NEW DELHI: After a gap of almost two years owing to bilateral tensions stemming from the Uri attack, officials from India and Pakistan met today in Islamabad for a two-day Indus Water Commission meeting. The talks come as Pakistan raises concerns about three Indian hydro projects being built on the river and its tributaries, with Islamabad alleging that the projects were in violation of the Indus Water Treaty 1960.

The commission overlooks the implementation of the IWT and is expected to meet every year, with the last meeting taking place in May 2015. Meetings were suspended following the Uri attack, with India moving to ‘review’ the IWT in the aftermath of the attack.

As India and Pakistan resume meetings on the Indus Water Commission, the spotlight once again falls on the Indus river system, and the important role it has played in India Pakistan relations over the years. The IWT -- which governs the sharing of the river system -- has proved over the years to be a successful arbitration mechanism for trans-border water disputes, which are increasingly becoming a bone of contention between India and her neighbours.

The Indus river system originates in Tibet, flowing through India into Pakistan. The Indus system can be divided into three eastern rivers – the Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, and three western rivers – the Jhelum, Chenab, and Indus proper; this clear demarcation in the flow of the river facilitated the negotiation and acceptance of the Indus Water Treaty, which with minor exceptions, gives India exclusive use of the eastern rivers and Pakistan of the western rivers; thus, ‘the Indus dispute was resolved by the separation of the rivers rather than by a joint development of the river system.’

The first criteria for successful river water negotiation is the condition of a ‘non zero sum game’, where benefits that accrue to one riparian do not necessarily imply losses to the other – in other words, the creation of some sort of ‘win-win situations’. This has partly been achieved in the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, where India, in addition to having exclusive use of the eastern rivers has some limited use of Pakistan’s river water for agriculture, domestic purposes, and development projects, provided that there is no obstruction of flow of waters into Pakistan; Pakistan in turn, with these minor exceptions, gets exclusive use of the Western rivers which account for 80% of the total flow. This arrangement creates ‘win-win’ situations, as Pakistan, which is entitled to a majority of the river water, isn’t adversely affected by India’s limited use of the eastern rivers thereby resulting in a ‘non-zero sum game’. Previously, the two major instances where Pakistan has objected to Indian activity in alleged violation of the IWT are the Tulbul navigation project (Pakistan refers to it as the Wullar barrage), and the Baglihar hydropower project – Pakistan objected to both projects on grounds of affecting the flow of river water into its territory.

Game theory accounts for trade-offs between two political entities that extend beyond economic outcomes. The gains of one player can be assessed in non-economic terms as well, and the economic concessions made can be balanced by non-economic gains. This understanding is particularly relevant in explaining effective river-water negotiation, whereas the realist school would assert that the upper-riparian has nothing to gain with conflict forcing states into zero-sum competitive mindsets where cooperation and positive sum outcomes are seen as improbable. Why then has some river water negotiation been successful, if competition and anarchy routinely impede cooperation? The answer can perhaps be located in non-economic gains to the upper-riparian. For example, the primacy accorded to the India-Pakistan dispute and the need for relative stabilization in fear of exacerbating already precarious relations can partially explain the need for a conclusive treaty on the Indus.

Costs and benefits are not limited to economic attributes; they can be in the form of displacement, migration, resettlement, employment, and deforestation and hence linked to social concerns. It is imperative that these costs and benefits are included in the planning process. For instance, one of Nepal’s major contentions with bilateral negotiations with India on water use follows the Indo-Nepalese projects on the Kosi and Gandak, ‘which have left Nepal dissatisfied with what it perceives to be disproportionate benefits going to India. The costs of submergence, displacement, and rehabilitation, are in its estimation not compensated by the low employment and irrigation benefits for Nepal’; therefore, for sustainable negotiations and to avoid ill feeling and disillusionment, these costs need to be accounted for.

Absence of reciprocal interests, or ‘zero- sum’ games where the benefits of one player leads to the losses of the other are a major factor impeding river water negotiations; these are also most pronounced in upstream-downstream riparians as the actions of the former directly affect the latter. For instance, even though the IWT has been largely successful, conflict has arisen when the actions of one player (India) are seen to adversely affect the gains of the second (Pakistan) – specifically in regard to the Tulbul and Baglihar projects. Taking the specific case of Baglihar to elucidate this point further, Pakistan has objected to the height of the project, the creation of a reservoir, and the provision of a gated spillway – all of which it believes will affect the flow of water into Pakistan.

India is resilient in its stand that the proposed height is essential to produce the required output of electricity i.e. 900 megawatts, and that the project is not in any way violating the IWT; in the absence of a ‘non-zero sum’ game a Neutral Expert has been called upon under the arbitration clause of the IWT to review the issue – a fact that, in addition to the IWT being negotiated under the aegis of the World Bank in the first place, lends credence to Le Marquand’s assertion that third party intervention is particularly useful in resolving disputes between upper and lower riparians.

The key takeaway, therefore, is that the IWT has inbuilt mechanisms to deal with disputes regarding the sharing of the Indus river system, and is the main reason why the prospect of water wars have not impacted already fragile India-Pakistan relations. For the IWT to function, however, the Indus Water Commission needs to continue meeting regularly, with gaps as long as two years threatening to derail the entire process.