‘The Indus Commission hasn’t played an effective role’

Published March 21, 2015
Shafqat Kakakhel.—White Star
Shafqat Kakakhel.—White Star

KARACHI: The Indus Waters Treaty signed between India and Pakistan in 1960 did not envisage disputes and concerns arising in subsequent years. These include climate changes and groundwater management that were not mentioned when the treaty was being formulated. These thoughts were articulated by former deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme Shafqat Kakakhel and former managing director of Wapda Khalid Mohtadullah. They were delivering a talk on ‘The Indus Waters Treaty 1960: Issues and Concerns’ at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs on Friday.

Before delving into the effectiveness of the treaty and challenges in its implementation, Mr Kakakhel, gave a comprehensive background of the treaty to which Mr Mohtadullah added his valuable input.

The treaty, consisting of around eight pages, had four main features, said Mr Kakakhel. “The first pertains to the division of the Indus and its five major tributaries. All the waters of the three eastern rivers — the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi — shall be available to India and Pakistan shall receive for unrestricted use all those waters of the western rivers (the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) which India is under obligation to let flow.” He emphasised that this was not a water-sharing agreement but a water-division agreement.

The second feature, he said, was about arrangements for compensation to Pakistan for the loss of eastern rivers.

Financing was to be arranged for the building of the “replacement works” i.e. Tarbela Dam on the Indus and Mangla on the Jhelum and eight link canals which were needed to store and transport water from the western rivers to the areas which had up till now been irrigated from the eastern rivers assigned to India under the treaty. “The financing arrangements were a decisive factor in the success of the negotiations. Pakistan would not have agreed to the treaty of the three eastern rivers in the absence of funds for the construction of the dams and link canals,” he said.

Other features, he explained, pertained to the establishing of an Indus Commission, led by renowned engineers, appointed by each country and the mechanism for resolving issues and disputes which were to be resolved by the commission and if they were of a technical nature then it could be referred to a neutral expert. “And if the neutral expert is unable to resolve the matter then both parties can take it to the court of arbitration,”he added.

Discussing the subject in hand, he highlighted some of the key concerns and issues of the treaty. “The Indus Commission hasn’t played an effective role as envisaged in the treaty. All disputes have been settled by the courts of arbitration which has been highly expensive for us,” said Mr Kakakhel.

Also, there were problems with the competence of those heading the commission and its staff, he said. “There is a need to strengthen the capacity of the commission,” he added.

Omissions in the treaty

When the treaty was being drafted, there were issues that were not understood and hence were not included in it. For instance, Mr Kakakhel said, it was silent on proper management of groundwater. Then it is also quiet on the issue of the quality of water being affected by pollution due to toxic industrial waste. “It does not provide for watershed management in respect of rivers whose catchment areas are located across the border. Even though the treaty permits India to use the waters of the western rivers for irrigation and hydropower projects, it does not call for an examination of the cumulative effects of a cascade of such projects.”

Mr Mohtadullah later addressed the issue of groundwater in his lecture. “Pakistan’s agriculture is dependent on surface and groundwater. The rate at which groundwater is depleting is alarming. It is also being polluted by saline water thus compromising the quality of groundwater.”

About the treaty, he added that interpretation of the clauses led to later disputes. “I was associated with the treaty formulation as a junior officer at the time and I remember the use of hydropower was the most contentious.” According to him, the treaty gave exclusive rights to India of three eastern rivers and no bar on building of hydroelectric projects on the western rivers.

Another crucial issue that was not addressed by the treaty was the impact of climate change, Mr Kakakhel said. “This include the rapid melting and recession of the Hindukush-Himalayan glaciers, disruption in monsoon pattern that replenished river flows and aquifers; increase in the number, duration, and severity of floods or droughts as well as higher temperature, accelerated pollution of freshwater.”

All these factors had also led to the net reduction in the availability of water, he said.

Mr Kakakhel thought the informal Track-II dialogue whose basis is cooperation has led to a realisation on the Indian side that these issues need to be studied. “Earlier, the Indians would argue that since such issues are not mentioned in the treaty and they are using the waters for non-consumptive purpose hence, they were unwilling to discuss those issues.”

He recommended a joint monitoring of the glaciers and joint scientific studies on their change patterns as well as the pattern of the monsoons, and cooperation in predicting and coping with floods and droughts and other extreme events.

He also recommended getting in touch with third sources such as Nasa scientists, Institute of Oceanography, and Chinese experts having scientific competence on such issues and would be neutral in their stance when giving their suggestions and recommendations.

Published in Dawn, March 21st, 2015

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