India on Thursday pitched for sorting differences with Pakistan on the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) bilaterally, a day after the World Bank announced pausing of the two separate processes to look into disputes on the Kishenganga and Ratle projects. External affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said that given the will, there was no reason why the technical design parameters on which Pakistan raised objections cannot be sorted out by experts from both sides on projects like Kishenganga.
The World Bank’s announcement will temporarily halt the appointment of a neutral expert as requested by India and the chairman of court of arbitration, as requested by Pakistan. However, this announcement by the World Bank is not surprising. Significantly, the Permanent Indus Commission, established under Article VIII of the IWT, is the primary channel of communication between the countries.
The primary reason behind the successful negotiations in the 1950s was the ‘need-based framework’ offered by the IWT, where the western rivers --- the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum --- were given to Pakistan and the eastern rivers --- the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej --- to India.
In the last four decades, demographic pressures, internal demands by Kashmiris for their rights on the western rivers, climate change and fluctuating precipitation patterns, issues related to water quality rather than quantity, and excessive exploitation of groundwater usage rather than surface water have increased manifold and water security in the Indus Basin has emerged as a challenging governance problem for both countries.
There are two distinct insights, which emerge from the existing framework offered by IWT: Importance of communication channels and facilitating water security.
Article VIII and IX are most appropriate when it comes opening communication channels between both countries. While Article VII focuses on the roles and responsibilities of the Indus Water Commission, Article VIII stipulates ways through one can manage and even transform differences and disputes. The third paragraph of Article IX is instructive in this regard.
It notes that the respective Indus Water Commissioners shall inform their respective governments on points “where the Commission is in agreement and where it is in dispute”. This is an important instruction given that the emphasis is laid on Indus Water Commissioners at mutually arriving at decisions through consultations. Any pause on the meeting of Commissioners blocks this option.
Article VII of the Treaty could potentially address issues related to water security, which as per the acceptable definition of the United Nations underlines issues related to quantity and quality of water amongst others.
Article VII is aimed at Future Cooperation, whereby the focus is on issues, which can be managed through discussion and deliberation. One of the primary focal points of the Indus Water Treaty was on quantity of water available to both countries.
It is perhaps time, that both countries rectify this and look at issues related to the interface between ground water and surface water as quality of water for the inhabitants of the Indus Basin (especially Eastern Rivers) is emerging as a major challenge.
While cooperation under Article VII has been restricted to discussions on engineering works on the western rivers, the eastern rivers have issues related to water quality and need to be addressed by both countries for the sake of their future generations.
Cooperation on Eastern Rivers can emerge as a potential prospect for integrative bargaining for both India and Pakistan. For instance river Ravi runs along the borders of India and Pakistan and can emerge as case for joint cooperation if the two governments want.
Joint cooperation by both governments will not only be useful for the riparian communities living across the border, but will also reduce health risks the people witness on both sides. Significantly cost of cooperation can be highlighted by the innovative use of Article VII.
Given the changing realities and the potential ecological challenges that the Indus river system witnesses, the announcement can indeed be perceived as a blessing in disguise, but only if both the countries have the political will to explore diplomatic channels and examine alternative options for ensuring sustainable peace.
This could perhaps resonate with the “spirit of the treaty”. The other alternative for the governments is to invoke Article 62 of the Vienna Convention by providing reasonable grounds for withdrawal from the Indus Water Treaty. This option will bring down an institutionalised structure, which was able to survive major wars between India and Pakistan and escalate the political tensions further.
Medha Bisht is assistant professor, department of international relations, South Asian University, New Delhi
The views are personal