If Islamabad can win New Delhi's trust by cracking down on terror, it could pave the way for the two sides to work together for optimum development of the Indus basin.

As India and Pakistan move towards the welcome resumption of dialogue, New Delhi needs to factor in a new reality: More than Kashmir, it is the accusation that India is stealing water that is rapidly becoming the “core issue” in the Pakistani establishment's narrative about bilateral problems.

The issue of water is emotive, touching people across Pakistan in a much more fundamental way than the demand for Kashmiri self-determination. Per capita water availability has fallen precipitously over the past few decades, thanks to rising population and poor water management and is expected to fall below 700 cubic metres by 2025 — the international marker for water scarcity. In most years, the Indus barely makes it beyond the Kotri barrage in Sindh, leading to the ingress of sea water, the increase in soil salinity and the destruction of agriculture in deltaic districts like Thatta and Badin.

Though Pakistan's water woes predate recent hydroelectric projects like Baglihar in Jammu and Kashmir, jihadi organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa have started blaming India for the growing shortage of water. Apart from inflaming public opinion against India, this propaganda helps to blunt the resentment Sindh and Balochistan have traditionally had — as the lowest riparians in the Indus river basin — against West Punjab for drawing more than its fair share of the water flowing through the provinces. The campaign also deflects criticism of Pakistan's own gross neglect of its water and sanitation sector infrastructure over the past few decades.

At the same time, the fact that river flows from India to Pakistan have slowly declined is borne out by data on both sides. Above Merala on the Chenab, for example, the average monthly flows for September have nearly halved between 1999 and 2009. India says this is because of reduced rainfall and snowmelt. Pakistan disputes this claim, preferring to link observable reductions in flows to hydroelectric projects on the Indian side. That is why, in the run-up to the February 25 meeting of the Indian and Pakistani Foreign Secretaries, Islamabad has gone out of its way to project water as the most important topic it intends to raise.

But just because water — and not terrorism — tops the Pakistani agenda today is no reason for India to refuse to discuss the subject or to treat it as important. Even as it pushes for incremental gains on terrorism, trade and CBMs, New Delhi should take a strategic view and consider two questions. First, how would a refusal to talk water play on the Pakistani political stage, where the two provinces least inclined towards jihad — Sindh and Balochistan — are also the most vulnerable to anti-India propaganda about water theft? Second, is it just possible that Islamabad could be so keen for Indian cooperation on water that it might be willing to abandon the terrorist groups it has nurtured all these years as an instrument of policy against India?

To pose the problem in this way is not to suggest a neat symmetry between two taps — that as Pakistan turns off the terrorism faucet, India can offer to turn on the water. If matters were that simple, the two neighbours would either have solved their problems by now or gone to war. Instead, the link between terror and water is more complex and it revolves around trust. Simply put, Pakistan needs to realise that decisive action against terrorism would create an enabling environment for India to go beyond the letter of its written commitments on water and open the door for cooperation in other fields like energy that could also relieve some of the water pressure both countries are facing.

Though inter-provincial disputes over water sharing were a fact of life in this region before 1947, the partition of the subcontinent introduced a further complexity. It was easy for Radcliffe to draw a line on a map and divide up the land of British India but people and water were harder to partition. The mass migration and bloodshed this triggered is well-known but the rupture to the region's hydrological system proved to be just as traumatic. The rivers which irrigated the new nation all had their origins in India. But as an upper riparian locked in a politically adversarial relationship with Pakistan, the Indian side had little or no incentive to look at the Indus basin as an integrated water system. The early years of independence saw bitter disputes as India treated the waters of the Indus's five tributaries — Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej — as its own. Geography and terrain meant the Indus itself could not be harnessed on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir but intermittent, small-scale, diversions on the tributaries generated considerable tension with Pakistan. In 1960, the two countries sought to put an end to this tension by signing the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) with the World Bank's mediation.

The IWT partitioned the six rivers of the Indus watershed on a crudely longitudinal basis. India was given exclusive use of the waters of the three eastern tributaries, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, and the right to “non-consumptive” use of the western rivers, namely the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. Under the IWT, India renounced its right to block or divert the flows of the ‘western' rivers and agreed to confine itself to run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects and the drawing of irrigation water for a specified acreage of farm land. This partitioning was irrational from an ecological standpoint and led to both sides incurring considerable expense as they were forced to develop canal infrastructure drawing on “their” allocated rivers to compensate for the non-use of the other side's rivers despite that water flowing through their own territory.

Pakistani officials from time to time do accuse India of violating the 1960 treaty on the division of the Indus waters. The Indian side, of course, denies this, and there is, in any case, a system of international mediation built into the IWT for binding international arbitration if the two countries cannot resolve a water-related dispute. Pakistan invoked this mechanism for Baglihar in 2005, though the arbitrator ruled in favour of the project subject to certain modifications. An earlier dispute over the Salal project was resolved in the 1970s by the two Foreign Secretaries. Today, nothing prevents Pakistan from referring any or all of the projects India proposes to build on the Chenab and Jhelum for arbitration.

Though the treaty has a mechanism to ensure compliance with the stipulated partitioning of rivers, a major weakness from Pakistan's standpoint is that it does not compel or require India to do anything on its side for the optimum development of what is, after all, an integrated water system. Inflows to Pakistan depend not just on rainfall and snowmelt in India and China (the uppermost eastern riparian) but also on the health of tributaries, streams, nullahs and acquifers as well as groundwater, soil and forest management practices. This is a classic externality problem. Costs incurred by the upper riparian on responsible watershed management will produce disproportionate benefits for the lower riparian, hence they are not incurred.

The IWT anticipated the importance of cooperation with Article VII stating that both parties “recognise that they have a common interest in the optimum development of the rivers, and to that extent, they declare their intention to cooperate, by mutual agreement, to the fullest extent”. So far, little has been done by either side to develop this mandate.

Since water does not figure as a standalone topic in the Composite Dialogue framework, Pakistan's insistence on its revival is at odds with its professed priority. When the Foreign Secretaries meet, therefore, they should not allow process to stand in the way of progress. They could, for example, discuss a framework for a standalone dialogue on water going beyond project-related disputes — for which an arbitration mechanism already exists. The focus could be on identifying short, medium and long-term steps for the optimum development of the rivers.

The Pakistani side would very quickly realise that such a dialogue, whose benefits, especially over the long-term, are tilted in its favour, can only deliver meaningful results if there is an atmosphere of confidence and trust. If the activities of terrorists like the LeT/JuD are allowed to continue, this is unlikely to happen. But if the action Islamabad has repeatedly promised does take place, a path might open for cooperation in other areas too.

Many of the disputes that seem to be driven by fears of water scarcity are actually a reflection of another kind of scarcity: electricity. Pakistan opposes the Indian Kishenganga hydel project on the Jhelum, for example, because it will interfere with its proposed Neelum-Jhelum power plant. But if the two countries could build trust in one another, there is no reason why they cannot agree on energy swaps that could do away with the need to duplicate power projects, especially those which restrict the flow of water. Today, given the way terrorism has eroded the Indian political system's capacity and willingness to do business with Pakistan, such ideas seem hopelessly utopian. But they do offer a glimpse of the kind of future that might be possible should the terrorist menace end. Rather than refusing to talk water, India should show Pakistan how the keys to ending its aquatic insecurities lie in its own hands.