by Arnold Zetlin 1 April 2020
When Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the prime minister of India, and Ayub Khan, the president of Pakistan, signed the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, the agreement was hailed as a diplomatic triumph. The neighboring, hostile states, between two wars, one in 1948, the other in 1965, agreed on the management and sharing of the six great rivers emerging from the Chinese-controlled Tibetan Plateau and flowing through disputed Jammu and Kashmir to principally water the divided Punjab province on both sides of their common border.
“The formulation of the Indus Water Treaty is a marvelous example of successful hydro-diplomacy….at a time when there were no international rules on trans-boundary waters,” writes author Ashfaq Mahmood.
The need for a treaty arose because of Pakistan’s concerns that India controlled the headwaters of rivers entering Pakistan and had the power to shut down their flow.
Since then, the agreement has gone awry; Mahmood later writes:
“…water issues could be the tipping point for the realization of the nightmare of nuclear war….if the issues of water relations between the two countries are allowed to simmer, the possibility of water-instigated war in future cannot be ruled out. The war may not erupt tomorrow but is very likely in a few decades resulting in miseries for all….”
The difficulties in the Indus River Basin exist against the context of wider water problems in both countries. Pakistan and India each face stark water scarcities. Perhaps Pakistan’s problems are more immediate.
“Despite having more glaciers than anywhere else in the world, and its location in the Indus River Basin, Pakistan is at risk of acute water shortage,” Future Directions International, an Australian research organization, has reported. “The poor state of Pakistan’s water resources gained international attention in 2018 due to speculation that the country could become absolutely water scarce (in which a country cannot provide enough water due to physical shortages) by 2025.”
Mahmood goes into considerable detail to outline difficulties that have arisen over efforts to apply the treaty. Since Mahmood is writing from the Pakistan view, India, in most cases, is the villain.
While Mahmood employs technical jargon (dead storage, live storage, poundage, etc.) and acronyms (DSL, FPL and more) in his descriptions, he creates a sense of suspence. An example is Mahmood’s description of a lengthy dispute over India’s building the Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant based on the diversion of the water of the Kishanganga River, a tributary in Kashmir of the Jhelum, one of the rivers covered by the Indus treaty. Pakistan claimed the project would have an adverse downstream impact on its hydroelectric plans.
Pakistan initially noticed in 1988 that India was planning the plant and issued its first complaint that India had not notified Pakistan of its plans as required under the treaty. Mahmood takes the reader page after page, year after year through complaints, non-productive, back-and-forth correspondence and meetings of Pakistan and Indian Indus Treaty commissioners, arguments to a court of appeals, and selection of a neutral expert as well as a mediator to make a decision. The reader wonders if there will ever be a resolution. Not quite. On 19 November 2018, 30 years after the initial complaint, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant — and the two countries still are arguing about it.
“Had the two countries moved swiftly to resolve the issue as soon as it had arisen, much of the time would have been saved,” writes Mahmood. “It would also have avoided bad blood which the controversy created.”
The author offers little hope for change.
“India keeps insisting on bilateral discussions, ” Mahmood explained. “while Pakistan leans toward the third party solution. None of the two parties had been willing to give up its positional stance….In this kind of the ‘dialogue of the deaf’ in the past, no one seemed to be sensitive to the loss of benefits to the people living in the Indus Basin…”
The Indus Water Treaty needs updating, especially in regard to climate change, which was not an issue in 1960. Change seems unlikely in the current South Asian climate “The two countries need to work very hard to build mutual trust,” writes Mahmood. “Trust cannot be built by advocating cooperation on water issues while there are gun fires on the border, blames of terrorist activities being exchanged, or there are discriminatory trade barriers….”