The water factor

The water factor

By Amitabh Mattoo

Water is likely to be the most divisive issue between India and Pakistan in the future. Or water could, with imagination and political will, become the basis for enduring bilateral cooperation. Addressing a gathering at a mosque in the Chowburji area of Lahore in April, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the head of the Jamaat-ut-Dawa (and founder of the Lashkar-e-Taiba), claimed the next war between India and Pakistan could be fought over water if India did not stop “water terrorism” by building tunnels and dams to turn Pakistan into a desert. Saeed’s hysterical claims aside, at almost every official engagement with New Delhi in recent months, Pakistan has raised the issue of water, most recently in Thimphu at the Saarc summit.

The irony is that despite the many wars that India and Pakistan have fought over a variety of issues, water is the one area where the two countries had found accommodation through the Indus Water Treaty of 1960. The challenge for the two governments, therefore, is to now ensure that cooperation in this respect is not derailed. Rebuilding trust over the sharing of the Indus waters could even become the precursor for generating trust in other areas of conflict.

In fact, the “water wars rationale” forecasts war between countries “dependent upon a shared water resource if there is water scarcity, competitive use and the countries are enemies due to a wider conflict.” India and Pakistan were, by this logic, prime candidates to go to war. What, then, explains the successful negotiations that translated into the Indus Water Treaty of 1960? As academic Undala Z Alam argues, India and Pakistan cooperated because it was “water-rational.” “Cooperation was needed to safeguard the countries’ long-term access to shared water,” said Alam, who was given unique access to the World Bank’s archives.

What explains this new shrill campaign? Firstly, Pakistan is facing the most severe water crisis in its history. Secondly, in the new Pakistani discourse inspired by military thinking, India’s hypothetical plans to construct dams, despite their being within the ambit of the treaty, could potentially create the capability to choke water flow to Pakistan. Here, intentions are not a factor, but just the capability that India may possess in the future.

Thirdly, one episode over the filling of the Baglihar water reservoir by India and the alleged “delayed” release of water has been cited as an example of India’s mala fide intentions. There are also Pakistani concerns about the Kishanganga project.

In any case, none of these issues calls for hysteria, but constructive engagement and bilateral dialogue within the scope of the Permanent Commission or outside it.

What is also clear is that while the Indus Water Treaty is still a vital document, it may be important to think of ways of harnessing the waters of the Indus Basin jointly for more optimal use of the resources, given new technology, better practices, greater scarcity, and lessons learnt from the past. These could be included though an additional protocol to the treaty.

In fact, Article VII of the Treaty on “Future Cooperation” leaves open the possibility of newer avenues of cooperation without the need for the signatories to renegotiate or abandon the treaty. Water is a common, increasingly scarce resource which needs to be shared for the mutual benefit.

We have given the world an example in the form of the Indus Water Treaty. The time is ripe to build on this cooperation.

The writer is professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. This article first appeared in the Times of India.

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