September 25, 2016
India has decided to indefinitely suspend the regular meetings of the Indus Water Commissioners of India and Pakistan held under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) between the two countries. Coming in the wake of the terrorist attack at Uri, near the Line of Control that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the decision was taken today at a meeting chaired by the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi. Indian investigators have accused Pakistan of sneaking in the terrorists, a charge that the Pakistan government has denied.
At the meeting held in the prime minister’s official residence, it was also decided that India would consider building dams on the Jhelum river, which flows through the Kashmir Valley before entering Pakistan. Under the 1960 IWT, three rivers of the Indus basin – Indus, Jhelum and Chenab – are allocated to Pakistan, though India is allowed “non-consumptive” use of the waters of these rivers, including a certain amount of storage. The three eastern rivers of the basin – Beas, Ravi and Sutlej – are allocated to India.
An inter-ministerial task force will be set up to look into the “details” and “workings” of the treaty, and members of the task force will be asked with a “sense of urgency”, according to officials who briefed the media after the meeting.
One of the projects to be reviewed by this task force is the Tulbul navigation project, planned in 1987 but suspended unilaterally by India in 2007 following a protest by Pakistan.
India has not built any storage dam on any of the three rivers so far. Pakistan has objected to India building run-of-the-river projects on the Jhelum (the Kishanganga project) and the Chenab (the Baglihar project) on the grounds that it gives India – the upper riparian country – the ability to reduce water supply to Pakistan if it wants to. It has taken India to the international court of arbitrators each time. The arbitrators have not stopped any of the projects, though they have made some changes in design. Any storage dam planned on the Jhelum is almost certain to see a repeat.
But such a project may get strong support across the political spectrum in Jammu & Kashmir, a state whose legislative assembly has thrice passed unanimous resolutions against the IWT on the grounds that it takes away the state’s right to “develop” its water resources.
Monday’s meeting followed strong demands from a section of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party that the government abrogate the IWT in the wake of the Uri attack in which 18 soldiers were killed. Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the prime minister; Ajit Doval, national security adviser; S. Jaishankar, foreign secretary; and Shashi Shekhar, water resources secretary were among officials who briefed the prime minister and some of his cabinet colleagues about the IWT. After the meeting, officials said there would be no abrogation of the treaty itself.
However, the mood at the meeting was angry, and prime minister Modi set the tone by saying, “Blood and water cannot flow together.”
Under the IWT, the Indus Water Commissioners have been meeting to sort out any issues that may have arisen. They have held 112 meetings in the last 56 years. Asked how long the suspension would continue, an official said, “Till Pakistan stops exporting terror to India.”
The IWT has been a symbol of India-Pakistan cooperation because India has never reneged on its commitment to provide 43 million acre feet (MAF) to Pakistan every day, even when the two countries were at war. Pakistani bureaucrats have consistently acknowledged this, though a section of the media in Pakistan has just as consistently accused India of “stealing Pakistan’s water”.
The 1.12 million square kilometre Indus basin is shared by Afghanistan and China as well, though much of the area lies in India and Pakistan. Pakistan is almost totally dependent on the waters of the rivers that run through the basin for its agricultural, domestic and industrial needs. It is a country under severe water stress, especially from February to June each year. Much of the water is held back for irrigation in the Punjab province of Pakistan, and there are regular complaints from the Sindh province downstream. It is common for a section of the Pakistani authorities to unofficially tell journalists that India should be blamed for this situation.
After Monday’s meeting, Indian officials said the country had been “very generous” to Pakistan as a “goodwill” gesture, but now a “tough situation” had arisen and it was the “appropriate time” to review the treaty. The plan is for India to “exercise its legal rights under the treaty to the maximum capacity.”
From the purely engineering point of view, stopping the water flow of the three western rivers by building dams across them would drown most of Jammu and Kashmir, and large parts of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. While no such plan is under consideration, three hydroelectric projects being planned upstream on the Chenab in Himachal Pradesh – Pakal Dul, Sawalkot and Bursar – would also be sped up now, officials said.
Overall, India is now planning to use as much water from the three western rivers as it is allowed under the treaty. It is allowed to irrigate 1.332 million acres for irrigation; it irrigates around 800,000. So now a plan will be made to irrigate the rest.
More hydroelectric projects may also be in the offing. The India stretch of the Indus basin has been estimated by some engineers to have a hydroelectricity potential of 18,600 MW. India is now generating 3,034 MW from hydroelectric projects in the basin, projects under construction have a capacity of 2,526 MW and the government was considering approvals for 5,846 MW more.
Of the six rivers in the Indus basin, two – Indus and Sutlej – have their origins in Tibet. The Chinese government is building a dam on the Indus. Asked how Beijing may react to the steps taken by New Delhi, officials merely pointed out that China was not a signatory to the IWT. But some earlier reports in the Indian media had said Chinese officials had been quietly telling their Indian counterparts that any attack on the IWT would have consequences for India as well. China is now building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to reach the Gwadar port and give itself direct access to the Arabian Sea.
Expectedly, the effect of climate change does not find any mention in the 1960 IWT. It was not discussed at Monday’s meeting either, officials said. However, climate change is already making water flows is all the rivers of the basin more erratic, and may at some stage compromise India’s ability to provide Pakistan with 43 MAF of water a day. The treaty will then be in jeopardy anyway.