Troubled Waters

Spearhead Analysis – 14.10.2016

By Xenia Rasul Khan Mahsud
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

indus-water-treatyMuch has happened since the Uri assault, and it seems that Modi is under a great deal of pressure to do as he promised in his election campaign – ten Pakistani heads for the death of one Indian soldier. His Hindu nationalist voter-constituency, the hate fuelled media machinery, along with the organization backing him – the rightist RSS, need results, and it is this atmosphere of urgency and resentment that is driving India’s policy towards Pakistan. The media’s role is crucial in this campaign of hatred– where sensationalized news reporting, resting on a hunger of ratings, and devoid of facts, is steering nationalist sentiment, and hence policy, towards a destructive end.

With relations between India and Pakistan hitting rock bottom, it seems that the forces partaking in the plunge are inimical to a change in the status quo – the incessant saber rattling stemming from both countries stands as testimony of that. New Delhi’s recent decision to ‘reconfigure’ the only bridge the two arch foes managed to cross – the Indus Water Treaty – after years of efforts, is one of the many daggers the Modi government has drawn, only bound to lead to a pyrrhic victory and nothing more. However, in a time where both countries are functioning on a nationalist overdrive, it is important to separate fiction from reality; Is India really waging a water war on Pakistan?

The Nexus

Incidents of hostility, and persistent warmongering by leaders, have been the reality of Indo-Pak relations since partition – leading many to take threats from either end for granted. What makes this different from the usual cross-border violations, aggressive speeches, and covert tactics of destabilization, are the repercussions the reconfiguration of the treaty could hold for Pakistan’s future in terms of security. Security, in this case, is not taken in the traditional meaning of the word where national boundaries, and expanding military resources, takes center stage. Security is seen through the lens of food, energy, and water security – and the interaction between these components in the face of a growing population, and a lack of resources to satiate it.

There exists a link between these three components, where shortages in one area could have an impact on the production of the other, and send forces of demand and supply on a downfall along with the economy. The link is more pronounced where water is used to distill saline water and to circulate it through urban piped networks, to generate energy in hydropower plants and for cooling purposes in nuclear and thermal power plants, and where food production relies on the use of energy to pump groundwater for irrigation. The relationship between water and energy also becomes more complex in a country that relies on the primary economy of agriculture, but is devoid of water management systems and deals with water contamination and wastage – with little to no government policy to address the issue.

The three western rivers, especially the Indus, contribute to the security nexus of Pakistan. In certain parts of the country, the Indus is the sole source of water supply for human consumption and irrigation purposes. If India were to move towards an annulment of the treaty, the outcome would be graver than the result of a conventional war. With Pakistan’s economy being as water-intensive as it is, with critically low levels of water to work with, the humanitarian devastation in what is known to be among the world’s most water-starved countries could be colossal.

So what is holding India back?

A double-edged sword

The Indus Water Treaty allocates only 20 percent of the entire Indus Water Basin’s water flows to India, and bars it from building hydro-projects in Kashmir. India is home to around 20 percent of the world’s population, and possesses only 4 percent of its water – leading to a severe imbalance in the demand and supply of resources. Droughts have hit the country, with a huge section of the farmer community committing suicide in response to the agrarian crisis. With India’s population on the rise, and the nation undergoing serious water stress, the leadership realizes that it has gotten the short end of the stick.

India’s case for revisiting the treaty is made stronger by the realities the country faces in terms of its own water crisis, however, revoking it unilaterally would only send it on a foreign policy suicide mission – putting India-Pakistan on a brink of war. While India has yet to decide what it wants to do with its new policy of “blood can’t flow with water”, it is important to understand that putting too much pressure on Pakistan, or devising knee-jerk policies to try to isolate its neighbor will only act as a double-edged sword damaging for India itself. Revoking the IWT unilaterally would not only be against international law, but would also backtrack India’s progress in terms of establishing itself as a diplomatic country resting on a moral high ground.

Waging a water war, and as a result a humanitarian crisis, would warrant international condemnation in the global arena; international legal action could become a possibility, where the World Bank would be more inclined towards Pakistan’s position, considering that the accord was mediated by it. It is also interesting to note that cutting off water supplies from Pakistan would not only reduce river flows to its neighbor, but would redirect large volumes of water in northern India with no water management or storage system – leading to heavy flooding in Punjab and major cities in Kashmir.

With China firmly standing by Pakistan, India’s unilateral annulment of the treaty, or putting undue pressure on its neighbor, could lead to possible action by China as a symbolic response of its allegiance. Taking a page out of India’s book, in the absence of a water management accord between the two countries, China could block tributaries of the Brahmaputra River – a step it recently took as part of the construction of its hydro project. This could be disastrous for the agricultural economy of the northeastern Indian state of Assam. Moreover, Beijing could also block the Indus River – originating from Tibet – and beat India at its own game.

India’s exit from the treaty would also further fuel anti-India sentiments, and would only reaffirm narratives accusing India of water theft. Anti-India groups would gain currency in such an environment, where nationalist sentiment could possibly intertwine with extremist reaction, leading to a synthesis of violent struggles and distasteful politics. Amid the current war hysteria, unwarranted pressure following the reassessment of the treaty, would only be seen by Pakistan as a provocation, and would instill a sense of paranoia awaiting India adopting a policy of cutting off water flows. This would only send both countries on a downward spiral of diplomacy, undoing past efforts made by leaders to defuse tensions.

Building Bridges

With the burgeoning population world over, and consequent depletion of resources, many are of the opinion that future wars will be fought over waters. Whether or not India’s decision to revisit the IWT is warranted or not is another matter, but its timings couldn’t be worse. With biannual talks – as required by the treaty – to discuss water distribution between the two countries suspended following the Uri attack, dialogue has come to a standstill. New Delhi’s decision to resume construction on the Wullar Barrage in Pakistan and Tulbul Project in India, stopped in 1987 when Pakistan objected, has only revealed Indian intentions of sticking to the treaty but doing so on its own terms. For Pakistan, however, it is vital to stick to a stance that channels maturity, and is open to diplomacy – a stance that needs to be made public in international fora. The international community too needs to step in and play a part in salvaging what’s left of India Pakistan relations, and addressing India’s decision to use water as a foreign policy tool.

Resource wars might well be the future, but as of now, water could possibly become a source of cooperation between the two countries – as it has in the past, withstanding wars and hostilities. However, with the story peeling away new layers of dirty politics and controversies, only time will tell what lies at the core.