The Indus Waters Treaty conundrum

The Indus Waters Treaty conundrum

By Khalid Hussain

The recent statements of Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioner Jamat Ali Shah about the future of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) 1960 have landed Pakistani water experts in a conundrum.

“I think the World Bank treaty is likely to be jeopardised,” Shah, who led the Pak delegation in meetings with his Indian counterparts in Lahore, told the press earlier. “We will now have to look beyond the Treaty for solutions. India is allowed run-off hydro-electric projects according to the treaty, but two or three is different from more than a hundred.”

Most experts warn against abandoning the IWT, that turns 50-year-old on Thursday, despite the intricate and difficult problems it poses. “The IWT is a wonderful instrument. However, our present managers simply don’t have the capacity for the state-of-the-art knowledge required to safeguard our rights,” says Arshad H Abbassi, Research Fellow with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad. “We should never go for re-negotiations on the IWT or we will be done for.”

There is “no exit clause in the treaty” as Dr. Shahid Ahmad, member Natural Resources with the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) and an eminent water resources management expert, notes. However, there is provision for an Addendum to the existing Treaty – “IWT-II” as some term it.

Dr Ahmad advocates holding further talks to “address issues the existing instrument does not cover adequately.” These include guarantees for minimum flow from hydro-electric projects in the Indian territories, timely provision of discharge data and other Indian obligations under the Treaty.

The IWT is silent on water quality and other environmental issues like watershed management and on the unconfined aquifers in the Indus Basin. It provides no remedy for the over-exploitation of these shared aquifers in Indian Punjab.

Water tables are falling by a whopping three feet annually, says Dr Ahmad, citing a recent NASA study. “This affects us, being downstream. Both India and Pakistan must find a way to agree upon safe yields for this resource as we also depend heavily on groundwater for our agriculture. Let no one forget that India may put up power projects but the water rights still belong to Pakistan.”

The IWT-II idea is not new, notes development expert Syed Ayub Qutub. “Many Indian experts have been calling for this for at least two decades. India took waters from the eastern rivers to the desert in Rajasthan via the Indira Gandhi Canal.

“They now have severe water-logging and salinity problems. So they would like to discharge their effluent in the rivers Sutlej and Ravi to send to Pakistan.”

The IWT does not allow this. The Indian protaganists for IWT-II also have support from those in Kashmir who want greater irrigation rights from western rivers, he says.

Syed Qutub does not rule out further negotiations since the “IWT is not time-bound”. Pakistan, he notes, gave up all its rights under the international instruments governing sharing of international waters, besides denying environmental flows in the eastern rivers.

Although, Pakistan could do better in fresh negotiations, he warns that in the composition of the teams “the balance of knowledge will decide”.

Former chairman Water and Power Development Authority and a celebrated water resources expert Shamsul Mulk strongly opposes abandoning the IWT despite its unpopularity.

“We have lost three rivers but there are certain positive and negative things, and certain things that need to be improved as far as possible. Our position is to address the implementation of shortcomings and improve dispute resolution.”

“The treaty has to be interpreted sincerely,” he adds. “The important thing about water treaties is the conduct of the upper riparian, which determines the success and failure of a treaty. “I hope in the coming years when both Pakistan and India are faced with greater pressures, India’s conduct will not negate the spirit of understanding reached in September 1960.”

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