Water is meant to douse fires, yet it is the one natural resource that has, time and again, either been a cause for global conflict or been weaponised by enemy states to score victory.
In the case of decades of volatile India-Pakistan relations, the Indus Waters Treaty – brokered by the World Bank and signed in 1960, to allocate waters of six rivers of the Indus River System that originates in Tibet – has safeguarded against such weaponisation on the subcontinent.
This holds especially true when tensions over Kashmir peak, as they have today. The treaty allocated waters from three western rivers – the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab – to Pakistan, and three eastern rivers – the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej – to India.
It also mandated that India and Pakistan meet twice a year, arrange technical visits to project sites and share details of water flow and quantum used – essentially setting up a mechanism to exchange information and manage potential disputes.
In the wake of the Uri attack in 2016, Delhi suspended the bi-annual talks and promised to ‘fast-track’ projects to use hitherto unutilised water of the eastern rivers allocated to India via three national projects (declared in 2009) – the multipurpose Shahpurkandi and Ujh dams, and the Beas-Sutlej river-linking project.
Why was India’s share unused?
Available data suggests that just under 10% of India’s share lies unused and is allowed to flow into Pakistan. However, even in 2016, this announcement begged the question of why water allocated to India was being ‘wasted’ and not used internally for either power generation or agriculture, given that the rivers fall entirely within India’s jurisdiction, and their use-up is at India’s discretion.
After cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari tweeted on Thursday that India would ‘stop our share’ of Indus waters to Pakistan – exactly a week after the Pulwama attack – that question still stands.
Under the leadership of Hon’ble PM Sri @narendramodi ji, Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.
— Nitin Gadkari (@nitin_gadkari) February 21, 2019
Diplomatic sources who have worked closely on India-Pakistan ties, and experts who deal with water-sharing disputes, indicate that a possible reason for not having done so all these years was to avoid an explosion of new water wars within the country.
Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Haryana have already locked horns over access to and use of water from these three rivers, internally. It took nearly 40 years and the intervention of the Centre for the governments of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab to finally sign an agreement on the implementation of the Shahpur Kandi dam project in September 2018.
Under the current agreement and plan, the project has a capacity to produce 206 megawatts of hydroelectricity, to be shared between the two states and irrigate over 37,173 hectares of land, of which 5,000 hectares are in Punjab and the rest in the Kathua region of Jammu. It is expected to become operational in 2020.
The Ujh dam on the Ravi river is also a source of contention for Punjab as are the Beas-Sutlej and Sutlej-Yamuna link canals. The latter are essentially river-linking projects that aim to distribute river waters across Jammu Kashmir, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal and Rajasthan more equitably.
Spinning Gadkari’s tweets as action against Pakistan
To have spun Gadkari’s tweets as action against Pakistan in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, as several prominent BJP leaders and subsequent media reports did, required a kind of mental gymnastics that defies both research and reason; it also gives those who advocate the abrogation of the Indus Waters Treaty a fresh boost.
It assumes that the Indian public – eager to see a strong response against Pakistan for its support to terror groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed that claimed responsibility for Pulwama – would be so easily fooled into believing that using ‘our share of water’ more effectively was actually a strong act of retaliation.
In fact, it was nothing but wrapping in a bow and recycling a two-year-old announcement of an even older decision and presenting it as, not only new, but strong international action.
India’s role as a responsible global leader
While Pakistan’s duplicity on fighting terror is proof that it doesn’t honour its own global obligations, calls to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty are knee-jerk emotional responses that don’t factor in long-term and wide- ranging consequences for India in the world.
For a nation that sees itself as a responsible global leader, an emerging economy and an aspirant for the UN’s highest table, India must honour its treaty commitments over a resource that everyday lives depend on.
This is not the only transboundary water agreement India has signed, but the Indus Waters Treaty between two openly hostile nations is held up as a gold standard globally – an example for other warring nation-states to follow in the interest of civilian populations which suffer the consequences of war.
Sabre-rattling aside, as an upper riparian nation, any move by India towards abrogation would alarm other countries which have rights of use over water from rivers that flow down from India and are already embroiled in longstanding water disputes (54 of Bangladesh’s 230 rivers flow through India).
It would also signal other upper riparian countries that treaties don’t matter and they can continue with projects that arrest water from flowing into lower riparian states without any real consequence (China already has several projects damming the Brahmaputra that India is concerned about).
So, New Delhi must ask itself whether it wants to stand similarly accused and lose a great moral force that it currently enjoys on the world stage.
Maya Mirchandani is assistant professor, Department of Media Studies, Ashoka University and a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. She also hosts Wide Angle with Maya Mirchandani for The Wire.