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Wednesday Mar 06 2019

Water problems: How Pakistan can checkmate India?

On the stump, just before the national elections, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is politicising the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) like never before.

The treaty was signed between India and Pakistan, under the stewardship of the World Bank, the United States and other western powers in September 1960. Today, Modi is trying to bring controversiality to the Treaty and the water distribution formulas agreed by India and Pakistan.

In 2016, amidst heightened tensions between the neighbours, the Indian premier threatened that “blood and water cannot flow together at the same time” during a meeting of water ministry official. He is again implying that the water flowing into Pakistan can be stopped.

Let’s be clear. Neither Modi nor any other political leaders in India can risk this, without internationally isolating their own country.

Indus river is not the only trans-boundary river in the world. Many other countries have dozens of agreements to amicably manage the obligations of the upper, and the rights of the lower riparian countries.

The Indus river originates, like the Brahmaputra river, from China. Therefore, Indian policies on water agreements will have a cascading effect on China-India water relations as well. The fact the Brahmaputra - a large free-flowing river – begins from China and runs within the boundaries of India and Bangladesh, makes China a stakeholder, who will have a say about the flow of rivers.

Previously, even the former head of India’s premier intelligence agency, RAW, understood how dangerous this proposition of blocking Pakistan’s water can be for India.

In order to truly plug the water, India would need to construct a cascade of reservoirs and dams. And to build dams, as we in Pakistan know, can take several years, if not a decade, and billions of dollars.

With the present capacity and ongoing construction of dams in the upper reaches, India at best will be able to delay the supply of water during the peak demand period for two weeks or so. Beyond that, it cannot be imagined, with the existing infrastructure.

Flowing waters cannot be stopped and attempts to stop them unilaterally will at best be acrimonious. Now, diverting the eastern rivers is possible, but improbable, from short to medium term scenarios. Any attempt to do this will be seen as a violation of the IWT that governs our water relations.

Treaties are sovereign commitments and they cannot be abrogated at will. The IWT does not have a sunset clause but any discussions of its cancellations or India’s withdrawal from the treaty will only isolate India and seriously tarnish its credibility.

Importantly, when the IWT divided the rivers, the scientific knowledge of ecology and ecosystems was nominal. Therefore, to this day, there is no provision for environmental flows. Simply put, there is no information about the minimum water required to keep the ecosystem healthy.

The recent decisions on India-Pakistan legal battles have created a space for Pakistan to have a legitimate demand: a demand for environmental flows. Pakistan needs to undertake technical and sound scientific studies that can withstand the scrutiny of international experts, to put on the table as our rightful demand from India. The sooner such discussion begins, between the commissioners of the IWT, the more legitimate will be Pakistan’s ability to checkmate or object to any plans of diverting eastern rivers in the future.

Sheikh is the CEO of LEAD Pakistan

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