Diplomatic and military strategies, by definition, are not decided through public debates. So the controversy over abrogating Indus waters treaty with Pakistan seems more an attempt at sending threatening signals. But it will have multiple ramifications in any case, so it is worth deliberating about.
The 1960 Indus treaty has allocated rights of development on three eastern tributaries (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) to India, and we have exhausted that entitlement almost fully. The treaty gave Pakistan dominant right of development of the three western tributaries (Chenab, Jhelum and Indus). India have limitations about water use (quantity and manner) in case of these rivers, but has not yet exhausted the entitlement in this case.
The September 26, 2016, meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a number of decisions, including expediting projects on these western rivers, setting up inter-ministerial task force to achieve it, restarting work on Tulbul navigation project and also, according to reports, suspending the meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission indefinitely. Fifty-six years and 112 meetings after signing of the treaty, this is the first time when such a step has been taken.
If this is the beginning of an exercise to abrogate or suspend the Indus treaty, then we should remember that there is no exit clause. Under the Vienna Convention (1969) on such treaties, the option of walking away is almost non-existent.
In the meantime, there has been a lot of talk about stopping the water flow to Pakistan and that water and blood cannot flow together. Blood should not flow under any circumstances, but can we stop flow of water to Pakistan? We must remember that here we are talking about stopping flow of several massive rivers, each with millions of cubic metres of water (and so much more that flows with it) on daily basis on average, not turning off a tap or a pipeline. The infrastructure to either store or divert so much water needs a lot of studies, planning and years of work. Immediately, we can put up pumps to lift water from these rivers for use within Jammu and Kashmir, and maybe divert some to
the nearest eastern river. But that would be of
limited quantity. We have hydropower projects on both Chenab and Indus, but these have limited
On the question of building more projects on the western rivers, this involves structural interventions involving dams, deforestation, displacement, mining, building of roads, townships, tunnels, transmission lines, generation of millions cubic meters of muck, serious adverse impacts on landscape, rivers, biodiversity, climate and life and livelihoods of lakhs of people. All this in an area that suffers from multiple vulnerabilities such as earthquakes, erosion, landslides, avalanches, floods, including glacier lake outburst floods.
While climate change is already worsening these vulnerabilities, these major interventions will make it much worse. We have seen a trailer of the possible consequences in the Jammu and Kashmir flood disaster of September 2014. The Ravi Chopra Committee set up on the Supreme Court orders following the June 2013 Uttarakhand floods shows how operating and under-construction hydropower projects played a role in increasing the flood disaster in the state.
All this may sound like ranting of a weak heart. Far from it, one is reminded what Winston Churchill, known more for his hawkish views on war, said: “The day may dawn when fair play, love for one’s fellow men, respect for justice and freedom, will enable tormented generations to march forth serene and triumphant from the hideous epoch in which we have to dwell. Meanwhile, never flinch, never weary, never despair.”
There can be no two opinions that the terrorism originating from Pakistan soil needs to end. But using rivers, environment and people as tools in achieving this objective will be neither effective nor just.
Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People