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Editorial

September 2, 2018

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Water politics

The twice-annual talks between the water commissioners of Pakistan and India are important not just because they are meant to address a vital problem but because they are now the only form of contact between two countries that maintain few diplomatic ties. This time around, the meeting – which took place on Aug 29-30 – held additional significance since it was the first contact between officials of both countries since the PTI government took charge. Some positive noises from both sides after the elections left some hope that there may be some chance of compromise. That optimism proved premature. The demands made by Pakistan were relatively minor: the country only asked India to reduce the heights of two reservoirs that it believes violate the Indus Waters Treaty by limiting our access to water.

Pakistan had previously been insistent that most Indian hydroelectric projects contravened the terms of the treaty, but this time we asked only for relatively minor changes. India, however, refused even after we threatened to seek international arbitration. Ultimately the meeting – like all those that came before it – ended in failure. This has become a common theme when the two countries discuss water issues. Forget coming to an agreement on India’s construction of dams, the two countries cannot even agree on which international body should resolve the matter, with India wanting neutral experts to decide while Pakistan pushes for the International Court of Arbitration to have the final say.

One reason India is able to take such an unyieldingly maximalist position is that it knows it is likely to prevail in the international arena. Just as with the issue of Kashmir in the UN, when it comes to water India’s growing economic and political influence means few dare cross it. But that does not mean it is not in India’s interest to reach a compromise. Water threatens to supplant Kashmir and terrorism as the issue most likely to spark a conflict between the two countries. As the ravages of global climate change start to make themselves felt in both countries, there will be ever-increased demand for water. Soon, the Indus Waters Treaty itself may need to be renegotiated to account for this new reality. Yet the two countries are unable to even reach an agreement on something as minor as the height of a few reservoirs. This failure of diplomacy is a reflection of the state of relations between Pakistan and India. For all the talk of resuming ties after the election of the PTI, the reality is that under Narendra Modi’s India wants to be the dominant, bullying power in any relationship and that is something Pakistan may never be prepared to accept.

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