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Wednesday June 19, 2024

Energizing the Indus Waters Treaty

By Shafqat Kakakhel
April 22, 2023

Supporters of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), including this writer, hope that their fears concerning the treaty are likely to dissipate. This would depend on a positive response from New Delhi to Pakistan’s offer of listening to their concerns.

Advocates of peaceful and cooperative relations between India and Pakistan would like to see a sincere effort by them to revitalize the IWT by streamlining its dispute settlement process as well as initiating cooperation on subjects that are not covered by the treaty.

On April 3, the Pakistan Indus commissioner responded to his Indian counterpart’s communication of January 25 proposing bilateral negotiations on modifying the provisions of the IWT. He expressed Pakistan’s readiness to ‘listen’ to India’s concerns regarding the treaty. On April 5, India’s Ministry of External Affairs acknowledged the Pakistani message and promised a response in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

Hopefully, India and Pakistan will not limit their conversation to the dispute settlement provisions of the IWT but also discuss broader cooperation on water-related subjects that were not covered by the negotiations during the 1950s. Article 7 of the treaty provides for mutually beneficial cooperation.

Since 1974, when India began building civil works for the Salal hydropower project on the Chenab, the only topic handled by the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is Indian power projects on the western rivers. Surely, the five-decade history since India embarked on building dozens of hydropower projects on the western rivers offers a host of lessons which deserve to be considered.

However, given the geographical proximity of the two countries and shared ecological and socio-economic conditions, there is enormous potential for mutually beneficial cooperation between them in the framework of integrated water resource management. In fact, under the so-called Track 2 dialogues between the two countries held during the decade of 2010 and sponsored and financed by friendly third countries dozens of water resources practitioners and experts discussed cooperation on transboundary rivers beyond the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty. The Track 2 participants were neither mandated to nor dared to negotiate any measures, but they reached a broad understanding on areas that offered promise of cooperation.

The India-Pakistan discussion should focus on two categories of issues pertaining to the Indus Basin: (a) streamlining the modalities of the processing of the Indian hydropower projects by the Indus Commission; and (b) addressing issues that were not covered by the negotiators of the IWT either because they did not exist, or their salience was not adequately understood more than seven decades ago.

Pakistan’s complaints and concerns relating to the Indian hydropower projects are well known. Most of them have been mentioned by Ashfaq Mahmood, former federal secretary for water and power (2004-07) who had led Pakistan’s teams for talks with India on several water issues.

An ardent supporter of the IWT, Ashfaq has been calling for efforts by India and Pakistan to implement the treaty in letter and spirit. His book ‘Hydro-Diplomacy: Preventing War Between Nuclear- Armed Pakistan and India’ (published by the Institute of Policy Studies in 2018) traces the evolution and salient features of the IWT. It explains the four Indian projects (Salal Dam which was amicably resolved through foreign secretary level talks; the Baglihar Dam which was referred to a neutral project; the Kishanganga project which was submitted to a Court of Arbitration, as well as the Tulbul Navigation Project/ Wullar Barrage which has defied attempts at negotiated resolution for nearly four decades.)

Ashfaq Mehmood has also discussed data issues (Article 6), possible cooperation in future in areas not addressed by the treaty (Article 7). He identifies trust deficit as a major impediment to the satisfactory implementation of the IWT. Ashfaq has identified measures for preventing conflict and fostering cooperation between India and Pakistan.

Pakistan’s complaints include India’s proclivity to start building dams without prior information; non- conformity of designs of their projects with the conditions noted in the treaty; India’s non- implementation of the decisions of third-party arbitration; and failure to provide complete and reliable data concerning flows of the western rivers as stipulated in Article 6 of the treaty. Ashfaq has suggested how each one of Pakistan’s grievances can be addressed.

The other, far more important, issues concerning the Indus Basin include subjects missing from the IWT such as the threats posed by climate change which was unheard of until the 1980s. Although all climate change impacts adversely affect freshwater resources, especially in the subcontinent, the two largest countries of the region which are also the main riparians of the Indus Basin have shied from discussing those effects.

The two main sources of fresh water in India and Pakistan are the melting of the ice and snow stored by the glaciers and the twice-yearly monsoon winds – both of which are acutely vulnerable to climate change. The HKH glaciers are among the least monitored and least researched among glacier systems. One of the consequences of climate change is reduced flows in the Indus rivers. If there is a substantial decrease in the flows of any one of the western rivers due to climate change even during the period of abundant supply (June-September), the IWT does not suggest how reduced supplies to Pakistan are to be addressed, avoiding misunderstanding.

The global climate discourse repeatedly calls for cooperation between neighbouring countries sharing ecosystems in climate mitigation and adaptation. India and Pakistan have not heeded those calls.

The IWT mentions the need to prevent pollution of river water by both parties, but it could not foresee the largescale pollution from the dumping of industrial effluent in the western rivers. Both Jhelum and Chenab enter Pakistan laden with heavy contaminants from effluent. Remedial actions are called for.

The IWT does not provide for environmental flows in the eastern rivers to preclude the adverse ecological effects in the river belts denuded of water. Underground water and aquifers are an integral part of the hydrology of a river basin. Prudent use of underground water ensures the sustainability of the aquifer and the streams and wetlands that are part of the basin’s assets. The IWT is silent about the once rich Indus aquifer whose sustainability is being jeopardized by unregulated, excessive abstraction of ground water in both countries.

The India-Pakistan Track 2 dialogues of the decade of 2010 identified more than a dozen areas of cooperation. These include joint studies on the impacts of climate change in collaboration with friendly third countries; cooperation in managing climate change- induced extreme weather events; joint monitoring of the HKH glaciers in collaboration with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD); studies on river water pollution from industrial and agricultural runoff upstream of the western rivers; and timely exchange of relevant data for flood management.

More areas of cooperation include promoting micro-irrigation methods and technologies for conservation and optimum utilization of water; promotion of water-use efficiency by non-agricultural users; joint study on the cumulative environmental effects of cascades of multiple hydroelectric projects on a single river; exchange of knowledge on monsoon variability trends; study on the imperative of environmental flows in the eastern rivers; and creation of a web-based data bank that would serve as a repository of all data links and resources that could be useful for analysis and research.

These suggestions deserve consideration by the governments of India and Pakistan and non-state stakeholders.

The writer is a retired ambassador and former UN assistant secretary-general.