar Project – in which Pakistan had invoked the relevant clause of the Indus Waters Treaty to little or no consequence – is a case in point. Pakistan, it would appear, has been fighting a losing battle in its quest to protect its water rights. Whatever efforts were made in the past can be classed as too little and too late. This is just not on, considering that this happens to be an area that is fast becoming water deficient.
When the Quaid-i-Azam had termed Kashmir as the ‘jugular vein’ of Pakistan, it was not a mere rhetoric statement. A hardcore realistic that he was, he was pointedly referring to the flow of precious waters from the state into Pakistan. The dip some years ago in the flow of water in river Chenab as a result of the operationalizing of the Baglihar Project – and that not once but twice in a crucial period for our agriculture – had once again brought the issue into sharp focus.
Now to the basics! How and why did the water-squabbles start in the first place? With the benefit of hindsight, one can safely surmise that sometime down the line India’s establishment took the conscious decision to begin to gnaw bit by bit at the Indus Waters Treaty. Water projects of a certain magnitude are permitted under the Treaty that lays down strict parameters for the design of such projects. The current Indian government has gone a step further by openly expressing its resolve to up the ante.
In many ways, authorities in Pakistan were amiss in the aforementioned instances. By the time Pakistan had formulated its response many projects were already in a fairly advanced stage. Pakistan’s pleas of freezing the construction work pending a mutually acceptable settlement were brushed aside by the Indian side. The Indian intentions were evident. As with several other issues – e.g. Siachin – they wished to present the world with a fait accompli and at the same time to test the resolve of the Pakistan government.
The statement of the then government that Pakistan expected India to abide by international agreements on water sharing of the Indus system was most welcome but it came rather late in the day. The assertion that the Indian move would only damage the bilateral ties that the two countries had built over the years and that “India should not trade off important regional objectives for short term domestic goals” was pertinent. But since then little follow-up action appears to have been taken, which attitude took the sheen off the desired protest.
What remains to be seen is how things will shape up in the times to come. The matter of the Indus Basin waters is very serious indeed. In fact it can even be described as a matter of life and death. This is certainly not an issue that could have been conveniently consigned to the dustbin of the ‘composite’ dialogue, now defunct. A matter of life and death for the people of this blessed land should neither be subjected to longish procrastination nor, indeed, swept under the proverbial rug. The authorities concerned should be well aware of the consequences of failure.
Ever since the so-called composite dialogue started, Pakistan gave less than optimum attention to the question of water apportionment with India. In fact, one of the first CBMs should have been related to the strict observance of the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. The fact that no one gave a thought to this issue of extreme importance can only be regretted. As things are moving at present, it may perhaps already be too late to make amends.
It may be well in order to reiterate here that the question of apportionment of waters is not confined to our region alone. In fact, it has raised its ominous head in many regions of the world, particularly in the Third World. It would be in the fitness of things if the international community were to wake up to the need to tackle this issue betimes, before it becomes the cause of future wars, as appears highly likely.
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.