On September 19, the Indus Water Treaty signed in 1960 at Karachi entered its 51st year, surviving hostility, conflicts, and wars between the two nuclear rival nations.
Some disputes not withstanding that historical fact alone sufficiently qualifies as a testimony of the IWT success as one of the most important water sharing arrangements of the modern world.
This article discusses the background of this accord and its implications for the ‘nuclear flash point’ of the world, where trade, peace, and security traverse a very complicated terrain.
The water management dispute over the river Indus, which originates from Jammu and Kashmir valley, dates from a few years before partition in the backdrop of the world’s largest irrigation system built by the British. For many years, the undivided Punjab and Sindh disagreed over water rights.
In fact, partition of India only helped to internationalise a previously inter-dominion dispute. Just days before independence, the two countries had reached an interim understanding over joint administration of the water.
This ‘Standstill Agreement’ was breached by India on April 1, 1948 when India discontinued the delivery of water to the Dipalpur Canal and the main branches of the Upper Bari Daab Canal on the pretext of expiration of the old agreement.
It should not be considered a coincidence that Pakistan and India engaged into their first war only a few months later that resulted in the creation of ‘Azad Kashmir’ though water was not a declared source of war as such. Pakistan had always viewed Kashmir as its ‘jugular vein’ and hence its desire to control the flow of water through this valley always led to an environment of mistrust across borders.
In 1951, on the invitation of the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an American expert, David Lilienthal, visited India to offer its government an advice over the use of water courses. He also visited Pakistan during that visit and then published a famous paper that would foreshadow the creation of the Indus Water Treaty a decade later.
Lilienthal observed that both countries were on the brink of another war over Kashmir and suggested that the rivals should agree to manage jointly the Indus River and its main tributaries, some of which flowed through the contested region. Water, he claimed, was a hidden driver of South Asia’s most dangerous territorial dispute and might also be the key to resolving it.
Both the countries, aided by the World Bank, undertook about ten years of protracted negotiations to reach a consensus under which India were to control the flow the all the three Eastern rivers flowing out of the Indus – Ravi, Beas and Sutlaj – while Pakistan was given the control over the water of Indus itself, Jehlum and Chenab.
The World Bank provided technical and financial assistance to Pakistan to manage water by building dams later.
Water flowing out of the Himalayas is a lifeline for both, Pakistan and India. Approximately 80 per cent of Pakistan’s agricultural land depends on the Indus river system while the remaining is rain-fed. On the other hand, 30 per cent of India’s hydro-electricity is currently generated in Kashmir, which will increase to 60 per cent when India completes seven of its 11 projects located in the region. It is little surprise that India maintains 750,000 strong troops in the valley.
India has never repudiated the IWT despite having fought three wars with Pakistan, undergoing several military standoffs and serious diplomatic rows, and keeping generally hostile armies on both sides. Over the last half century, except the dispute over Baglihar dam, Pakistan never filed a complaint at any international forum, including the World Bank, which brokered the Treaty.
Thus we can conclude that the treaty’s success in water resource sharing has directly contributed to the prosperity of millions of households who depend directly on agriculture and helped to maintain sufficient level of food security in both countries.
This history of mutual trust between two otherwise very hostile nations is a silver lining. Peace, mutual respect, and cooperation can rise above ideological boundaries. If India and Pakistan can demonstrate maturity and responsibility over water management despite all other problems, they may well embrace more openness and tolerance towards each other opening the trade corridor, people-to-people interaction, and educational exchanges.
September reminds us of the Indo-Pakistan war started in, that was due to Kashmir. Let this memory be replaced with celebration of the successful Indus Water Treaty, also signed in September, which continues to symbolise peace, security and prosperity in one of the poorest regions of the world.
The author is country director of Center for International Private Enterprise.