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What's all this talk about the Indus Water Treaty?

By Aditi Phadnis
September 27, 2016 10:36 IST
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Aditi Phadnis's simple explainer to the Indus Water Treaty.

IMAGE: The Indus river in Gilgit. Photograph: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters

What does the Indus Water Treaty involve?

Signed in 1960 after 10 years of negotiation, the Indus Water Treaty has stood the test of political tensions better than everything else India and Pakistan have negotiated.

Who is involved?

As in all other matters in the subcontinent, this is a marriage involving three countries -- China, India and Pakistan.

The Indus and the Sutlej have their origins in China. Also involved in water sharing are the Ravi, Beas and Chenab.

In the case of the Indus, India is the upper riparian and Pakistan is the lower riparian. And the relationship is impacted by the twin challenges of global climate change and environmental changes, along with industrial progress.

What are the current issues?

The Indus Water Treaty allows consumptive domestic usage as well as other kinds of usage. This means India can use whatever water it needs -- for drinking, for electricity, etc -- but needs to give the rest to Pakistan.

Because of climate change, there is less water to share. What the two countries need to do is address issues relating to climate change and environment.

The problems of water have more to do with perception than reality.

To avoid flashpoints, there has to be transparency in water sharing data. Joint projects will maximise hydro power.

As the Indus and the Sutlej have their origin in China, Beijing's involvement will have to be sought.

What is the worst case scenario?

Frankly, what is happening now is the politicisation of water to settle other scores.

According to Uttam Sinha of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, India, as the upper riparian, could have chosen not to sign the treaty and fully used the waters of the Indus river system flowing through its territory, but India had its own compulsions.

The topography of Jammu and Kashmir does not lend itself to easily building hydel projects.

The IWT was a partitioning treaty. It had a dispute resolution mechanism as reflected through the Permanent Indus Commission. So far, there have been 113 to 114 site visits under the PIC.

For two States that don't see eye to eye on several issues, this is not bad going because it means India has decided if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

But India needs to develop hydel-power plants for its own power needs. In 2005, Pakistan took Baglihar for arbitration. Problems started after that.

In 2008, water was a big issue in Pakistan.

In 2009-2010, Lashkar chief Muhamed Saeed's speeches were about water flows or blood. In 2009, in an article, Asif Ali Zardari wrote in the Washington Post by way of advice to US President Barack Obama, 'The water crisis in Pakistan is directly linked to relations with India. Resolution could prevent an environmental catastrophe in South Asia, but failure to do so could fuel the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism. We applaud the president's desire to engage our nation and India to defuse the tensions between us.'

While congratulating Obama, Zardari was actually pleading with him to get the US to re-hyphenate Pakistan with India. The fact is, lower riparian needs to handle the problem so that the upper riparian does not turn off water altogether.

In that sense, the IWT is a visionary treaty with Article 12 that talks of modification and Article 7 that talks about future cooperation.

The controversial issue is of hydel projects. Hydel projects are a dilemma for India as Kashmiri aspirations have to be factored in.

Kashmir feels India was too generous with water and wants reparations for losses. So, it is not easy for India to say: 'We won't build dams on the Jhelum and Chenab', given the shortage of power in Kashmir.

Both countries will need new knowledge regimes, they will have to study the mountains more carefully. Climate change needs more careful study.

Water-sharing is a non-issue, but can become thorny one if it is not guarded against misperception. The worst thing possible is playing politics with it.

Now with Prime Minister Modi having been briefed about the issues on hand, Pakistan could come under pressure.

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Aditi Phadnis
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