Much water has flowed down the Indus river, literally, since India and Pakistan signed the much-acclaimed Indus Water Treaty this day 53 years ago - September 19, 1960, to be precise. But, the blame game between the two neighbours continues as the sharing of waters remains a much debatable issue.
Some disputes notwithstanding, the treaty is considered one of the world's most successful trans-boundary water treaties. It addresses specific water allocation issues, provides unique design requirements for run-of-the-river dams to ensure steady water flow and guarantee power generation through hydro-electricity, and also provides a mechanism for consultation and arbitration, should questions, disagreements or disputes arise between the incumbents. The treaty continues to remain intact despite trust deficit between the two nuclear neighbours.
Following the development and construction of several hydroelectric projects by India on the western rivers, such as Salal, the Wullar barrage, the Baglihar and Kishenganga since 1976, Pakistan has been accusing India of several violations of the treaty. In fact, due to the storage/diversion of western river waters associated with these projects, it also holds India responsible for any shortage of water that it is facing. However, India's stand has been that it has all along adhered to the treaty in letter and spirit and never deprived Pakistan of its share of water.
Work on the Tulbul navigation project/Wullar barrage were unilaterally stopped by India in October 1986; it has remained suspended since then. On Baglihar, Pakistan's objections were referred to a neutral expert in 2005 on the former's request. The expert upheld India's design approach and suggested only minor changes in the scope of construction. The changes have since been carried out by India. The issue raised by Pakistan regarding initial filling of the Baglihar reservoir was resolved by the Permanent Indus Commission in June 2010.
The Kishenganga hydroelectric project is now in the court of arbitration constituted at Pakistan's request. The court has in its interim award in February this year ruled in India's favour regarding transference of water. The award regarding requirement of quantity of water for running the project is awaited. In fact, every single time Pakistan has taken India to neutral arbitrators with accusations of non-compliance with the treaty, the ruling has been in India's favour.
For the past decade, Pakistan has been accusing India of diverting/storing water entitled to the former on the western rivers. It is demanding a bigger share of water from rivers that run from India, even though the latter, as per the treaty, generously gave away 80.52% of the Indus system waters to Pakistan for an indefinite duration. Pakistan has also been highlighting at various international fora that its water scarcity was caused (or partially caused) by Indian action, a situation that would seriously jeopardise economic growth.
However, Pakistan's concerns don't hold water. The treaty allocates the water of the three western rivers to Pakistan, but allows India to tap the considerable hydropower potential of the Chenab and Jhelum before the rivers enter Pakistan. The treaty also allowed India to create storage on the western rivers of 3.6 MAF (million acre foot). It does not require India to deliver any assured quantities of water to Pakistan. Instead, it requires India to let flow to Pakistan the water available in these rivers, excluding the limited use permitted to India by the treaty. Also, there is a limit to the number of run-of-the-river hydropower projects India can build.
Clearly, Pakistan's complaints about India building dams and drawing water out of the western rivers beyond authorisation arise out of ignorance about nuances of the treaty The questions that arise are: "What is the future of this treaty?" and "Is there a need to revisit it?" Unfortunately, there is no clause to withdraw from it unilaterally. Various sane voices from both sides have suggested that India and Pakistan should realise the strategic importance of water as an economic resource.
Fortunately, a mechanism exists under provisions of the treaty to carry out consultations and research to remove misconceptions and anxieties. Article VII of the treaty mentions 'Future cooperation' which, inter alia, discusses efforts in the future to jointly optimise the potential of the Indus river system. Very little attention has been paid to this aspect so far. Therefore, a simple solution is to form a joint study group of experts in consonance with the treaty before the water issue compounds mistrust between India and Pakistan.