The River Indus at the Karakoram Highway
The River Indus at the Karakoram Highway

Water is back in the news in the ever-evolving and shifting relations between India and Pakistan. The dams and run-of-the-river works that India is building on rivers whose waters were allotted to Pakistan in the Indus Waters Treaty signed in 1960 have become a highly contentious issue. An Indian team visited Islamabad recently, but left before much progress was made between the two sides. Pakistan wants the next meeting to be held in Washington DC, with World Bank presence. The Indians don’t want any third party involvement, insisting that the issues that crop up should be handled bilaterally without any outside involvement. This stance goes against the past: it was the heavy World Bank involvement that resulted in the 1960 treaty. Given these strains and stresses, a fresh look at the Indus water divide is highly welcome. This is what Daniel Haines provides in Indus Divided: India, Pakistan and the River Basin Dispute.

When the British divided their South Asian colony, they left the successor nations of India and Pakistan with a number of problems. Two of these proved to be intractable. One was the disputed area of Kashmir, over which the countries have even gone to war. The other problem concerned the division of the waters of the Indus river system. In 1951, shortly before he was assassinated, prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan went out on to the balcony of his Karachi residence and threatened to go to war with India if New Delhi tinkered with the flow of water into the canals that watered a good chunk of the land in the southern part of the Pakistani side of Punjab. India got the message and agreed to the comprehensive Indus Waters Treaty mediated by the World Bank. The treaty was signed in 1960 in the then capital Karachi by president Ayub Khan and Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian prime minister.

Haines’s Indus Divided is a comprehensive work that makes a significant addition to literature that already exists on the subject. The most notable book in this context is The Indus Rivers: A Study of the Effects of Partition by Aloys Arthur Michel, published in 1967, some half a dozen years after the treaty. Michel’s book remained the most quoted work on the subject; that position is now likely to be taken by Haines’s book. Though shorter in length than Michel’s work, Indus Divided comes with rich background notes that will be of enormous value to those who want to work further on the subject.

New research into the Pakistan-India river dispute appears to imply perpetual conflict

Haines makes intelligent use of theory to explain Pakistan’s position on the water dispute. “The most important legal element of Pakistan’s stance was the claim that Pakistan’s territory had already acquired rights to that water through prior appropriation,” he explains. “This argument emphasised territorial integrity, the idea that an upstream water user had the responsibility not to harm downstream water availability. In that sense, it apparently prioritised history over geography, but it had significant implications for the construction of sovereign space.”

According to Haines, some of the interference by India in the flow of water to Pakistan was not engineered by the government headed by Nehru. Most Pakistani writers believe that many moves by the Nehru government were meant to cripple Pakistan at birth. New Delhi refused to release to Pakistan the money left by the departing British to compensate India for its war effort. Pakistan, with empty coffers, badly needed that resource. In 1949, after Pakistan refused to devalue its currency with respect to the American dollar as was done by Britain, India and other members of the Commonwealth, New Delhi imposed a trade embargo on Karachi. At that time most of Pakistan’s imports came from India. It is the general belief among Pakistani historians that the Indians hoped that the Pakistani leadership, put under extreme stress, would seek to rejoin India. That, of course, did not happen.

Haines, using a great deal of archival material, has a different explanation for the tinkering with the flow of water. “Nehru, convinced that the [water] reductions had been deliberate, suspected that senior figures in the East Punjab government or the central Ministry of Irrigation and Power had given the orders,” writes the author. “He demanded that Irrigation Minister Gulzarilal Nanda find out who was responsible. After several frustrating months, Nehru concluded that the East Punjab engineers in charge of canal headworks had no clear instructions about water deliveries to Pakistan, and so had supplied less than the agreed amounts.” This is a much more benign interpretation of some of the events that had convinced Pakistani policymakers of ill Indian intent.

The 1960 treaty saved the two countries from going to war over water, but did not fully settle the dispute. Why the dispute has persisted is analysed by Haines, who brings new insights into an old problem. India and Pakistan claim the rivers of the Indus Basin on entirely different bases. “Very early, at least by 1951, the government of India had adopted the position that the Indus dispute should not be settled using existing legal rights, but by accounting for potentialities of river development,” explains Haines. “The subsequent World Bank negotiations similarly proceeded on an engineering rather than a legal basis. Pakistan was left making a legal argument without recourse to the law.”

Where do the two countries go from here? Several people with knowledge about the way the two countries have handled the use of the water that flows down the Indus and its tributaries believe that India was much more diligent in interpreting the many provisions in the 1960 treaty in its favour. Having done that, it quickly built many works on the rivers even if the treaty had given their use to Pakistan. While New Delhi was working hard and fast to establish new facts on the ground, Pakistan was too distracted by political instability to counter the Indian moves. It is only now that some progress has been made. For instance, the “financial closure” for Dasu, a major dam on the Indus in Pakistan, was announced recently. Dasu is one of the 12 sites the World Bank identified as having considerable development potential.

Pakistan faces two additional problems in making use of the Indus waters. With global warming, glaciers that regulate the flow of water through the country’s many rivers are melting rapidly. This means large flows during the increasingly hot summers and restricted flows during winter. The regulatory system that nature had built over millions of years will be weakened considerably in a few years’ time. Over a very short period of time engineers will have to step in to provide regulatory systems that nature will no longer have in place.

The second problem is international politics. India is now led by the heirs of elements that were hostile to the idea of Pakistan. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s massive victory in the Uttar Pradesh elections recently has injected fresh blood into anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiment. India will be an even harder negotiating partner than before. Those who work in this area in Pakistan will do well with a careful reading of Haines’s book. In this context I will quote from the book’s last paragraph: “The Indus Waters Treaty continues to inscribe national ownership on to the basin’s rivers. [...] The treaty arose out of specific circumstances: the Indian and Pakistani political leaderships’ mutual determination to sever their hydrological connections as far as possible. It now helps to perpetuate those circumstances.” In other words, perpetual conflict is built into the treaty.

The reviewer is an economist, formerly with the World Bank

Indus Divided: India, Pakistan
and the River Basin Dispute
By Daniel Haines
Random House, India
ISBN: 978-0143439615

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 21st, 2017



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