THE Indian violation of the filling criteria of the Baglihar Dam, which is part of the Indus Basin Water Treaty, has proved it to be an undependable partner even in treaties backed by international guarantees.

It is not for the first time that India has stopped Chenab water to fill its newly-built dam. It did the same in August, and almost got away with it. Pakistan protested, and it only partially restored supplies. This time, it did not even bother to do that after formal protest and kept filling the dam, damaging Pakistan’s rice crop on 2.6 million acre.

Pakistan is currently assessing the extent of damage to file a financial or water claim under the treaty, which will naturally be hotly contested by India, and may take the process years to be completed. Through repeated violations of the treaty, be it on Kishanganga dam, Wuller Barrage and now Baglihar Dam, India has been testing Pakistan’s diplomatic resolve and institutional capacity to ensure provisions of the treaty. Unfortunately, Pakistan has failed every time.

In the case of Baglihar Dam, which is at the centre of current controversy, the original sin lies in Pakistan’s acceptance of the decision by the neutral expert last year. Instead of going for a review, Pakistan, to the utter astonishment of farmers and water experts, declared victory in the verdict and then kept silent on the issue. It did so in spite of the fact that Mr Raymond Latiffe, the neutral expert, had pronounced a decision which was beyond his term of reference, and armed India with a leverage to rig filling criteria and treaty provisions — a fact proved by the current tempering of water flows.

Unfortunately, by the time the decision of the neutral expert came, the PML-Q government was on its way out and the caretaker set-up was about to take over. The caretakers, despite strong protests from farmer bodies, did not apply for a review. Since the PPP government took over, the matter had been on the back burner till India stopped water flows and shook it out of slumber.

The attitude of all the three governments that ruled Pakistan during the last one year reflects the non-seriousness with which Pakistan had been handling its water woes. “It has become a causal assignment for leisure hours for bureaucrats,” as Hamid Malhi of Punjab Water Council puts it.

All of them lobbed the ball in the lap of next government, and excused themselves of any effort. The PML-Q government hid behind expiry of its mandated term, and threw the issue to the caretakers. The caretakers thought that they were there only to keep the seat warm, and must not get involved in policy issues. Before the present PPP set-up could land on its feet, it was already too late.

The handling of Baglihar issue by three governments in the last one year only proves that dealing with as vital an issue as that of water supply was subjected to political vagaries in the country. It is unfortunate, to say the least.

Interestingly, it is not only the successive governments shirking the responsibility but the official agencies involved in water issues have also developed the same indifferent attitude — passing the proverbial buck on to the next available target.

The Punjab government, which is the biggest stakeholder of the Chenab water, thinks that since the Indus Basin Treaty was signed by the federal government, it has become a ‘federal subject,’ to be exclusively dealt with by the federal government. The federal government, on its part, has relegated the subject to the Indus Commissioner, which, unfortunately, is ‘one-man show,’ without any institutional and expert back-up. In the absence of such a support, the Commissionerate acts more as a post office, conducting protest correspondence in case of violation and routine visits required by the treaty, rather than leading the initiative.

The Indus River System Authority (Irsa), which is supposed to manage the entire Indus basin, figures is no where in the entire dispute.

As the recent crisis has proved, water for agriculture is too important a subject to be left to any one of these agencies, especially when they lack capacity to deal with it. Currently, the entire government — the ministry of water and power, the Indus Commissionerate, foreign office, Pakistan’s Envoy to India — is protesting at the stoppage of water but failing move the Indian government into releasing Chenab water as per Indus Basin Water Treaty. It raises a natural question; if the entire government cannot force India to ensure treaty provision, how a single handicapped government agency could do the job?

With India tampering Chenab inflows twice within two months, the federal government must realise that its current handling of Indus Basin Treaty is not yielding desired results. The federation, on its part, must strengthen institutional capacity to deal with the treaty and other water issues in the country. To do that, it should create a permanent institutional set up that could work as a think tank but train government officials and other stakeholders of the water sector.

It must also create a panel of experts on international laws concerning water issues. India is sure to continue creating problems for Pakistan in future as well. Instead of reacting to crisis every time, the institution must develop different projections regarding the treaty provisions and devise mechanism to preempt them.

Pakistan at present pathetically lacks water experts; at times, even appointments of provincial representatives to the Irsa become a problem for the provinces because they do not have many experts. The Indus Commissioner consists of one man — Syed Jamaat Ali Shah — and there is hardly any known water expert in the entire Commissionerate. The Punjab Irrigation Department is being run by two retired consultants because no one from the current lot can manage it.

Pakistan had to hire four international experts (Prof James Crawford, Samuel Wordsworth, Peter Joseph Rae and Dr George Ananbale) when it referred the Baglihar case to the World Bank because it did not have local expertise. With this kind of manpower paucity in the sector, no wonder finds itself at disadvantage vis-à-vis India every time a crisis erupts. Pakistan must urgently create an institution that could provide it with expertise to deal with cross-border water crisis.

The Punjab government may continue thinking that the Indus Basin Water Treaty is a federal subject, but the fact remains that the entire rice belt, which got, and would get, affected, falls within its provincial boundaries and all those affected belong to it.

It must lead the initiatives by creating parallel institution that could build capacity of provincial water managers. Of all, the bureaucracy of the Punjab Irrigation Department has been the most unimaginative ever since India started building the dam way back in 1994. For the last 14 years, it neither realised the repercussions of the Chenab water stoppage nor created any alternative way to feed the area.

In addition to training its manpower, it should also create alternative routes to feed the rice belt. The Mangla-Marala Link Canal project, which has been lying with the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) for the last many years, must be dusted off and executed on priority basis. Otherwise the rice crop would remain vulnerable to Indian tampering every year.

Both, the federal and the provincial governments need to realise that until and unless they are able to build state institutions to look after such vital issues and equip them with required manpower, they would neither be able to predict nor pre-empt crisis that Pakistan, as a lower riparian, would continue suffering.

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