Devise a new water governance plan to deal with the future of the Indus basin
Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources recommended that the government should renegotiate the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), signed in 1960, with Pakistan, in view of pressing challenges such as “climate change, global warming and environmental impact assessment”. Without making overtures of abrogating the treaty, which has often been part of the debate in midst of tensions with Pakistan, the committee, in no uncertain terms, acknowledged the rationality of the framing of IWT “on the basis of knowledge and technology existing at the time”.
IWT, with its emphasis on hydraulic engineering, divided the basin into upper and lower parts (the western and eastern rivers), and envisaged the most complete utilisation of the waters through dams, barrages and canals. Without the treaty, Pakistan would have been constrained to build grand hydraulic works to transfer water from the western rivers to meet its irrigation needs and become independent of the eastern rivers. And without the eastern rivers being given exclusively to India, it would have struggled to operationalise the Bhakra and Nangal dams. The Rajasthan canal would not have made much progress, and the Ravi–Beas link canal would have failed to take off.
However, during the IWT negotiations, there was no unified methodology or specialised institutions to foretell the dangers of the climate crisis on water resources. With the advancement of science and improvement in measurements, snow and glacier melt in the upper Indus hydrology, which contribute to 60-70% of total average flow in the Indus river system, and precipitation patterns are now better understood. The contribution of these sources to the Indus Basin is undergoing considerable variations explained by the weather systems and the monsoon.
As a result, sustainability and future water availability are under existential threat. Rivers are the lifeline of almost 300 million people living in the Indus basin. Issues such as food and energy will increasingly have intricate linkages to water while demographic pressures will impact water management.
But how does one renegotiate IWT when the other party is unlikely to show interest? “Future Co-operation” under Article VII of IWT appreciates that in search of a “common interest in the optimum development of the Rivers” both the parties can “declare their intention to co-operate, by mutual agreement, to the fullest possible extent.” The emphasis of cooperation is on setting up new meteorological observation stations, supply of data, and new engineering works on the rivers. However, Article XII explicitly mentions that IWT “may from time to time be modified by a duly ratified treaty concluded for the purpose between the two Governments”.
Technically, any cooperation or modification of the treaty cannot be undertaken unilaterally. Even if India shows the political courage to renegotiate IWT, the dynamics of it will be far more exacting. Pakistan, in all likelihood, will make it a political and territorial issue, expressing its disappointment over the treaty rather than the material benefits it has accrued. Pakistan has never advocated abrogation or revision of the treaty, but has not shied away from blaming India for its water woes. IWT remains a scapegoat to cover up its poor water management policies, which, in successive decades, have seen inefficiency in its irrigation system and excessive water waste in the agricultural sector.
The best option for India is to fulfil the provisions of IWT, particularly those on the western rivers in Jammu and Kashmir. While signing IWT, India gave preference to fulfilling its immediate water needs over future needs, particularly those of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. IWT allows storage entitlement of up to 3.6 MAF (million-acre feet) on the western rivers. Many of the projects are now underway in achieving the “permissible storage capacity”.
The Permanent Indus Commission that meets every year to settle differences over IWT is an excellent mechanism to raise concerns over water efficiency, ecological integrity and sustainability in the backdrop of the climate crisis. A new water governance framework will be required to deal with the uncertain future of the Indus basin.
Uttam Kumar Sinha works at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses
The views expressed are personal