Time to Recast the Indus Water Treaty
Storage dams, not run of the river dams, will benefit both countries
The Indus Water Treaty was drawn in 1960 at Karachi with Pakistan, with the World Bank acting as the third-party guarantor. By giving Pakistan more than its due share of the waters of the six rivers, India hoped to secure lasting peace with that country.
In line with this approach, India gave Pakistan over 80 percent of the waters of the Indus and the five rivers of Punjab, keeping just over nineteen percent for itself. In addition, Pakistan got the waters of four Indian nullahs that join the river Ravi.
This was so, even though India is the upper riparian state with respect to all six rivers, and thus had first right over their waters.
In the Indus Water Treaty India got the waters of the three eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) while Pakistan those of the three western ones (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). Even if we overlook India’s rights as the upper riparian country, here the division, based on the Indus river basin area of the two countries, should have been 65 percent of waters to Pakistan and 35 percent to India. Be that as it may.
Since some of the canals, originating from headworks in India, watered fields in Pakistan, water in these was allowed to flow for the next ten years, by which time Pakistan was expected to create a new set of canals and so on. India also provided funds to Pakistan for the new set of canals to meet the requirement of water, once water from Indian canal headworks was stopped.
Apparently all this was a win-win situation for Pakistan. To take further and somewhat mistakenly, undue advantage, Pakistan was able to insert the devil in the details of the Indus Water Treaty, which it figured would work in its favour and against the interest of India.
Though the Treaty allocates the waters of the three western rivers for irrigating 1.3 million acres of Indian land (in Jammu and Kashmir) action to implement this has come under objection by Pakistan, resulting in the stalling of connected projects.
Thus, vast tracts of virgin lands in various valleys in the Ladakh region could not be irrigated.
A clause in the Treaty on the types of dams on the three western rivers (in J&K) stated that these could only be of the ‘run of the river’ configuration, which Pakistan figured would work in its favour. In fact, this clause has come to play a negative role for Pakistan. This restriction on the type of dams was perhaps due to the fear of India flooding Pakistan at some point, in the event of a conflict.
Even in the construction of various run of the river dams, such as Sallal, Uri, Dul Hasti, Baglihar, the Neelam river, etc, Pakistan along with the World Bank has been creating impediments resulting in inordinate delays in the completing of these dams. The Sallal Dam on the Chenab, near Ryasi, which was originally built as a storage dam, had to be converted to run of the river configuration, due to Pakistan’s and the World Bank’s insistence.
These run of the river dams have worked to the great disadvantage of both countries, more so Pakistan. For India, hydel power projects based on run of the river dams cannot fully exploit the flow of water, because the flow is much less in the dry season, resulting in fewer turbines operating during the dry period. So in economic terms such dams are not cost effective. Moreover, there is the problem of silting of these dams.
For Pakistan the disadvantages accruing from these dams is far greater. This is so because Pakistan just cannot store the excess water of these rivers during the rainy season and consequently it flows into the sea.
This flow of unutilised waters into the sea eventually leads to a shortage of water for Pakistan, where the availability of water during the dry season is totally inadequate. Consequently Pakistan is highly water stressed.
In addition to this, fertile contents and nutrients which waters from storage dams carry downstream are arrested in these run of the river dams.
On its part, India (in Punjab) has tried to meet the shortage of water from the three eastern rivers for irrigation, by recklessly sanctioning tubewells and providing free electricity for operating these. This has led farmers to cultivate paddy, resulting in the depletion of groundwater and its level going down to dangerous levels.
India has also failed to fully utilise the waters of the Ravi, due to an unacceptable delay in the construction of the Shahpur Kandi barrage, with the result that much of the waters of this river during the rainy season flow into Pakistan.
Moreover, sluice gates at various headworks on the three eastern rivers are overdue for repair, which results in water leaking through these and flowing downstream into Pakistan.
In the Ladakh region and at some locations in Himachal Pradesh, where the water current in various rivers and tributaries is very fast, it is possible to make channels and lower turbines into these waters to generate electricity (similar to Persian wheels, with suitably designed blades and working in reverse). Through such improvisations, electricity can be produced on a small scale for local use at a large number of remote places. A system to lift and lower turbines can be worked out depending on changes in water level in these rivers/ tributaries.
But if the clause pertaining to the type of hydel project dams were changed from run of the river dams to storage dams, it would be of great advantage to Pakistan, in three ways.
First, the wasteful flow of water into the sea during the rainy season would be drastically reduced, and the same would be evenly regulated throughout the year for irrigation.
Second, abundant electricity could be generated from hydel projects in J&K (based on storage dam configuration) and be made available to Pakistan at concessional rates.
Third, the nutrients carried by such waters would regenerate soil in Pakistan.
Even with storage dams, a certain amount of water during the rainy season will still flow into the sea, because Pakistan will not be able to use all of the waters of the three western rivers.
Therefore, it should accept some of the waters of the Chenab (or Chandra Bhaga, as it is known across the Rohtang Pass area) to be diverted into the Beas, and in lieu some water from the Ravi should be made available to Pakistan to irrigate fields in the Kartarpur Sahib and Lahore region.
Similarly, the height of the dam on the Neelam river, where its waters have been diverted to Wullar lake, can be suitably adjusted so that fields downstream, earlier watered by this river, continue to receive the required quantity of water.
It is time for the two countries to get over their lingering animosity and tread the path of free trade, friendship, and prosperity. India desires nothing more than a peaceful, prosperous, stable and friendly Pakistan. All this will eventually work to Pakistan’s great advantage.
It is an appropriate time and occasion to carry forward the spirit of opening the Kartarpur Sahib corridor, and the willingness on the part of these two countries and their leaders to turn a new leaf.
It is the right moment to redraw the contours of the Indus Water Treaty for the greater good of both countries.
(The views expressed here are of the writer.)