India’s water war strategy


Iqbal Khan

THE possibility of turning off the water taps on Pakistan has been raised before as well, but shelved each time, it has become a usual tool of Indian political leadership for playing to domestic gallery on the outset of each bilateral crisis. Division of the waters of the Indus river system, which spans both countries, is governed by a treaty—Indus Water Treaty (IWT), which is regarded as one of the most successful agreements of its kind.
Delhi says it will restart work on a huge dam on one of the tributaries of the Indus, the Jhelum, as well as looking at other ways to increase the use of water for irrigation, storage and hydroelectric power. These projects would cost a fortune and take decades to build. Most of these would be ruled illegal by international courts and water storage shall be prohibited. By jeopardizing one of the few treaties that has successfully governed how water is shared between any nations, Prime Minster Modi’s opening floodgates to a new and potent source of conflict, and in so doing, has set a bad example for rest of world.
Turning the water tap off is a typical Hindu mindset, a number of Indian states are doing this to each other. BBC reported that on September 13, India’s Silicon Valley Bangalore came to a standstill after two people were killed and nearly 100 vehicles were torched in an eruption of violence in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The cause was allocation of Cauvery river water. Violence was prompted by India’s Supreme Court that Karnataka open its dams to relieve its downstream neighbour, Tamil Nadu. Modi thinks that raising dams will prove a less dangerous strategy than raising guns, but evidence from his own country suggests that isn’t the case.
Having come to terms with the irrevocability of IWT, India is contemplating to launch its water wars through Afghanistan. Pranab Dhal Samanta in his recent article “Can Afghanistan offer ‘other Indus’ option to India against Pakistan?”, carried by the Economic Times on October 14, indicates Indian mindset over this option. About 65 percent of Pakistan’s geographical area is Indus basin dependent. Country has world’s largest canal irrigation system, which accounts for more than 90% of its irrigated area. Its three biggest dams, and several smaller ones, are located here. These are sources for hydroelectricity, irrigation and drinking water for millions of Pakistanis.
Taking a leaf from military strategy, Modi is trying to inflict a two front water squeeze on Pakistan. India is trying to rope in Afghanistan to build Baghlihar-like pseudo run-of-the river projects on its eastern rivers, mainly Kabul, Kunnar and Chitral. Pakistan does not have a water sharing agreement with Afghanistan. Rules governing flow of these rivers into Pakistan are internationally accepted principles. India’s particular interest is in river Kabul. This river merges with Indus River, at Attock. Though average water flowing through river Kabul, 23 million acre feet, is only a small fraction of Pakistan’s net water resource, however, its availability is critical for our winter crops, as flow in pre Attock stream of Indus river falls sharply during this period. India is trying to convince Afghan water officials that India could replicate likes of Baglihar, Kishanganga and Tulbul navigation projects over River Kabul.
While doing so, India is not revealing the facts that all three projects in Indian Occupied Kashmir have been declared illegal by international neutral umpires, arbitrators and International Court of Arbitration. Ruling in Kishanganga case has clearly defined what a run of river project means, gate level of such dams is to be determined in a way that no storage is permitted and gates of run of river dams cannot be opened on the plea of flushing out silt, as silt deposition is violation of run of river criteria. India was trying to store water at Baglihar’s illegally constructed water storage reservoir. As a result of retrospect application of this principle to Baglihar, this dam will get silted way within a decade. And water India was trying to divert from Kishanganga is poised to enter Pakistan from North of Mangla. So both these multibillion rupee dams will not be able to store water for India. India’s plans to build a barrage, Tulbul Navigation Project, on the Jhelum River at mouth of Wullar Lake, alarmed Pakistan in 1984. Pak protests resulted in halting the project.
India has its own vulnerabilities with regard to the portion/tributary of Indus River flowing in from China.Prime Minister’s Advisor on Foreign Affairs SartajAziz has rightly cautioned India that if it tried to interrupt water flowing into Pakistan’s rivers, it would not only violate the treaty but also set a regional state practice under which an international law could serve as precedence for others. China is moving ahead with blocking the Xiabuqu tributary of River Yarlung Zangbo — the Tibetan name for Brahmaputra to build $740 million Lalho hydropower project.
River Brahmaputra flows down into bay of Bengal via India and Bangladesh. The Lalho reservoir is designed to store up to 295 million cubic meters of water and help irrigate 30,000 hectares of farmland in Xigaze. Indian media is reading too much into the Chinese move which came days after Modi considered plans to reconfigure IWT in the aftermath of India’s false flag operation on its Uri military base on September 18.However, it would be naïve to construe that Chinese action is on Pakistan’s behest. It’s a long standing Chinese programme, initiated in 2014, and the timing of blocking the tributary is a mere coincidence. Besides, China’s 12th Five Year Plan reveals that three more such power projects will be built on the river. Like Pakistan and Afghanistan, China and India also do not have a formal water treaty. However, as a good neighbourly gesture, Chinese authorities have maintained that they have taken into account India’s apprehension, and these dams are not designed to hold water. While India is not permitted to hold water on three Pakistani rivers, it plans all projects with that intent. IWT is based on the principle of division of rivers, with exclusive rights, and not sharing of water between riparians. Treaty was specially designed on this principle; water sharing was not made the principle for functioning of treaty out of the fear that due to irreconcilable mutual mistrust, India and Pakistan would keep quarrelling on water sharing.
However, wherever sharing was unavoidable, it was quantified. Legally speaking, India can only interfere with the flow of the western rivers for domestic use, non-consumptive use, such as navigating for flood control and fishing, agricultural use and hydroelectric power generation. For these purposes India has been permitted to construct storage of water on western rivers up to 3.6 MAF for various purposes. Likewise India is required to release predetermined quantity of water in three eastern rivers for environmental sustenance, domestic use and preservation of biodiversity.
As a face saving action in the wake to Uri attacks fiasco, India has upped the ante by giving the go-ahead to nine run of-the-river projects on Pakistani rivers, including three that had been put on hold due to objections raised by Pakistan under the IWT provisions. Pakistan has warned India that such a move would be construed as an ‘act of war’. Pakistan has already approached the World Bank—the guarantor of ITW—to seek arbitration under Article IX of the IWT. Though Indian water threats may fizzle out in due course, Pakistan needs to undertake thorough professional studies to fight the legal battles. In this regard, capacity of our Indus Water Commission should be enhanced to undertake this task.
— The writer is consultant to IPRI on policy and strategic response.

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