Water war in offing?


M Ziauddin

The water released by India into the Sutlej River – which has a capacity of 150,000 cusecs –reached 38,000 cusecs on August 20 with experts predicting that the flow would touch 90,000 cusecs. In 2015 when India last released water into the river at 55,000 cusecs, 238 lives were lost. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has warned that increasing water levels in Sutlej River at Ganda Singh Wala would cause a serious flood-like situation. The main reason for the emerging situation was because of discharges from Bhakra Dam and merging the flows from lower catchments. The NDMA issued alert to all concerned provincial disaster management authorities (PDMAs), departments and local community. Further, a day after Pakistan Indus Water Treaty commissioner lodged a protest with the Indian commissioner, the latter on August 20 assured Pakistan it would abide by the 1989 agreement and provide advanced data on the flow of water in rivers between the two countries.
According to Pakistan Indus Water Treaty Commissioner, New Delhi had officially communicated to Islamabad on August 19 and August 20 that it would send water flow data on Sutlej, Ravi and Beas rivers that run from India to Pakistan. India had stopped sending advanced flow data last year, in violation of the agreement. In 1989, Pakistan and India signed an agreement under which India was obliged to provide advanced data on all rivers entering Pakistan from July 1 to October 10 every year.
However, on August 19 Islamabad accused New Delhi of releasing roughly 240,000 cubic feet per second of water into Sutlej River and the Indus River without prior information, causing floods in the Pakistani river network. Minister for Water Resources Faisal Vawda also expressed concern on India’s attitude and warned that his country would exercise all options to protect its rights given in the agreements. Considering the seriousness of the situation in the backdrop of August 5 revocation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who resorted to a sleight of hand to annex the disputed India occupied Kashmir (IOK) it would not be out of place here to recall the advice of former federal secretary for water and Power, Ashfaq Mahmood which he had proffered in his book Hydro-Diplomacy—preventing water war between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India:
All the efforts for addressing water issues should be based on a wide spectrum of knowledge in the realms of not only engineering and law but also social sciences, diplomacy, science, environment and climate change. In the opinion of Mr. Mahmood the institutions dealing with transboundary water issues in both Pakistan and India suffer from limitations of horizon of knowledge and phobia of backlash of decisions in the wake of highly charged relations between the two countries.
He further held that the institutions need to be strengthened and respected for taking professional decisions. “They should keep abreast with the growth in knowledge and experiences in the world. Besides, civil society, think tanks, intelligentsia and media analysis are important sources for creating ‘think pieces’ other than the legacy driven government approaches,” he recommends. Some excerpts from the book’ preface: In almost a textbook style, the upper and lower riparian disputes arose between the two countries (India and Pakistan) in 1948, with India asserting its hegemony and sovereignty over waters while Pakistan vying for continuity of water flow to protect its existing and future uses. This situation coupled with territorial issues, particularly with regards to Jammu and Kashmir, was escalating towards a disastrous war between the two countries when the World Bank intervened in 1951 and managed to get the two countries sit across the negotiating table to formulate Indus Waters Treaty in 1960.
The Treaty, in essence, allocated waters of three rivers each to Pakistan and India with certain exceptions and restrictions. However, differences between the two countries again started emerging in 1970s over interpretation of various clauses of the Treaty and the design of infrastructure projects by India on the rivers allocated to Pakistan. Initially these differences were sorted out through hectic bilateral diplomacy. Subsequently, starting mid-eighties, bilateral efforts began to fail resulting in recourse to dispute resolution mechanism envisaged in the Treaty involving the appointment of a Neutral Expert and a Court of Arbitration. Meanwhile, a number of issues which were either inadequately dealt with in the Treaty or were not anticipated at all, such as effects of climate change, also came to surface compounding the water tension between the two countries.
The Treaty had entirely focused on surface water issues, interference and control of water flows, water infrastructure (such as dams, barrages) and rights and obligations of the two parties with regards to the surface waters of the Indus system of rivers. It did not deal with subjects such as ground water, water quality, sedimentation, upstream and downstream environmental impacts, ecological aspects and watershed management. It also did not anticipate the effects of growth in population, rapid urbanization, increased demand from various sectors, climate change and issues associated with it. In fact, it did not even deal with the Indus Basin as an integrated unit. The Treaty was for division of water and not for sharing of potential benefits of the Indus system of rivers. The Treaty also left certain matters to mutual goodwill and commonsense, which turned out to be an over-ambitious expectation.
Academic literature and research work on transboundary issues tend to conclude that based on statistical and historical evidence, water issues ultimately get resolved through negotiations and there had been hardly any water wars in the world. Therefore, much of the academic work is focused on describing the water issues, negotiations and agreements reached by the parties. However, belief in academic theories particularly with respect to Pakistan and India may be a folly. The existing water issues briefly alluded above are bound to escalate in the wake of increasing population and growing demand from various sectors. Pakistan with water availability of less than 1000 cubic meter per capita is likely to become an absolutely water scarce country with less than 500 cubic meters per capita within a decade (Book being quoted was published in 2018). India will also be facing similar situation in a few decades. Growing urbanization, industrialization, mining and other commercial uses coupled with the increasing disasters due to climate change are bound to impact on the livelihood of the people whose lives are connected with waters of Indus Basin. Water conflicts may become a trigger for war between the two nuclear countries who are nurturing hostile relationships since independence.
The most critical and the mother of all issues is the mutual distrust. The history of partition, wars and near war confrontations, lingering territorial issue of Jammu and Kashmir (which have worsened since August 5, 2019), frequent border fights, exchanges of blames of terrorist and spying activities and continued emotive and provocative statements from both sides make it a daunting task to bridge the trust gap. One has to face the reality. Building trust is highly desirable target but in the current scenario it can only be achieved in quite a long time. So, what should be done in the meantime? If matters are left to business as usual, water issues will continue to simmer and blow out like a volcano in not much distance a future. As a step towards building trust, it is crucial to make efforts to move as many water issues off the table as possible…. Most of the issues can be resolved without yielding ground to other party once there is commitment and desire to resolve issues. In fact, in many cases both parties will benefit from resolution of issues—a “win-win” situation.
(The solutions suggested and recommendations made in the 226-page short book are highly enlightening).
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.