A water war out of thin air

A water war out of thin air

It is often difficult to make sense of words uttered in anger. And Pakistan is an angry country. It has now whipped up another dispute with India out of thin air. It has alleged that India is “stealing" its river waters. It has alleged that New Delhi is violating the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 that governs the use of river waters by the two countries.

Pakistan’s allegations, at the moment, centre on the Nimmo-Bazgo and Chutak hydroelectric power projects over the Indus river in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The allegation is that by going ahead with these projects, India is trying to divert river waters that rightly belong to Pakistan.

A meeting earlier this week between the Indus water commissioners of the two countries to discuss the “dispute" in Lahore remained inconclusive. It had to, for keeping matters inconclusive is Pakistan’s aim.

The facts are simple. By the 1960 treaty, Pakistan is allowed unfettered use of Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers. India cannot store any water from these rivers or stop them from flowing to Pakistan. India can construct hydroelectric power projects over these rivers, but has to allow a free flow of water. It can go in for “pondage", i.e., water being held behind a dam for a short time (say, as it flows into turbines to generate electricity) but even this is limited. This is very different from storing this water, say, for major irrigation projects. In addition, India must share designs of these projects, water flow data and a host of other information with Islamabad.

Since 1960, India has executed the terms of the treaty in letter and spirit. But now, out of nowhere, the civilian government in Islamabad has created a new issue. Its effort is to ensure that these projects never take off. Pakistan has a good track record of derailing such projects in the past. The Wullar Barrage project (in J&K) has been stalled for two decades now. The Baglihar project (again in J&K) could proceed only because the government of India showed the will to move ahead.

Islamabad’s complaint is a red herring, a device used to mobilize public opinion against India to deflect attention from serious inequities in water sharing between different provinces of Pakistan. It’s an old trick to keep India on the defensive. There is no reason to be defensive. A blunt response will serve our interests well.

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