Narendra Modi lays groundwork for water war in battle with Pakistan

India’s plans to review the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty could change the equation with not only Pakistan but also with China


File photo. Saying “blood and water cannot flow together,” Modi has settled on water, which flows from India into Pakistan, as a powerful new instrument of foreign policy. Photo: PTI
File photo. Saying “blood and water cannot flow together,” Modi has settled on water, which flows from India into Pakistan, as a powerful new instrument of foreign policy. Photo: PTI

New Delhi: Himalayan rivers have become the new flash point in the bitter India-Pakistan conflict, providing the latest diplomatic weapon in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s push to isolate Islamabad.

With India still reeling from an attack in Kashmir that killed 19 soldiers, New Delhi is looking to dams and hydroelectric projects as diplomatic alternatives to military action in retaliation for what it views as Pakistan’s support for terrorists striking in India’s part of divided Kashmir. Saying “blood and water cannot flow together,” Modi has settled on water, which flows from India into Pakistan, as a powerful new instrument of foreign policy.

India’s plans to review the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty—an agreement that has survived three wars without modification—could change the equation with not only Pakistan but also with China, a powerful upstream neighbour that controls Tibet where the Indus, Sutlej and Brahmaputra rivers originate.

China and India have no water sharing treaty and India relies on China to share data on trans-border rivers under a pact signed in 2013. On 1 October, China said it had blocked flows of an upstream tributary of the Brahmaputra to complete work on a hydropower project, one among many planned. The Chinese foreign ministry didn’t respond to a fax seeking comment on the issue.

Officials in New Delhi, who have suspended an annual dialogue meeting with Islamabad, say they are reviewing the treaty and examining whether India can further dam and exploit the Indus and five other rivers that flow from India into Pakistan. New Delhi could renegotiate or even tear up the treaty, they say.

Devastating impact?

Any change to the water supply to Pakistan would have a devastating impact, Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst, said by phone from Lahore.

With close to three-quarters of the country’s 192 million population dependent on the Indus basin for their livelihoods and drinking water, the move would “undermine Pakistan’s agriculture, which is the backbone of the economy,” he said. Farm income contributes about 24% to gross domestic product (GDP) in Pakistan and more than 95% of Pakistan’s irrigated land is in the Indus river basin, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

Although analysts doubt India would do away with the 1960 agreement entirely, Modi’s administration is closely eyeing all diplomatic alternatives to an actual war between the nuclear-armed neighbours. Pakistan has said it will treat India’s abrogation of the treaty as “an act of war.”

“All options are being examined,” India’s water secretary Shashi Shekhar, the country’s top official in charge of water issues, told Bloomberg News in an interview. “What benefit will suspension give? What benefit will a review give? What benefit will abrogation give?”

For the last five decades, the widely-praised Indus Waters Treaty that governs the flow of six rivers has kept flare-ups at a minimum.

Military elite

But with tensions running high, Indian officials are insisting India is not fully exploiting the rivers under the treaty’s terms.

Vikram Sood, former chief of India’s foreign intelligence agency, said nothing worries Pakistan’s military elite more than the prospect of India using the flow of rivers into Punjab as leverage.

Reducing the water flow to Pakistan could create political instability or unrest in Punjab province, which is both a major agricultural producer and home to many of the top military officials who effectively run Pakistan, he said.

“Kashmir is not about Kashmir,” Sood said. “It’s certainly not about the Kashmiri people. It’s about water.”

“I don’t think we’ll abrogate it,” he said, but added that “even abiding by the treaty to the maximum will hurt them.”

Examining pact

A team at the ministry of external affairs is currently examining the treaty, said Shekhar, the water secretary. A spokesman said the foreign ministry had no comment.

Pakistan, however, is skeptical about the tough talk coming from Delhi. Modi’s government has tried to distinguish itself from the previous United Progressive Alliance government by taking bold action against Pakistan.

But one Pakistani government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said while the previous Congress government was quiet about the Indus Waters Treaty in public, it undermined it in private by building controversial dams along rivers such as the Chenab.

India certainly requires more water. More than 600 million Indians face water shortages as rivers and lakes dry up. Under the treaty, Pakistan utilizes 80% of the Indus basin’s six rivers, while India only uses 20%.

As India reviews the treaty, however, it is not clear how aggressive New Delhi can be on water as a foreign policy.

International arbitration

Any unilateral attempts by India to build new dams, for example, would likely end up before the World Bank, which arbitrates between the two sides on treaty disputes, said Professor Ashok Swain, director of the research school for international water cooperation at Sweden’s Uppsala University. If India abandons the treaty, on the other hand, New Delhi risks ceding the moral high ground, Swain added.

“At this point, India just cannot stop the water to Pakistan as it does not have the storage capability for it,” he said.

A spokesperson for the World Bank confirmed India and Pakistan had each initiated proceedings under the Treaty.

“We never used the Indus Water Treaty for leverage, even during the wars,” Sood said. “It’s never been discussed like it is being discussed now.” Bloomberg

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