Given the background of the partition and the hostile relations between Pakistan and India; the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) signed by the two riparian states only 13 years into the start of their relations as independent but bitter neighbours, was nothing less than a great feat.
However, the issues arising in Pakistan by India’s filling of the Baglihar Dam in 2008 and the ongoing Kishanganga Dam arbitration process between the two neighbouring states has placed the spotlight back on the IWT of 1960.
Is the IWT – given the changes in demography, increase in the demand for water and climatic changes since 1960 – still relevant as a framework for sharing the Indus waters between the two riparian states? If it is, then the question arises is that why has this issue been recently thrust into the media limelight in Pakistan as an existential security threat emanating out of India? And why did the need arise for Pakistan last year to take India to the Permanent Court of Arbitration over the Kishanganga Dam?
According to the IWT, Pakistan has exclusive rights over the western rivers of the Indus basin: the Indus itself, Jhelum and Chenab. India, on the other hand, has exclusive rights over the three eastern rivers; Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.
The treaty was essentially an attempt to assuage Pakistani fears – arising from India shutting off the Central Bari Doab Canals at the time of the sowing season in 1948 – of any future Indian attempts to damage Pakistan by either completely depriving it of water flowing in from the Indian-controlled territory at crucial periods of the agricultural season or by causing massive floods downstream.
The expectation from the Pakistani side is that India cannot construct any massive hydro-projects on the three western rivers given Pakistan’s exclusive rights over them. And, especially since India has exclusive rights over the three eastern rivers and the freedom to build its water projects on those.
This stance, even if it is known to be erroneous by our Indus waters experts and our politicians, is the point of view being projected, through the media, on to the intelligentsia and the common man of Pakistan. The common perception in Pakistan is that any dam-building by India on any of the western rivers by default equates to the ‘theft’ of ‘our’ waters or to handing over a strategic advantage to India that it will not fail to use against us.
The reality is that the IWT does contain certain ‘permissive clauses’ that do provide India with a degree of flexibility for water projects on the western rivers. This is allowed on the condition that the essential requirements and guidelines or the ‘restrictive clauses’ of the treaty that protect Pakistan’s interests are not put into jeopardy.
The fact that India is testing the permissive parts of the IWT to the full with its projects on the western rivers, in a seemingly unilateral manner, is the backdrop of the recent round of arbitration. It will be unrealistic for Pakistan to hope for a ruling that completely stops India from ever carrying out any water-project on the western rivers. The court cannot take away from India the facility it has been granted by the treaty.
The Pakistani side should instead be prepared for the verdict from the arbitration process to merely seek certain changes by India to the existing design of the Kishanganga dam. The other realistic expectation would be one that seeks joint scientific research by the two countries to gather more data on the claims of the disputing parties so that any final ruling is based on scientific evidence.
In either case, India will eventually be given the go-ahead to construct the dam with one or another design variation setting a precedence on the interpretation of both the permissible and restrictive clauses of the IWT that provide for Indian works on the western rivers. Pakistan will have to adapt to the new reality.
The Pakistani side needs to understand that India as a country faces energy issues just like Pakistan does. It is only natural that India tries to extract maximum leeway on what it is allowed to do with the western rivers while using creative ways to interpret the restrictive clauses.
The common wisdom in the Pakistani ranks may be that the arbitration courts or neutral experts may deliver a more favourable outcome than what can be arrived at bilaterally with their Indian counterparts. On the contrary, the judgments of the neutral expert on the Baglihar case in 2007 make it evident that the verdict will be closer to India’s stance. This will leave Pakistan in a position where it is not ready to tackle the new implications of that verdict simply because of a lack of research-based data on the subject.
In light of the new stresses on the IWT, a dispassionate analysis of all the options available to Pakistan – including the extreme decision of waging war or altogether doing away with the treaty – would reveal that it is in Pakistan’s interests to work with India within the confines of the IWT of 1960.
With this realisation our politicians, Indus waters experts and media should not make a cricket match out of the water issue. It is time for us to change tact. All discourse within Pakistan regarding the matter of the Indus waters, be it at the political and bureaucratic level or in the media, should be conducted on purely scientific grounds based on sound data and research.
While the management and administration of the Indus waters can be left in the hands of the government and bureaucracy, the scientific research on all possible issues surrounding the Indus waters must be opened up to the universities in Pakistan.
There is a massive need for scientific research and data-gathering on the plethora of issues related to hydrology and water management of the Indus basin. Such issues include studying the cumulative effects on the water flows in the western rivers due to Kishanganga and other possible Indian water projects; ascertaining why there has been a decreasing trend in the flow of water on our western rivers in general; what the effect on the ecology of the rivers due to the water projects and changing climate would be and so on.
The government must fund PhD and MSc level research work in universities in conjunction with other interested donor agencies and shift Pakistan’s reliance on a few Indus waters experts towards breeding a young generation of Pakistani scientists well-versed on all Indus waters-related issues.
Our research work can be made more palatable for our Indian counterparts during discussions and negotiations by partnering our water research departments and universities with their equivalent in India.
Pakistan needs to replace emotional rhetoric and raise its concerns with India regarding the issue of the Indus waters on dispassionate, objective and scientific grounds. Sound and thorough academic research, especially joint work between partner universities in the two countries when provided as evidence, will make India more accepting of Pakistan’s concerns and will help to search for solutions in earnest.
Even if this tact fails and arbitration is eventually required, Pakistan stands a much better chance of a favourable verdict if it prepares its case based on thorough and credible scientific evidence, rather than moving the court based on whims and seemingly unqualified apprehensions.
The writer is a researcher at the Jinnah Institute. The views expressed in this article are his own. Email: zirgham@gmail. com or follow him at @znAfridi