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Updated: January 28, 2012 00:02 IST

Dealing with Pakistan's fears on water

Ramaswamy R. Iyer
Comment (10)   ·   print   ·   T  T  

The best reassurance that Pakistan can have is full Indian compliance with the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty.

This article is not about the complex political or strategic reasons that the water establishment in the government and/or the army in Pakistan may have for projecting water as a new core issue between that country and India, nor is it about the jihadists' adoption of water as a cause, their threats of bloodshed over the alleged denial of water by India, and the influence that these may have on the general public. It is about the concerns expressed by saner voices in Pakistan. Some of these may be based on misperceptions or misinformation, but they need to be taken note of. The major water-related concerns of thoughtful people in Pakistan are briefly elucidated below.

Lower riparian anxiety

The general lower-riparian anxiety vis-à-vis the upper riparian is accentuated in this case by the antagonistic political relationship between Pakistan and India. In the context of such a relationship, it is easy for the people to be persuaded that the upper riparian has malign intentions and might either stop the flows or store and release the waters in a flood to the detriment of the lower riparian. There is no need to discuss these fears further, as they were fully taken note of and covered by special provisions in the Indus Waters Treaty 1960 (IWT) to safeguard Pakistan against these dangers. If a ‘visceral lower riparian anxiety' tends to persist despite the IWT, there can be no institutional answer to it.

The only circumstance which will ensure a total absence of anxiety on Pakistan's part would be a total absence of Indian structures on the western rivers, but that is not what the IWT says. It permits Indian projects on the western rivers, but stipulates restrictions and conditions that safeguard Pakistan's interests. The best reassurance that Pakistan can have is full Indian compliance with those Treaty provisions, and this is zealously watched by the Indus Commissioner for Pakistan in the Permanent Indus Commission.

Water scarcity and reduced flows

There is, in Pakistan as in India, a growing perception of water scarcity and of a crisis looming on the horizon. Given the mutual hostility between the two countries, it is not surprising that there is a tendency in Pakistan to believe that the scarcity it is experiencing or fearing is partly attributable to upper riparian actions. While popular perceptions in this regard may not be based on proper information and understanding, they seem to receive unwitting corroboration in reported findings by Pakistani scholars of a trend of reduction in the flows in the western rivers. A ready inference would be that there must be diversions in the upstream country. Denials by the upper riparian are apt to be received with scepticism. The only answer to this is to institute a joint study by experts of both countries to determine whether in fact there is a trend of reduced flows in the western rivers and, if so, to identify the factors responsible.

Baglihar arbitration

Without going into the details of the points referred to by the Neutral Expert (NE) in the Baglihar case and his findings on them, we must take note of two of the NE's observations which have caused much anxiety in Pakistan. The first was that the 1960 Treaty does not bind the project planners to the 1960 technology, and that the state-of-the-art technology can be used; and the second was that the proper maintenance of a reservoir required periodical flushing to get rid of silt, and that while the dead storage could not be used for operational purposes, it could be used for the purpose of maintenance. (The above is a rough summary of the relevant observations and not a reproduction of the exact words of the NE.) The first observation seems self-evident; no one can seriously argue that a dam in 2007 should have been built to the 1960 technology. The second, however, worries Pakistan because the possibility of periodical flushing of the reservoir might hold the potential of compromising the protection given to Pakistan against flooding. Pakistan has now included this point in its reference to the Court of Arbitration in the Kishenganga case. We shall have to await the decision of the Court.

Initial filling at Baglihar

Incidentally, the myth that there was a serious and deliberate violation of the Treaty by India during the initial filling of the Baglihar reservoir is now an established belief in Pakistan. This writer has dealt with this elsewhere and will not go into the details here. Assuming that the flow at Merala during the filling period fell below the prescribed minimum level (this itself is debatable because there is no joint observation), the important point is that the lapse, if any, was a minor one and lasted only for a short period — less than a day — and could not possibly have caused serious damage.

Why was this minor matter blown up into a huge controversy by Pakistan? The answer is perhaps that Pakistan was deeply disappointed over the Baglihar arbitration and was ready to take advantage of an opportunity to put India on the mat for an alleged deviation from the Treaty. The Indus Commission has now closed this issue.

Is the Treaty being stretched?

The Treaty prescribes stringent restrictions on the features and operations of Indian projects on the western rivers, but does not lay down any limits on the total number of projects that can be built, the height of the dams, the total power-generation capacity, etc. Pakistanis wonder whether the Treaty really intended to give India freedom to build any number of projects of any size whatsoever on the rivers allocated to Pakistan. In Track II meetings, some Pakistani participants express their concern at the fact that the provisions evidently intended (as they see it) to grant minor concessions to India seem to be opening the doors to major control over the western rivers. They also worry about the cumulative impact of a large number of projects, each of which may be in compliance with the Treaty.

It is difficult to deal with such apprehensions. Once a Treaty comes into being after prolonged negotiations, one must thereafter go by what it says, and not import into it conditions and restrictions not explicitly stated. However, the point about ‘cumulative impact' needs to be considered. Such a question has been raised even in relation to rivers in India, and the cumulative impact of a large number of dams planned on the Ganga is currently under study. Such a concern, expressed in relation to the Indus system, is equally worthy of attention. Here again, a joint study by experts of both countries seems desirable.

Flows in the eastern rivers

One new question that is now being raised in Track II talks is that of a certain reasonable flow being maintained in the eastern rivers. The eastern rivers are allocated exclusively to India, and the Treaty does not say anything about flows to Pakistan, but (in the opinion of Pakistani participants in Track II talks) it does not follow that India is at liberty to dry up those rivers altogether and send no flows at all or drastically reduced flows to Pakistan. They argue that if current thinking can be invoked for the design of spillway gates (as the NE argued in the Baglihar case), then current thinking on ‘minimum flows' or ‘ecological flows' must also be heeded. This may not be a Treaty requirement, but to this writer it seems a point that needs consideration.

Ideas of cooperation

Pleas are also made for holistic, integrated management of the entire system, joint watershed management, etc. These are unexceptionable ideas, but it was because this kind of approach was not found possible that the system was partitioned into two in 1960. Even today, it cannot be said that the relationship between the two countries has dramatically and durably changed for the better. For the present, what one can ask for is the operation of the existing Treaty in a constructive, cooperative spirit.

Climate change

However, climate change and its impact on water are matters of vital concern, and the two countries must begin immediately to work together on these. There is already a measure of cooperation between them in the international negotiations, but this must go beyond the limited issue of emission reductions. This cannot be brought within the ambit of the Treaty but must be a separate exercise. In fact, this must involve other South Asian countries as well.

(The writer is Honorary Professor, Centre for Policy Research, and former Union Secretary for Water Resources. Email:

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Pakistan has the history of not honouring any agreements it made with India. It interprets the clauses in the agreement as per its convenience and forgets the spirit behind these agreements. The 1972 shimla agreement is a classic example wherein the Line of control which is demarcated on map till the point NJ 9842 and further described as "line going North" was later interpreted differently creating what is called as the "highest Battlefield" in siachin Glacier. india is still paying a heavy cost of Rs 5 Cr per day to maintain the army there. Indus treaty is the only time tested agreement between India and Pakistan till date even though India is at disadvantage. Having raised a controversy by Pakistan, I feel India should use the opportunity to review or altogether scrap the agreement in the national interest and assert its right over all the waters flowing through its territory. After all pakistan is asking for it!

from:  Raghu
Posted on: Jan 31, 2012 at 00:03 IST

The author painted a fair picture of upper riparian. If all is well from indian side then why the two neighbouring countries need such kind of treaty. I think it must be discussed by the author that what kind of anxieties Pak should present to India. The writer is only singing a song; ALL IS WELL, ALL IS WELL.

from:  Yasir Abdul Haleem
Posted on: Jan 30, 2012 at 23:14 IST

The above issue was laid by out first P.M, who promised water for Pakistan despite India-Pak strained relationship on those days, thus Indus water treaty was made (hoping for better relationship), which India could have simply ignored it, but it's time to look forward.

from:  Dinesh
Posted on: Jan 30, 2012 at 08:46 IST

Indian Government is keeping its own land without Water in a bid to show to the world that we care for Pakistan. Canals have come up in Northern Rajasthan area called Baagar, but no drop of water for irrgation purposes since last 10 years. This has brought immense poverty in the region of Bhadra and Nohar tehsils of Rajsthan. The readers of Hindu might not know the gravity of the problem. You get one crop in 3/4 years and with it they live a difficult life. But neither the Rajsthan Government, nor the IAS officers of the North Block notes this point. We are told that it is because that Indian Government gives our share of water to Pakistan. It seems Indian nation talks and acts when we will be compelled to talk on North East Mode.

from:  S K Rajasthani
Posted on: Jan 29, 2012 at 11:08 IST

We have to give due regards to what the author says and his request for a joint study to eliminate the fear of water scarcity (for both countries) and to error the misperceptions and misinformations in their mind.Spreading falsehoods about India by Pak is a routine one, and deliberately derailing favourable accord is not a surprise one. (2)Public feel Pak may have discussion with India on various matters in order to show to their country and the world that they are maintaining the relationship.Eventhough India extends and show its warm hospitality in different occasions,they will not believe India but China.Both are expecting time and we know well about them.People hope the 3D politics in Pak to take firm decisions, is the main reason.

from:  S.Hariharan now from Singapore
Posted on: Jan 29, 2012 at 08:20 IST

As Thiru Iyer puts it: "......climate change and its impact on water are matters of vital concern, and the two countries must begin immediately to work together on these.......In fact, this must involve other South Asian countries as well........" As the Himalayan and glacier river system embracing the Sindhu, Ganga and Brahamaputra as well as Mekong, Huang He, Yangtze involves other riparian nations states including Nepal, Bangladesh, Tibet, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, China we should take the diplomatic initiative to bring together all these countries to plan and manage our water resources and climate change in this Asian Century.
If I remember right, there is already an organisation in which we do not fully participate, leaving others to conduct and dominate the necessary scientific studies to the detriment of our national interests.

from:  mohansingh
Posted on: Jan 28, 2012 at 21:57 IST

Today the Northern Part of Rajasthan called BAAGAR is suffering from shortage of irrgigation water. They have to live in dire poverty as crops is grown once in 3-4 years for shortage of water for irrigations. Canals have come up 10 years back in Bhadra/Nohar Tehsils of North Rajasthan, but these canals are dry almost round the year. The reason being India gives water to Pakistan and in Rajsthan they make her own people suffer. Rajasthanis are simple people and they donot blackmail India Government warning them that they will quit from India like many of our North East friends are doing and in the process get more loan, 90% grant and no income tax on earnings. The situation in Rajsthan is different. Here their is no 90% grant from Centre,people are in absolute poverty, they are compelled to leave their home and the South and North Block in their air conditions rooms never care for this Desert. Does that mean we should follow North East ?

from:  S K Rajasthani
Posted on: Jan 28, 2012 at 17:13 IST

The Indus Waters Treaty was meant to reduce hostilities between India and Pakistan. It has failed to do so and, in fact, is being used by the jihadists and Pakistani media to whip up hatred against India. The signing of the IWT was yet another example of the pusillanimity of Indian foreign policy. The best that can be done now is for India to withdraw from the Treaty and let the chips fall where they may. The babus and mantris at South Block should take some lessons from the mandarins in Beijing and learn how the Chinese conduct their upper riparian strategy.

from:  Kishore Thampy
Posted on: Jan 28, 2012 at 16:45 IST

The author has not clarified as to why Pakistan does not want joint
monitoring of flows at its border, if the flows are in question.
This clearly proves Pakistan's complicity in making this a non-issue.
that country is finding some ways of other to continue its proxy war
against India.

from:  Ganesh
Posted on: Jan 28, 2012 at 12:53 IST

Pakistani press and TV routinely and vigorously promote falshoods such as "there was a serious and deliberate violation of the Treaty by India during the initial filling of the Baglihar reservoir." Another lie that Pakistani "free press" has made into virtual realilty there is that "Indians themselves bombed the Taj hotel in order to paint Pakistan in bad light. And that, "Jews drove the planes into the Twin towers". This level of virulence and extent of malicious propaganda is not possible witout some(wink and nod) permission and help from a part of Pakistani Administration. Where is the scope for genuine negotiated settlements? It would appear the Pakistanis deliberately derail even the most favorable accords in order to maintain hostility which in turn keeps shadowy creatures of the underworld angry and motivated enough to provide "strategic depth" to their defence. Fear psychosis drives Pakistani foreign policy.

Posted on: Jan 28, 2012 at 07:48 IST
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