The recent annual meeting between the Indus Waters Commissioners of India and Pakistan ended with same complaints from Islamabad and the almost regular defence from New Delhi. Though Baglihar and Kishenganga appear to be the main reason for the complaints, there are other fault lines, internal, bilateral and multilateral, which are straining the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). The IWT is likely to come under larger stress in the near future and it is imperative, that people living along the Indus River understand the gravity of issues, and look beyond their national and regional prisms.
From New Delhi’s perspective, it is important to realise that internal political and emotional situation regarding the sharing of waters in Pakistan and in J&K is likely to have a negative impact on the IWT as a whole. Experts like BG Verghese have already pitched for an Indus Water Treaty-II, which is important from New Delhi’s perspective to look into and prepare for. The objective should be to prevent any water wars – internal and bilateral, and also to improve water governance.
The following issues in particular have the potential to become a crisis, straining the IWT further. First, there is a clear divide between Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on the one hand and the central government on the other, on the nature and use of IWT. The people and government of J&K, where the Indus and most of its important tributaries flow through, are against the IWT, as they feel it is against their interests. A resolution was passed in J&K Legislative Assembly in 2002, calling for annulling the IWT. A section inside J&K even considers the IWT as an Indo-Pak conspiracy against the Kashmiris. Kashmiri grievances are based on emotional and economic issues; for Kashmiris, water and land have always been an emotional issue. Second, J&K also considers the IWT as an economic liability. The majority in J&K consider that the IWT discriminates against Kashmiris by not letting them tap the potential of the Indus and its tributaries in terms of using the waters for agriculture, transport and energy. It is believed that the losses that the IWT cause to J&K are around Rs.80 billion annually.
Third, the people of Northern Areas in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) also consider the IWT against their interests. The controversy over the construction of Diamer-Basha dam highlights the tensions between Northern Areas and Islamabad on sharing the Indus waters. Many in Northern Areas feel that Islamabad has not provided any political status to the region, precisely to exploit them over the Indus waters. They argue that had Northern Areas been a political entity, Pakistan then would have to share the waters and royalty. Worse, a section also believes, that while the Basha dam will submerge parts of its land and result in displacement, the royalties will go to the NWFP.
Fourth, PoK has a serious problem with the rest of Pakistan on the Mangala dam. Muzaffarabad feels exploited by the rest of Islamabad over the dam and the construction in Mirpur has dislocated the entire city, with the benefit going to the rest of Pakistan. Islamabad is too sensitive about any water-related issues involving PoK and the Northern Areas. A government official was suspended for writing a book on the Mangala dam; subsequently all his books were banned during 2002-04 and he was accused of “an attempt to promote nationalist feelings amongst Kashmiris.”
Fifth, the four provinces of Pakistan are deeply divided within, in terms of sharing the Indus waters. The controversy over the construction of Kalabagh alone will amplify internal problems relating to the water conflict. While Punjab wants to build the dam at any cost, leaders of Sindh have warned Islamabad to choose between Kalabagh and the federation, meaning that construction of the dam will result in Sindh walking out of the federal structure.
Sixth, South Asia as a whole has a serious deficit relating to water governance. None of the countries in SAARC use water judiciously; as a result, there is huge water wastage. Besides, despite knowing that water is precious commodity, South Asia has failed to evolve alternate modes of irrigation; canal and river irrigations are the most preferred in South Asia. Methods like drip irrigation and crop rotation to better use the available water, are yet to be effectively evolved. South Asia as a whole, wastes water.
Finally, studies on the Himalayan glaciers highlight the possibility of a decline in water flow in the Indus and its tributaries. With expanding populations and growing energy and economic needs in the region, any decline in water flow will only increase the stress on the IWT. Given the inter-state and intra-state political and emotional issues along the Indus river basin, the possibility of water scarcity resulting in water wars between the states and within them, cannot be completely ruled out.
It is imperative, that India, Pakistan and their sub-regions work together to address the growing concerns and avoid any future conflict over the sharing of waters. IWT has an inbuilt provision to rework its sections. India, Pakistan and their local governments should work together towards creating Indus Water Treaty-II, addressing the issues mentioned above. IWT-II could very well be a conflict prevention measure relating to water issues along the Indus river basin.