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Old Wednesday, October 05, 2016
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Default Spilling over to the water front


Spilling over to the water front



The writer is an author, a public policy analyst and a former interior secretary. He teaches at LUMS.

The attack on the brigade headquarter in Uri in Indian-held Kashmir is still shrouded in mystery with there being reports that most casualties were on account of serious burns suffered by the victims. A petrol depot in the camp caught fire after grenade attacks, which engulfed nearby tents and their occupants. These tents were not fire-resistant that are normally provided to troops close to sensitive areas. Considering the ongoing raging conflict and clashes throughout the valley, there were intelligence tips about the possible targeting of military installations but it seemed that the Indian forces at Uri were not prepared for the eventuality.

India, in its desperation, is now mulling over the possibility of tinkering with the Indus Waters Treaty to hurt Pakistan decisively. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already chaired a meeting in this regard. The treaty, which has weathered the most difficult and trying phases of our history for the past five decades, underlines the mode of distribution of river waters between India and Pakistan. If there is indeed a move afoot to tamper with the treaty, it is going to add a further twist to the already beleaguered situation between the two nuclear powers. South Asia is a decidedly water-scarce region. In view of the grim climatic changes and the glacial melt in the Himalayan region, the source point of all these rivers is already sending some alarming signals. The six key rivers emanate from the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir and after traversing through the Indus Valley in Pakistan, empty into the Arabian Sea.

The Indus Waters Treaty, brokered by the World Bank, was in fact based on the historical use of the river waters falling within areas now forming the two countries. According to the stipulations of the treaty, the three western rivers, Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, with the use of their waters, were earmarked for Pakistan while the eastern rivers, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, were earmarked for India. The two countries could, however, use run of the river water for non-consumptive use, other than for irrigating agricultural lands. 
The treaty has steered through the worst standoffs between the two countries, giving it a binding effect for all practical purposes. Any knee-jerk reaction by India at this stage will certainly backfire in today’s interdependent and interconnected world. It will open a Pandora’s box and may well require termination of the agreement, which none of the parties can do unilaterally. Employing water as a coercive tool against Pakistan is not a new phenomenon. It is a price that Pakistan paid soon after its birth for its avowed stand on Jammu and Kashmir. India used this tool in 1948 when the flow of water from the Ferozepur headworks was stopped, choking the Sulemanki headworks and downstream flows towards the princely state of Bahawalpur. The ploy did not work and the two states, despite the Kashmir dispute, came to a lasting solution over river water distribution between the two countries. The Indus Waters Treaty was hammered out after years of negotiations. The World Bank, being the intermediary, provided assistance to Pakistan for the construction of dams and link canals to compensate for the loss of water from the eastern rivers. According to stipulations, India was forestalled to store water on the western rivers. It was further agreed that there would be exchange of hydrological data and information with regard to flow and utilisation of water between the two countries. A permanent commission was set up as a mechanism to facilitate and coordinate matters. The agreement also provided an iron cast three-tier mechanism for dispute resolution in the form of the commission, a neutral expert and finally the parties could refer any conflict to a court of arbitration. It is pertinent to note that matters pertaining to some structural works for electricity generation and reported diversions of the river Jhelum by India were referred to neutral experts for adjudication.

Any move by India to unilaterally tamper with the treaty is only going to highlight the enormity of the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir, since its early years, is based on the premise that apart from the social and cultural bonds with the state, river waters also flow to and fro between Pakistan and Jammu and Kashmir, highlighting the natural alignment between the two. 
India also runs the risk of being in a similar position in the eastern part of South Asia where it lies in the lower riparian and where there is no iron cast mechanism like the Indus Waters Treaty. The Brahamaputra river in the east is a lifeline for agriculture in the area, springing up from Tibet. There are already lurking tensions on account of construction of dams by China upstream. India’s economy has a great degree of reliance on the river which meets a substantial requirement for irrigating agricultural lands. China has recently constructed the huge Zangmu dam with six power-generating units. India now fears a diversion plan of the river by China to irrigate arid areas up in the north. China has denied any such plan, but there are still fears in the Indian mind in this regard. This could be viewed in the backdrop of the latest move in the shape of the formation of the Asia Pacific axis among the US, Japan and India to nail down China. There is no iron cast guarantee on future Chinese moves as China is not a signatory to any bilateral treaty or to the UN convention on water courses. Pakistan needs to align with China more closely on this count and take its ally into complete confidence should there be any danger to the Indus Waters Treaty.

The latest twist in the murky saga is the Indian posturing over isolating Pakistan internationally on a charge which is yet to be investigated properly, leave alone proved. This move to isolate Pakistan coincidentally is taking place at a time when Russian soldiers are on Pakistani soil, not as adversaries but as partners in a joint military exercise. This has happened much to India’s chagrin. Its persistent moves to dissuade the Russians did not cut much ice. At the same time, President Rouhani of Iran, at a meeting with the Pakistani prime minister, has publicly expressed his country’s desire to join the CPEC. In addition, the US in a carefully drafted statement, after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, had expressed deep concern over the Uri incident as well as over what was going on inside the valley, a reference to the ongoing unrest and shootouts on the streets of Jammu and Kashmir. It is clear that the world sees little incentive in isolating Pakistan. The narrative of popular resistance is regaining ground. This is indeed the real challenge for the Indian government and calls for serious engagement with all stakeholders while lowering the militarised profile of civilian areas. This will be a tall order for the present leadership that has shown aversion to engagement and feels more at home indulging in sabre-rattling.

Source: Spilling over to the water front

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