Dealing with Pakistan's fears on water

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: ramaswamy.iyer@gmail.com)

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Aug 5, 2021 10:29:43 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Dealing-with-Pakistans-fears-on-water/article13383231.ece

Next Story