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Two cheers for Indus Waters Treaty
  • Two cheers for Indus Waters Treaty

Copyright: Martin Adler/Panos

Speed read

  • India and Pakistan signed the water treaty 13 years after their 1947 partitioning

  • Treaty limited to sharing of the waters of the Indus river system

  • Troubled bilateral relations prevent updating of the treaty to cover climate change

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The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan needs technology and knowledge updates, says Ramaswamy R. Iyer.

In assessing the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), two opposite errors need to be avoided: one, exaggerating its reputed ‘success’, and two, dismissing it as an over-rated treaty.

In so far as the IWT has survived stresses and strains between India and Pakistan, and has continued to operate despite several wars, it must be regarded as a success story. On the other hand, its operation has been characterised by a constant state of tension between the two parties and a series of intractable divergences between them, moderating one’s sense of a success story.  

The successful part of the IWT relates to water-sharing. After prolonged negotiations for more than a decade, and the consideration of a series of proposals from India, Pakistan and the World Bank, a somewhat strange settlement was reached: neither a basin-wide integrated agreement, nor a series of water-sharing arrangements on each of the six rivers involved, but a division of the system into two parts, western and eastern.

The western part (the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers) has been allocated to Pakistan and the eastern part (the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers) to India. No principles guided this sharing: it was merely a compromise between conflicting claims through a process of negotiation, mediated by the World Bank. This surgery on a total system was perhaps not the best thing to do, but given the circumstances of partition and the bitter relations between the two new countries brought into being by it, it was no doubt necessary to settle for a second-best solution. The water-sharing was regarded in both countries as unfair.

Many in India thought that the country got too little of the Indus waters, while a common view in Pakistan was that having regard to earlier use the allocation to India was excessive. However, the settlement, arrived at after such prolonged negotiations and approved at the highest levels, must be regarded as the best outcome that was possible under the given circumstances. Despite sporadic expressions of dissatisfaction in both countries, the water-sharing holds the fort. There is no serious move to re-negotiate that settlement. 

Problematic part

The not-so-successful or problematic part relates to Indian projects on the western rivers. It might be asked: how can there be Indian projects on rivers allocated to Pakistan? The answer is that the IWT, while allocating the western rivers to Pakistan, permits a limited use of those rivers by India as they pass through Indian territory: drinking water, existing agricultural use plus some limited expansion, a storage of no more than 3.6 million acre-feet and generation of hydroelectric power through run-of-the-river projects.

These permissive provisions are hemmed in with stringent conditions and restrictions to ensure that Pakistan stands protected from possibilities of stoppage of flows or harmful flooding. India tries to utilise the permissive provisions to the full, and Pakistan tries to apply the restrictive provisions stringently. The two countries thus keep pulling in opposite directions, leading to a permanent tug-of-war between the two sides in the Indus Commission.

This adversarial situation was inherent in the IWT itself, and was aggravated by the difficult relationship between the two countries. This situation is unlikely to change unless there is a dramatic change in bilateral relations. Given that background, the IWT manages to creak along, and will continue to do so. In two cases, the Baglihar and Kishenganga projects, there was recourse to arbitration -- by a neutral expert in one case, and a court of  arbitration in the other --  but arbitration is also a part of the IWT. On the whole, it has been functioning as satisfactorily as one can expect under the given circumstances. One can give not three cheers but two for the IWT.
 
What one must clearly understand is that the IWT is not a grand treaty of cooperation, but a treaty of division necessitated by the partition of the sub-continent. The segmentation of the system into two parts, one for India and one for Pakistan, essentially meant the abandonment of cooperation and integration. The land was partitioned in 1947, and the waters were partitioned in 1960. India, as the upper riparian, has, of course, to observe certain limits, conditions and restrictions, to take care of the concerns of the lower riparian.

There are provisions for information sharing. There is indeed an article on cooperation in the treaty (article VII), but it is merely lip-service to a general idea, standing apart from the basic spirit of the IWT which is one of division. Article VII by itself cannot change the nature of the treaty. However, if relations between India and Pakistan improve, there is nothing to prevent the two sides from attaching much importance to that article. 


Dated technology

A more serious limitation of the IWT is that it was inevitably based on the general state of knowledge, technology, and climate of opinion prevalent at the time of negotiation and signing, i.e., the 1950s and 60s. To the negotiators on both sides the management and use of river waters essentially meant dams, barrages, canal systems, power houses. That is why the bulk of the treaty, after a few pages regarding water-sharing, is about the engineering details of projects. Not only was it was an engineering treaty but also limited to engineering of 1960. The technological developments of the future could not have been anticipated. Besides, in the 1950s and 60s, projects on rivers for irrigation or flood control or power-generation were regarded as wholly benign; the knowledge of and concerns about the adverse environmental, social and human impacts of such projects lay in the future. EIAs or Environmental Impact Assessments were unknown.

Concepts such as ‘minimum flows’ and ‘environmental flows’ came in much later. As for climate change and related issues, they could not even be imagined in the 1950s and 60s. It is not a matter for surprise that the IWT makes no reference to any of these matters. At the same time, new developments and emerging concerns cannot be ignored merely because the IWT is silent on them.

Pakistan is now worried about a reported diminishing of flows in the western rivers, and about the possible cumulative impacts of multiple Indian projects on the western rivers. These concerns do not arise from the actual provisions of the IWT but will need to be taken note of.

The following conclusions emerge from the above analysis: IWT is a treaty that had its origin in a special set of historical circumstances, and is therefore, not a replicable model; it has been a modest success; its operation will continue to be characterised by recurring differences requiring occasional arbitration; it is not a treaty of cooperation, but could be treated as one if relations between the two countries improve; in respect of matters specifically dealt within the treaty, the two sides must scrupulously adhere to the provisions; issues and concerns that could not be foreseen at the time when the IWT was signed will need to be taken into account.

Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former water resources secretary in the Indian government, is an acclaimed specialist on river water cooperation between India and its South Asian neighbours. 

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk.


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