Talk27 Hydro-diplomacy, and how to manage India-Pakistan water relations

Thursday, 25 October, 2018


Despite the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty between Pakistan and India in 1960, transboundary water issues between the two countries started re-emerging in 1970s over interpretation of various clauses of the Treaty. Initially these differences were sorted out through hectic bilateral diplomacy. Subsequently, starting mid-eighties, bilateral efforts began to fail resulting in recourse to dispute resolution mechanism envisaged in the Treaty involving the appointment of a Neutral Expert and a Court of Arbitration. This trend is continuing and a number of other issues are on the same trail. On the other hand, temptation to use water as a weapon for political maneuvering is assuming alarming proportions.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session with Ashfaq Mehmood as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. Mr Ashfaq Mehmood has served as Federal Secretary in several Ministries including Planning and Development, Water and Power, and Kashmir Affairs. He has recently authored a book on Hydro-Diplomacy - Preventing Water War Between Nuclear-Armed Pakistan and India (IPS Press 2018).

The talked focused on the various issues currently arising due to the ambiguities of the Indus Water treaty and put forward several suggestions for peaceful resolution of these disputes. Mr. Ashfaq stressed upon the danger of water induced war between two nuclear states, and stated need for bilateral co-operation and trust building as imperative to circumventing such an event.

The Indus Water Treaty 1960

Under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) gives control over the water flowing in three "eastern" rivers- Beas, Ravi and Sutlej - was given to India, while control over the water flowing in three "western" rivers - Indus, Chenab and Jhelum - was given to Pakistan. The treaty is a permanent binding regime on both the countries and cannot be altered unilaterally. The treaty only allows for modification if concluded and duly ratified by both the countries.

Issues in Implementing Specific Provisions in the Treaty

Run of the River projects

The treaty allows for domestic and non-consumptive use of the river, such as run-of-river hydroelectric plants. No provision exists in the IWT outlining a capacity limit for the run-of-river projects India can construct on the western rivers and so far there exist at least 43 such structures. In order to address this issue, it is first important for Pakistan to present a factual case for objection i.e. conduct a study on design principles regarding the impact to Pakistan's water supply from a cascade of such projects and then move towards arbitrating a limit on the number of projects.

Delay in furnishing prior information

Along with run-of river projects, India is also allowed limited storage on the western rivers outlined in the IWT. A provision requires them to inform Pakistan six months in advance of construction of such projects, and allows them three months after the receipt of this information to communicate objections in writing. India has in several specific instances violated this clause with Pakistan and in some case received such information from external sources, as was the case in the Kishenganga Project. The speaker pointed out that India has also ignored Pakistan's objections to the projects in some instances and proceeded with unilateral implementation. The heart of the issue lies within the treaty's clause as planning for such projects begin years in advance and expecting re-design months before construction is an unrealistic expectation. It is important for the existence of a provision that calls for sharing of information from the onset of the project, as well as for a clause that clearly states that objections raised must be addressed.

Ambiguous dispute resolution mechanism

The issues that emerged post signing of the IWT highlighted a gap in a dispute resolution mechanism that should automatically be triggered in case of controversy. In 1970, objections were raised on Salal Hydro-electric plant that were resolved bilaterally. Baligarh Hydro-electric plant issue was resolved by third party decision (neutral expert), while Kishenganga project dispute was settled through the court of arbitration. These examples depict the inconsistency of dispute settlement and the amount of time that has been lost in resolving these issues. It is hence necessary for a dispute settlement mechanism to be in set in place with standard procedures for fair and timely resolution of issues.

Data Issues

The treaty requires that flow monthly data to be shared between the two countries regarding daily discharge date of river flows, releases from reservoirs etc. It is important to enhance information sharing by the use of latest technologies such as real-time telemetry systems for joint monitoring.

Unforeseen Issues

The IWT does not account for several issues that have risen over recent years. Transboundary aquifers are not accounted for in the treaty and over abstraction of water from them has put the Indus Basin's water table at risk. The treaty also did not predict the issue of pollution. Water from the eastern rivers enter Pakistan heavily polluted carrying severe environmental implications for Pakistan. Environmental flows is an issue that has only recently been recognized and needs to be coordinated between the two countries to protect the downstream ecosystem. Lack of watershed management is also creating adverse environmental impact. Finally, climate change has become a serious concern in recent years for water systems around the world and suitable measures need to be taken immediately to avert anticipated disasters. It is imperative that with the evolution these issues, such provisions are created to encompass them in the IWT's domain.

Hydro Diplomacy - Recommendations

Hydro-diplomacy is defined as the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations. It is imperative first and foremost to convince the leadership on both sides to adopt a single point agenda - to promote cooperation within the IWT and build trust between the two nations. The number of active issues need to be minimized and those requiring mutual accommodation need to be identified and jointly addressed.

To achieve this end it may be pertinent to develop and promote the concept of a joint Indus Basin co-operation fund - contributed to by governments of both countries in order to increase their stake in its operation- targeted towards setting up an institutional structure and funding activities for the sole purpose of developing strategies for cooperation and trust building.

Diverse strategies and tactics can be incorporated for building trust, inclusive of both bilateral and multilateral approaches. It is important for Pakistan to proactively propagate a logical and factual narrative on all forums, and promote a quadrilateral collaboration of government, think tanks, NGOs and academia for information sharing in order to stimulate discourse and enable thought process on these issues. It is also important to put concrete suggestions in the agenda to be brought to the table of the Indus Water Commission, such as telemetry, joint climate change studies, SoPs for environmentally responsible operation of dams etc. Institutions need to be strengthened and focal bodies need to be created on emerging areas such transboundary waters. Funds need to be allocated in order to achieve all the aforementioned agendas.