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Blue Economy: Challenges & Opportunities                           

Indus Waters Treaty and Kashmir Conundrum: Water and Nationalism

By: J. Catherine

  • Since the inception of the IWT, Pakistan’s continual objections to projects on the western rivers have had serious impacts on the political economy of J&K.
  • The population growth, energy crisis and climate change has made them even more vocal in denouncing the treaty.
  • It is critical to examine post-partition events in order to comprehend the political and developmental complications in Kashmir.
  • Water nationalism has grown in recent years as the supply-demand gap in India and Pakistan has widened.
  • The IWT prohibits the state from storing or diverting water for irrigation purposes.

After decades of touch and go in Kashmir’s hydropower development, the Indian government has shifted strategies and begun aggressively sanctioning approvals and clearances undermining Pakistan’s disapproval. This does not come as a surprise since the current government has been implementing assertive policies in order to emerge as a regional leader. Since the inception of the IWT, Pakistan’s continual objections to projects on the western rivers have had serious impacts on the political economy of J&K. The terms of the treaty had been widely contested in both the countries since its inception. In India, the riparian co-states have expressed various degrees of dissatisfaction with the treaty and have demanded renegotiation of the terms to obtain an equitable access. Kashmir has repeatedly voiced its woes about the IWT being discriminatory. The population growth, energy crisis and climate change has made them even more vocal in denouncing the treaty. Kashmir’s Mufti Mohammad Syed and other political leaders have urged Pakistan to help Jammu and Kashmir’s economic growth by not objecting to hydropower projects in the state under the provisions of the Indus Treaty.

In 2002, the J&K Legislative Assembly called for a review of the Treaty and passed a nearly unanimous resolution calling for the IWT to be annulled on the grounds that its restrictions on the western rivers illegitimately shackle Kashmiri development. The J&K government had hired the services of a private consultancy firm, M/S Halcrow India Limited, to assess the state’s losses due to IWT over the last five decades. Their estimate amounts to INR 6000-crore loss per year, based on perceived benefits denied to the state by IWT clauses. The IWT prohibits the state from storing or diverting water for irrigation purposes. J&K is also energy deficient, as only 23.22% of the required power is generated within the state, with the remainder imported at a cost of Rs. 600 crore per year. When the state itself has the potential to generate 20000MW from the rivers that run through it, the inability to do so due to IWT clauses has caused the state to continually rail against IWT.

“The treaty’s destabilizing effect on bilateral relations has also exacerbated the Kashmir conflict. By impeding economic development, the IWT has exacerbated the internal conflict over Kashmir. The Kashmiri grievances against the treaty are the restrictions on Indian use of the western rivers for irrigation, hydroelectric power, and navigation.”

Various terrorist attacks in India by Pakistan-supported-entities have invoked a sense of national emergency. As a result, Indian political leaders have directed verbal attacks on Pakistani adversaries by threatening to abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty. Following the 2002 attack on Parliament and the 2016 Uri attack, Prime Minister Modi stated that “blood and water cannot flow together.” This echoed the mingling of water and nationalism. In February 2019, following a suicide attack in Pulwama in the Kashmir Valley that killed approximately 40 CRPF soldiers, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari announced that India had decided to stop its share of water from the eastern rivers from flowing into Pakistan. He also stated that India could block Pakistan’s access to the Indus River. Although an immediate halt is impossible, India has now adopted the slow and steady ethos of continuing hydropower development works in Kashmir despite Pakistan’s protests. In this regard, India will knowingly choose to disregard the IWT tenet that requires India to obtain Pakistan’s approval for any projects on the western rivers.

Water nationalism has grown in recent years as the supply-demand gap in India and Pakistan has widened, which has been exacerbated by rising tensions between the two countries. In addition to state and civil society actors, militant groups based in Pakistan have raised the issue of Indus River System waters in their rallies, accusing India of stealing what they call Pakistan’s waters. Both countries are at a crossroads as they deal with rising nationalism in the Indus region. The conflict between these nuclear powers has created an atmosphere of uncertainty on the global stage. Following the devastation caused by Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine, world leaders are concerned about India and Pakistan’s situation. The nuclear capacities of India and Pakistan is shared in Table 1.

Table 1 - Source: Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

It is critical to examine post-partition events in order to comprehend the political and developmental complications in Kashmir. The political instability in Kashmir which is attributed to the competition between India and Pakistan to annex Kashmir is closely linked to the negotiation of Indus Water Treaty. Following Partition, when Pakistan was given a firm territorial basis, the people and governments of Pakistan and India had to grapple with South Asia’s new political geography, making sense of the relationship between land and nation. The Kashmir conflict disrupted the possibility of a settled territoriality in this context. It shifted the definition of national spaces. The need to create national development spaces, which is required for territorializing state power, compelled both governments to claim river water, particularly Pakistan.

Pakistan openly and unilaterally terminated the May 1948 water-sharing agreement between India and Pakistan. Even after a year of the agreement, Pakistan refused to pay the dues to India. Pakistan was unwilling to adhere to the agreement because it wished to use the Indus water dispute as a political tool in the United Nations battle over Kashmir. Pakistan then requested a referral to the International Court of Justice for a final ruling, which India objected to. Pakistan also attempted to incite anti-India sentiment in Pakistan over this issue. Pakistan claimed the eastern rivers since historical or prior use. However, this did not sit well with India because, at the time, approximately 25 million people in Pakistan and 21 million in India relied on the Indus system’s waters, and only Pakistan had the necessary irrigation system. Irrigation from Indus basin sources was available for 26 million acres of land in west Punjab and 35 million acres of land in east Punjab had no access to irrigation. If India had shared the eastern rivers, the fertile land of east Punjab would have received insufficient water, putting food security in jeopardy. This is where India’s IWT negotiators must have decided to give up the entire western river system. The Chenab was more difficult to use in Himachal than the Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas in the Bilaspur foothills or on the Punjab plains. However, as Indian plans for a tunnel at Marhu demonstrated, it was not impossible.

The priority, however, was to have a mutually exclusive control system. India secured the right to build run-of-the-river hydropower projects on the western rivers and reserved a small portion of the western rivers for irrigation. The caveat in the treaty for hydropower development was to obtain Pakistan’s approval before proceeding. The storage capacities permitted on western rivers under IWT, 1960 (Annex E) in given in table 2.

Table 2. Source – Government of India, 1960

With no prospect of water from the eastern rivers, Pakistan’s discourses on the western rivers took on an even more possessive tone, exacerbating Pakistan’s claims on Kashmir, the land through which those rivers ran. This could be why Kashmir was purposefully left out of the IWT discourse. Today, Pakistan’s strategy of opposing India’s projects on western rivers slowed development in Kashmir and created a tense situation between the centre and the state. Second, Pakistan’s actions reflect their concern that with more Indian projects upstream, control of the river flow would shift to India. Their security concerns have kept the Kashmir political issue alight.

Under the guidance of Ayub and Nehru, the treaty finally made the Indian and Pakistani water control systems as mutually independent as possible, and the engineers on their negotiating teams followed suit. This enabled the Indian and Pakistani engineering services to develop water resources at a breakneck pace during the 1960s and 1970s.

“Even though 80% of the Indus waters are allocated to Pakistan, India’s acceptance of the treaty increased its effective sovereignty in the basin’s eastern half. Diversion works on the Sutlej and Beas concretized that sovereignty. With exclusive rights to the eastern rivers, India could now divert water to Rajasthan and other states without consulting Pakistan, which has lower riparian rights over these rivers.”

According to the Lok Sabha secretariat, 8 lakh acres of irrigated cropped area on the western rivers have been developed as of 2017, and another 1.12 lakh acre can be developed without storages and another 4.2 lakh acre after development and release of 0.5 MAF through storage. The hydropower potential of the western rivers has been estimated at 18,653 MW, with 3,034 MW currently operational. 2,526 MW are under construction, and 5,846 MW are in the planning stages. There has been no storage built, and most of the potential is in the Chenab basin.

The coming decade will be critical for the Indus water system and Kashmir. We are left with some lingering questions.

“As the world watches, how will India deal with the pressures of achieving sustainable development goals while maintaining economic growth in Kashmir and the other parts of India? Will IWT be able to keep up with shifting diplomatic equations and alliances? What impact will climate change policies have on the Indus Basin Water Sharing Agreement? In this regard, UDA’s approach of combining maritime security and water sustainability for optimal social and technological solutions may be the necessary tool.”

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About The Author

J. Catherine

J. Catherine is a Research Fellow at MRC. She is performing her research on Indus Water River system at MRC.