Water wars

Published September 28, 2016

A day after urging a joint India-Pakistan war against poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and infant mortality, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi executed his latest about-turn by implicitly threatening to use water as a weapon against Pakistan — this in a region where great swathes of humanity eke out a subsistence living and are wholly dependent on agriculture and the agrarian chain for their livelihoods.

By suspending the biannual Indus water commissioners’ meeting, ordering that India expedite its hydro projects on the three western Indus system rivers designated for the exclusive use of Pakistan under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty and menacingly suggesting that “blood and water cannot flow together”, Mr Modi seems once again to be pandering to his domestic need to appear tough on Pakistan, while in reality making the region less secure through his actions.

The IWT has survived five and a half decades and three wars between India and Pakistan. The treaty’s durability, the two countries’ willingness to abide by its terms and the acceptance of international arbitration time and again are successes that no leader, Indian or Pakistani, should ever tamper with, let alone jeopardise.

Indeed, until the obnoxious and thoroughly illegal demand to unilaterally scrap the treaty was made recently in certain extremist quarters in India, the IWT was the obvious framework within which the next generation of climatic and water issues ought to have been addressed to the mutual benefit of India and Pakistan.

The reckless gamble by Mr Modi to use novel means to ostensibly put pressure on Pakistan has now introduced new uncertainties, and surely suspicions, in a region that is already water-stressed and that could be facing traumatic water-scarcity problems in the decades ahead. In trying to alarm Pakistan into taking action against militants as India desires, Mr Modi has unthinkingly accelerated what could become another, equally intractable dispute between the two countries.

For Pakistan, the reaction by policymakers should be a cautious and sensible one. As experts — international, Pakistani and Indian — have already explained, India has neither the means to immediately and artificially reduce water flows to Pakistan, nor can it do so in the medium term without causing great damage to its own agrarian economy.

A panicked, emotional response by Pakistani officials would only worsen the situation.

What Pakistan must do, however, is assemble a powerful team of water experts, skilled international arbiters and experienced World Bank interlocutors to ensure that it can quickly and emphatically respond to Indian manoeuvres.

The experience of the Kishanganga and Baglihar arbitrations suggests that poor policies, indecisive leadership and weak external representation have had a discernible impact on Pakistan’s ability to press for its maximum rights under the IWT.

If Mr Modi does want to wage a joint fight against poverty, Pakistan should welcome it. If he wants to threaten this country’s water resources, Pakistan should be prepared to defend itself legally and diplomatically.

Published in Dawn September 28th, 2016



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