India Can Abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty, But At What Cost?
NEW DELHI: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with top officials on Monday on the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) has sparked a debate on whether India can risk leveraging the treaty in order to put pressure on Pakistan. The meeting comes as tensions between India and Pakistan are at an all time high following an attack on a military base in Uri that killed 18 soldiers, and is indication that India may be exploring options other than military reprisal against Pakistan.
This is not the first time since the treaty was brokered in 1960 that India has moved to review it at such a high level with the background build up providing suggestion of ‘abrogation’. The issue has been raised earlier by successive governments, and more so after the Mumbai terror attack when the government had another look at the IWT albeit without the current level of noise and the clang of drums.
There were two views then that remain. For instance former BJP Minister Yashwant Sinha, leading the charge now is categorical that the government has no option but to abrogate the Treaty, and show Pakistan that it India will not tolerate cross border terrorism.
Former Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar speaks for the counter view that has prevailed for the past five plus decades with, “do they (those advocating abrogation) really want Modi to be compared with Kim Jong-un, who, according to a newspaper with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party, once stripped naked his powerful uncle who fell out of favour, threw him into a cage to be eaten alive by a pack of ravenous dogs? Make no mistake, depriving water deliberately to a nation of 190 million people is a repugnant idea. It sucks. The world community won't forgive us.”
A move to abrogate the Treaty that is recognised by the world has highly successful, has several implications in terms of water justice, international relations and India’s own standing in the region.
For one, the Indus river system originates in Tibet, flowing through India into Pakistan. Therefore, any assessment of the treaty is bound to bring in China that is not a formal signatory, but clearly a stakeholder in the sharing of these waters. Additionally, China also controls the river Brahmaputra, which then flows through India into Bangladesh.
Any move to irk China on one river system invariably jeopardises the second. India and China have not signed any water sharing agreement, and China holds the ability to divert the Indus. In the event that it does so, India will lose as much as 36 percent of the river’s water. Further, China also has the option of stopping the flow of Brahmaputra river water into India, as the river starts as the Yarlung Zangbo in China and flows down into the Bay of Bengal. China is, in fact, in the process of building 11 mega dams on the river.
Two, most significantly, the IWT was brokered by the United States through the World Bank, and there will be international pressure -- particularly by the US, to abide by it. This is more so because the IWT has paved the way for successful negotiations between India and Pakistan on the issue of water sharing and management. It is a Treaty that has survived two major wars between India and Pakistan, and is showcased by the world as an example of successful sharing of waters despite the hostility between the two nations. The US is not expected to support any effort to abrogate the Treaty and thereby open a new, and extremely potent front for escalating tensions between India and Pakistan.
Three, a move to abrogate the Treaty will damage India’s reputation in the region, and convince the smaller South Asian countries that New Delhi will not live up to its word. Sri Lanka will wonder about India’s commitment to the Kachativu Agreement, while Bangladesh will look for further reassurance about the land boundary agreements as well.
Four, as India is the upper-riparian, it controls river flow as key flood control points lie in its boundaries. For any successful river water treaty, the upper riparian has to make concessions as diverting river water flow can jeopardise the development and irrigation needs of the lower riparian. China, for instance, is the uppermost riparian -- and India’s resistance in bringing in China into any treaty is linked to its own insecurities in giving China a formal uppermost riparian status.
In fact, India’s inability to reach a similar treaty with Bangladesh is directly linked to its resistance to involve an upper-most riparian. Bangladesh has advocated the creation of twelve dams in Nepal that would raise the dry season flow of the Ganges from 55,000 cusecs to 180,000 cusecs, a proposal rejected by India, which in turn had suggested the construction of a barrage across the Brahmaputra, a long link canal across Bangladesh, and the construction of three dams in Arunachal Pradesh.
The Bangladesh plan is unacceptable to India for reasons including the involvement of Nepal – as it may extend this involvement to other upper riparians including China, and that Nepal might make its involvement conditional to negotiations on other issues; Bangladesh opposed the Indian plan as it would result in the loss of 20,000 acres of land, and that the Brahmaputra itself was in need of augmentation in the dry season. Therefore, the absence of any conclusive ‘win-win’ situation has hampered negotiations between India and Bangladesh.
On the other hand, the sharing of the Indus River has been made possible by taking into account India’s upper riparian status and giving it only limited use of the waters. 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’.
Under the IWT, 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’. 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.
(Caption: China maps out source and course of Brahmaputra, Indus rivers)