Pakistan: water on the boil again

A view of the Baglihar hydroelectric power project built on the river Chenab near Chanderkot in Doda district of Jammu and Kashmir. File Photo  

The ‘water issue' between India and Pakistan, which has been relatively quiescent for a while, is becoming prominent once again. A year ago, one could have said that there is no water issue because water-sharing on the Indus stands settled by the Indus Treaty 1960, but that argument does not work now. Water has become an ‘issue' because Pakistan has made it one. This article will not speculate on why and how this has come about. The important point is that water has the potential of becoming a new ‘core issue' of even greater prominence than Kashmir, and calls for urgent attention.

The points that are repeatedly made in Pakistan are the following:

(1) India is storing or diverting waters to the detriment of Pakistan. (In stronger language this becomes: “India is stealing Pakistan's water”.)

(2) The water scarcity in Pakistan is caused (or partly caused) by Indian action.

(3) The flows in the western rivers have diminished over the years, and India, as the upper riparian, must bear the responsibility for this.

(4) India is misusing the provisions of the Indus Treaty. Every Indian project on the western rivers is a violation of the Indus Treaty.

(5) The Neutral Expert in the Baglihar case misinterpreted the Treaty and weakened the protection that Pakistan had under the Treaty.

(6) As if this were not enough, India deliberately caused harm to Pakistan in the initial filling of the Baglihar reservoir by the timing of the filling and by failing to maintain the prescribed minimum flow at Merala.

(7) Even if each project conforms to the provisions of the Treaty, the cumulative impact of the large number of projects that India proposes to construct will be huge and will cause great harm to Pakistan.

(8) Environmental concerns did not figure at all in the Indus Treaty but must now be taken into account.

(9) A wholly new development is climate change and the impact that it will have on water. This needs to be discussed between the two countries.

It is easy enough to dismiss most of the points listed above, barring the last two, as errors or misperceptions. However, that kind of summary dismissal of Pakistani concerns is not enough; something more needs to be said on those points.

(i) Storage/Diversion: So far as one knows, India has not built any storage, not even the 3.6 MAF permitted by the Treaty, nor does it intend to cause harm to Pakistan by diverting Indus waters. In any case, there is such a thing as the Permanent Indus Commission. How can India store or divert waters to the detriment of Pakistan under the watchful eyes of the Indus Commissioner for Pakistan?

(ii) Water scarcity in Pakistan: It is clear enough from (i) above that India has nothing to do with this.

(iii) Reduced flows in the western rivers: Assuming that this is the case, it does not follow that the responsibility for it can be laid on India. What needs to be done is to institute a joint study by Pakistani and Indian experts to establish that there is a declining trend in flows and to ascertain the factors responsible.

(iv) Violations of the provisions of the Indus Treaty by India; every Indian project a violation of the Treaty: This is simply not true. The Treaty envisages and permits Indian projects on the western rivers, and so the projects in themselves cannot be violations of the Treaty. They can be violations of the Treaty if they deviate from certain restrictive provisions, but that will be questioned by the Indus Commissioner for Pakistan. The questions may be resolved within the Commission, or become differences and get referred to a Neutral Expert (as happened in the Baglihar case), or may be in the nature of disputes to be referred to a Court of Arbitration (as has now happened in the Kishenganga case). Where then is the question of violation of the Treaty?

(v) Misuse of the Treaty: A recent article in the Pakistani media is headed ‘Misusing the Indus Treaty.' India might argue that it is only using and not misusing the Treaty, and that it is Pakistan that is misusing the Treaty to block every Indian project on the western rivers. Leaving that aside, the point is that Pakistan is fundamentally unreconciled to the permissive provisions of the Treaty that enable India to construct hydroelectric projects on the western rivers. However, the Treaty exists and both India and Pakistan are signatories to it. Pakistan has accepted the permissive provisions and India has accepted the restrictive provisions.

(vi) Baglihar; Neutral Expert blamed: The NE is accused of ‘re-interpreting' the Treaty and weakening the protection to Pakistan. When Pakistan talks about ‘reinterpretation' it has three things in mind. First, the NE took the view that the 1960 Treaty does not bind India to 1960 technology and that India could use state-of-the-art technology; it is difficult to see how that view can be questioned. Secondly, he gave importance to techno-economic soundness and satisfactory operation; again, it is difficult to see how this can be objected to, and moreover, the Treaty itself repeatedly qualifies its conditions by the proviso “consistent with sound and economical design and satisfactory construction and operation”; those words cannot be ignored. Thirdly, the NE stressed the importance of periodical flushing of the reservoir to get rid of sediment. This is what has caused the greatest anxiety to Pakistan because it seemed to weaken the protection against possible flooding. It is difficult to see how an expert engineer could have held that flushing was not necessary and that rapid silting-up must be accepted. However, there is no need to discuss this as the issue has been raised before the Court of Arbitration in the Kishenganga case.

(vii) Initial filling of the Baglihar reservoir: The myth that India deliberately filled the Baglihar reservoir in such a manner as to cause maximum harm to Pakistan refuses to die down despite repeated explanations. The filling was completed well within the prescribed period; there was no deviation in that respect. The shortfall with reference to the prescribed minimum flow at Merala (of which there are different estimates by India and Pakistan, and no jointly observed figure) was only for a few hours — less than a day — and could not possibly have caused serious harm. There was indeed a lapse but a minor one, and definitely not a planned one. However, this became a major issue, and even though it has been closed by the Indus Commissioners, it continues to figure in articles in the media.

(viii) Cumulative impact of many projects: Opinion is divided on the question whether the cumulative impact of a number of projects, each conforming to the provisions of the Treaty, could be greater than the sum of the impacts of individual projects. This is a concern that needs to be taken seriously and should be jointly studied.

(ix) Environmental concerns, Climate Change: These are post-Treaty developments and call for urgent inter-country consultations, not only at the governmental level but also at academic and expert levels.

The above analysis shows that while a number of misperceptions need to be dispelled, joint studies are needed on (a) the reported reduction of flows in the western rivers and the factors responsible, and (b) the cumulative impact of a large number of projects on the western rivers. Inter-country consultations and research are also called for on environmental concerns and on the impacts of climate change.

However, that is not enough. Right or wrong, certain misperceptions on water persist and are widespread in Pakistan. This has serious implications for India-Pakistan relations and for peace on the subcontinent. Persistent efforts are needed at both official and non-official levels to remove misperceptions and to reassure the people of Pakistan that their anxieties are uncalled for.

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

Printable version | Jan 27, 2021 1:29:20 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Pakistan-water-on-the-boil-again/article13795256.ece

Next Story