Tackling old fears in Pakistan

The 50-year-old treaty governing water-sharing in the Indus basin has failed to fix the culture of recrimination. It’s time for broader collaboration, says Maaz Gardezi, from Pakistan.

Editor’s note: this article is published in tandem with "Wanted: bridges over troubled waters by Indian journalist Joydeep Gupta as part of third pole efforts to boost cross-boundary dialogue on water-sharing challenges in south Asia.

A typical Pakistani newspaper article on the Indus Waters Treaty begins by explaining the essential elements of the 1960 agreement with India – allocation of western rivers to Pakistan and the eastern rivers to India, restrictions on building water storage infrastructure, and the underlying dispute resolution mechanism – before citing a few examples of finger-pointing across the border, and concluding in the classically paranoid tones of a lower riparian.

Cases such as the Baglihar Dam, the Kishenganga Dam and the Wullar Barrage, where Pakistan claims violations of the Indus treaty terms, are brought up time and time again, and their outcomes are monotonous: the two nations are unable to reach an agreement, and the case is taken to a neutral expert for mediation, or to the International Court of Arbitration. Although these issues may be important for Pakistan’s sustainability, it seems the resulting discourse has left little, if any, space for cooperation.

The Indus Basin was developed by the British to function as a single system; but the enormous water works built to control and to use the river’s water for certain limited ends, has since been split in two. The boundary that now separates Pakistan and India – the Radcliffe Line – was crudely drawn up in 1947 to divide an area shared by competing nation states.  It was not chosen with the impacts it would have on the river basin in mind.

For 13 years after the division, the two countries maintained the system. This was a period of inefficient water management, continued hostilities and a wider anticipation of a final settlement. The Radcliffe Line, that not only divided the land but also the water of Punjab, received condemnation from both countries. Finally, in 1960, the two nations signed a water treaty under the auspices of the World Bank.

Some might argue that the Indus Waters Treaty has performed very well for the past 50 years. After all, it has survived three wars. But there is an underlying reason why this treaty has been so popular on both sides: it promotes a passive aggressive stance between the two nations, which is precisely what the establishment requires to maintain its status quo. It creates fear among the Pakistani population, based on the idea that India is “stealing our water”. The rhetoric becomes uncontrollable when it gets into the hands of non-state actors, right-wing religious hard-liners whose purpose is to depict an India driven by cruel intentions.

When it comes to managing trans-boundary waters, change is the only constant. Change management requires a shift in the paradigm: the way we understand the river basin, its people and their livelihoods. Water is a finite, freely flowing resource that should not be divided by geopolitical boundaries. Environmental and ecological concerns are extremely important. A regional approach is required to maintain the prosperity and dominance of the mighty Indus.

Article seven of the Indus Waters Treaty mentions “future cooperation”, which points to future efforts to jointly optimise the potential of the Indus River system. But very little attention has been paid to cooperative projects: the joint observation of discharge which enables correct measurement of water entering into Pakistan along with the environmental flows and earthquake risks; and the potential of joint engineering works to augment storage, produce power and better moderate floods.

Certainly, a trust deficit exists between the two countries. Experts suggest that advance information to the lower riparian – Pakistan – about planned interventions such as dams and barrages, and when reservoirs will be filled, can bridge these issues. However, this seems hopelessly unlikely given cases such as Wullar Barrage, a stalemate case, which has been in its negotiation stage for 26 years.

We cannot depend on a few state-actors to determine the fate of relations between the two countries, and instead should work towards a more informal diplomacy that involves non-officials in transboundary water management. By bringing together state and non-state actors, such diplomacy also provides a way for poor and marginalised communities to voice their concerns, which should be reflected in national and sub-national decisions on water management projects in the region.

One area where collaborative work should be urgently undertaken is on ground-water aquifers, especially near the border areas of Pakistan and India. The Indus Waters Treaty only considers sharing of surface water discharge from the rivers and overlooks groundwater abstraction. A study conducted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), using analysis from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, found that the aquifers of Pakistan will be affected by the disproportionate abstraction of groundwater in India. It concludes that “the issue of transboundary groundwater with India has to be addressed and an addendum has to be negotiated between basin states for inclusion in the Indus Waters Treaty.”

The 1994 Jordan-Israel Treaty can help us learn manageable ways of dealing with both ground and surface transboundary water. Moreover, there are global laws governing transboundary aquifers, such as Article 42 of International Water Law. Any effective water-sharing agreement must be extended to include groundwater.

First it was the territorial dispute over Kashmir, now it is water: tension in this part of the world is nothing new. The difference between these conflicts is that the latter is an existential issue. Pakistan has survived without Kashmir for 60 years; it will not survive without water for even 60 days. Bringing water to the forefront of Indo-Pakistani relations could have a devastating effect on regional security and prosperity.

It is pertinent to Pakistan’s growth that we form our water policy based on a holistic approach. We need to work closely with our neighbours in order to share this resource, rather than divide it. I find it necessary to cite the views of Indian water policy expert Ramaswamy Iyer, who has called for a new approach to national water policy: “The best way of avoiding conflicts is for the upper riparian (India) to adopt a cautious and minimalist approach to such interventions; undertake them where absolutely necessary with due regard to the interests of the lower riparians (Pakistan); provide advance information to the latter about plans for intervention; consult them at all stages on possible impacts; and take care to avoid significant harm or injury to them.”

Other Indian policymakers are also becoming more sensitive to the anxieties of Pakistan. In order to improve water cooperation, concerns of the downstream country need to be addressed through initiatives that build trust and share knowledge across borders.

Maaz Gardezi is a research associate at Lahore University of Management Sciences’ Development Policy Research Centre.

Homepage image by United Nations Development Programme

Read "Wanted: bridges over troubled waters", by Joydeep Gupta, here