Indus water: treaty and conflicts

  • Lt Gen Pramod Grover (retd), Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: Sep 22, 2014 09:48 IST

In a world burdened by burgeoning populations and faced by declining water resources, water is likely to trigger conflict. For India and Pakistan, too, fed as they are by the common Indus river watershed, water is a serious issue.

The Indus river, having its source in Indian Kashmir and flowing through Pakistan, is the primary freshwater source for the latter. Agriculture being the mainstay of the economy in both countries, their dependence on the Indus and its tributaries is implicit and any problems with the flow therein can have serious consequences for both. In recent years, the water levels in the river system have been affected adversely by increasing populations, industrialisation and consequent ecological changes. The problem, posing an existential threat, apparently is more serious for Pakistan.

The Indus Water Treaty addressing the sharing of waters of the Indus between India and Pakistan assumes a crucial role. Concluded after prolonged negotiations and facilitated under the aegis of the World Bank, it is the world’s most generous water-sharing pact, both in terms of the sharing ratio as well as the total quantum of waters reserved for the lower riparian state. On September 19, the treaty signed in 1960 in Karachi enters its 55th year, surviving hostility, conflicts, and wars between two nuclear-armed rivals.

Some disputes notwithstanding, the treaty is considered one of the world’s most successful trans-boundary water accords, as it addresses specific water allocation issues and provides unique design requirements for run-of-theriver dams, which ensure the steady flow of water and guarantee hydroelectricity. The agreement also provides a mechanism for consultation and arbitration should questions, disagreements, or disputes arise.

The resolving of issues perceived by Pakistan regarding the construction of the Baglihar Dam and Kishanganga hydroelectric project within the framework of the deal bears ample testimony to its inherent strength.

However, for the past decade or so, Pakistan has been demanding a bigger share of water from rivers that flow from India, by objecting to the run-of-the-river hydroelectricity projects under construction on the western rivers, and by accusing India of diverting/storing water entitled to Pakistan.

During the recent inconclusive talks (August 24 to 26) between the Indus Commissions at Lahore, Pakistan has raised the disputed issues under the provisions of the treaty. It has objected to design technicalities such as “deep gated spillway, excessive pondage and height of freeboard” in the construction of the Ratle (850 megawatt), Pikkal Dul (1,000 MW), Miyar (120 MW), and Lower Kalnai (48 MW) hydroelectricity projects on the Chenab river. Pakistan has accordingly asked for changes in the design of these projects.

It has reservations, again, on our developing of Kishanganga Dam on the Neelum river, even though an international arbitrator has recognised India’s right to go ahead with the project as long as the water level in the reservoir is not below minimum (dead storage level in technical terms) and the flow in the river is at least 9 cumsecs (318 cusecs).

In response, India has maintained that it has all along adhered to the treaty and has never deprived Pakistan of its legitimate share of water, and has no intention of doing so. However, to look at Pakistan’s requirements, there will be another round of talks in New Delhi after about two months, after Pakistan has made two visits to Miyar and Kishanganga to witness first-hand the constraints and justifications put forward by India. It is clear to Pakistan that instead of going into unending and costly international arbitrations, it should find a middle path.

Pakistan must appreciate that the provisions of the treaty, while allocating the western rivers to Pakistan, permit a limited use of those by India, as they pass through the Indian territory, for drinking water, existing agriculture use, limited expansion, a storage of no more than 3.6 MAF (million acre feet), and generation of hydroelectricity through run-of-the-river projects. These permissive provisions, as per Annexure C, D and E, are hemmed in with stringent conditions and restrictions to ensure that Pakistan stands protected from the possibilities of stoppage of flows or harmful flooding. India has been trying to utilise the permissive provisions to the full, and Pakistan has been attempting to apply the restrictive provisions stringently.

Pakistan will be well advised to understand the Indian perspective and resolve issues, if any, bilaterally under the provisions of the treaty.

Fortunately, a mechanism exists under the accord to carry out consultations and research on behalf of both countries and to remove misconceptions and anxieties. Article 7 of the Indus Water Treaty mentions ‘Future Cooperation’, which, inter alia, discusses efforts in the future to optimise the potential of the Indus river system jointly. Very little attention has been paid to this aspect, so far.

Therefore, a simple solution is to form a joint study group of experts who should function as a part of the mechanism available within the purview of the Indus Water Treaty on bilateral basis.

This group should carry out consultations and research on various current issues to optimise the availability/utilisation of water for various economic purposes and to further India-Pakistan relations. The study group may also consider building hydroelectricity projects with large dams on the western rivers with assured discharge to Pakistan to offset natural calamities because of floods.

The provisions of the treaty will continue to remain the cornerstone of the watersharing between India and Pakistan; and both countries will operate in a spirit of constructive cooperation. Thus, a regional approach is required in maintaining the prosperity and dominance of the mighty Indus.

(The writer is an expert on the Indus Water Treaty. Views expressed are his personal.)

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