22nd September 2021

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60th anniversary of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT)

September 19 marks the 60th anniversary of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan, a treaty often cited as an example of the possibilities for peaceful coexistence that exist despite the troubled relationship.

  • Supporters of the treaty often call it “unbroken and uninterrupted”. The World Bank, which as a third party has played a key role in the development of the IWT, continues to be particularly proud of the operation of the treaty.
  • India’s role as a responsible high rider complying with the treaty provisions has been remarkable, but the country has recently come under pressure to rethink the extent to which it can remain committed to the provisions, such as its general political relationship with the Pakistan, things are becoming intractable.

Equitable distribution of water

In the past, the partition of the Indus river system was inevitable after the partition of India in 1947. The partition formula worked out after lengthy negotiations divided the Indus system into two halves.

  • The three “western rivers” (Indo, Jhelum and Chenab) went to Pakistan and the three “eastern rivers” (Sutlej, Ravi and Beas) were divided in India.
  • It may have seemed fair, but the point is that India has ceded 80.52% of the total Indus system water flow to Pakistan. They also donated Rs 83 crore in British pounds to Pakistan to help build replacement canals from western rivers. Such generosity is unusual in an upper waterfront area.
  • India gave up its superior riparian position on the western rivers to gain full rights to the eastern rivers. Water is at the heart of India’s development plans.
  • Therefore, it was vital to secure the waters of the “eastern rivers” for the proposed Rajasthan Canal and Bhakra Dam, without which Punjab and Rajasthan would dry up, severely hampering India’s food production.
  • Jawaharlal Nehru, at the opening of the Bhakra Channels in 1963, described it as “a gigantic achievement and a symbol of the energy and enterprise of the nation”.
  • In Pakistan, however, it was an occasion for strong resentment, lamenting that India had escaped with the total flow of 33 million acre-feet in the rivers of the East “practically for a song”.
  • Nehru has always been aware that Bhakra canals should not come at the cost of reducing Pakistan’s water supply.
  • However, it was also very clear that India’s interest in the eastern rivers must be protected in the hope that the two countries will one day live “amicably and cordially as the United States. and Canada live in North America ”.

Growing discomfort

This, of course, did not happen. On the contrary, Pakistani leaders consider that sharing the waters with India is an unfinished business. What is questionable today has nothing to do with the distribution of water, which is established in inland navigation, but whether the Indian projects in the western rivers, especially Jhelum and Chenab, as Pakistan claims , comply with the technical specifications.

  • Being a lower riparian state, Pakistan’s skepticism towards India allows it to increasingly politicize the issue.
  • Unsurprisingly, he maintains high troop levels and vigilance around the canals on the eastern front, fearing that India is trying to take control of western rivers.
  • Clearly, due to its strategic location and importance, the Indus Basin continues to receive considerable international attention.
  • Indeed, David Lilienthal, who headed the Tennessee Valley Authority and then the Atomic Energy Commission, after visiting India and Pakistan in 1951, feared that “another Korea is brewing”, prompting the World Bank to act as mediator. in water sharing agreements.
  • Every now and then there is clamor in India to repeal the IWT in response to cross-border terrorism and Pakistani intransigence.
  • Any attempt in this direction would require determining a series of politico-diplomatic and hydrological factors as well as a political consensus.
  • The fact that the treaty has remained “unbroken” is because India respects its signatories and sees cross-border rivers as an important link in the region in terms of diplomacy and economic prosperity.
  • There have been several cases of terrorist attacks (the Indian Parliament in 2001, Mumbai in 2008, and the incidents at Uri in 2016 and Pulwama in 2019) that could have led India, under the Vienna Convention on the right of treaties, to withdraw from the IWT. However, each time India has chosen not to do so.

Renegotiation

Since repeal is an option India is reluctant to take, there is a growing debate to modify the existing IWT. While the treaty may have served a certain purpose by the time it was signed, now with a new set of hydrological realities, advanced engineering methods for dam construction and sand removal, it must be urgently reviewed.

  • Article XII of the IWT states that “it may be amended from time to time”, but it carefully states “by means of a treaty duly ratified between the two governments”.
  • Pakistan would see no interest in any modification, as it had already made a good deal in 1960. Therefore, India’s best option would be to optimize the terms of the treaty.
  • India regretted that it did not use the 3.6 million acre feet (MAF) of “authorized storage capacity” granted by land transport on Western rivers.
  • Poor water development projects have allowed 2-3 MAF of water to flow easily to the much needed Pakistan. In addition, of the total estimated capacity of 11,406 MW of electricity that can be tapped from the three western rivers of Kashmir, only 3,034 MW have been tapped so far.
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