Discontent Over Indus Treaty

18 October 2008
The Times of India

New Delhi: As Pakistan cries foul over India’s decision to build hydropower stations on the Chenab, old fears have returned about water fuelling fierce sub-continental rivalry. Soon after a successful New York meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Pakistan’s President Zardari warned that India had better stick to its part of the bargain on the water treaty, or else. In a thinly-veiled warning, Zardari said, 'Pakistan would be paying a very high price for India’s move to block Pakistan’s water supply from the Chenab river...Manmohan Singh had assured me in our meeting in New York that his country is seriously committed to our water-sharing treaty. We expect him to stand by his commitment.' The war of words traces the two countries’ difficult history of water-sharing. Even so, the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty has largely held steady, even though Pakistan appeared to be looking at harder options when it unilaterally asked for World Bank (WB) arbitration on the Baglihar dam issue. The resulting Baglihar award allowed India to continue building dams on the Chenab, albeit with some structural adjustments to suit Pakistan. But Baglihar is not the only flashpoint in their low-intensity water wars. Both countries are also squaring off on the Wullar barrage-Tulbul project in J&K. After numerous failed attempts at resolution, India gave in to Pakistani demands to include it as a subject for composite dialogue. But analysts say the dialogue is now so focused on Kashmir and Siachen that there may be little hope of resolving the Wullar-Tulbul issue. Interestingly, both neighbours have long expressed dissatisfaction with the 1960 Treaty, with each believing the other got a better deal. Pakistan scholar Robert Wirsing says there is equality of discontent on both sides of the border. 'Pakistanis hold that they gave up more water than they gained, that the diversion of Indus waters required to compensate for the loss to India of the three eastern rivers has inflicted heavy ecological penalties upon Pakistan, and that, worst of all, India’s retention of the right to ‘non-consumptive’ use of the three western rivers presents Pakistan with the endlessly frustrating, and ultimately futile, task of guarding its water resources against Indian poaching,' he says. The Indians, meanwhile, 'hold that it is their side that gave up too much water in the 1960 treaty and that Pakistan has made it virtually impossible for India effectively to exploit non-consumptive uses, the production of hydropower in particular, allowed them on the western rivers.' As the war of words over the Baglihar dam becomes more heated, it would be well to note that it is one of 11 projects India apparently plans to build in J&K, nine of them on the Chenab. The World Bank ruling on Baglihar significantly decreed that India can build run-of-the-river hydropower projects on the western rivers of the Indus. It also set a precedent in that India was allowed to build dams using modern technology to deal with sedimentation in the Himalayan rivers. This technology did not exist when the treaty was signed 48 years ago. It is hardly surprising that India sees it as a political victory, namely a vote of confidence for development projects in J&K. India’s official response to the WB ruling said, 'The three elements of design that require marginal changes, i.e. reductions in freeboard, pondage and increase in the height of the intakes, all arise from calculations and not from basic principles.' The arguments continue to flow.