Munificently treading water

The Japan Times, August 10, 2012

Reciprocity is the first principle of diplomacy, and India has walked the extra mile to befriend neighbors, as underscored by its record on land and water disputes. Yet today, India lives in the world’s most-troubled neighborhood.

India’s generosity on land issues has been well documented. It includes its acceptance of Burmese sovereignty over the Kabaw Valley in 1953, its surrender of British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet in 1954, its giving back of the strategic Haji Pir Pass to Pakistan after the 1965 war, and its similar return of territorial gains plus 93,000 prisoners after the 1971 war that led to East Pakistan’s secession as Bangladesh.

Less well known is India’s generosity on shared river waters, although it is now reeling under a growing water crisis.

The world’s most generous water-sharing pact is the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, under which India agreed to set aside 80.52 percent of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan, keeping for itself just the remaining 19.48 percent share. Both in terms of the sharing ratio as well as the total quantum of waters reserved for a downstream state, this treaty’s munificence is unsurpassed in scale in the annals of international water treaties.

Indeed, the volume of water earmarked for Pakistan is more than 90 times greater than the 1.85 billion cubic meters the U.S. is required to release for Mexico under the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty.

This unparalleled water generosity, however, only invited trouble for India. Within five years of the Indus treaty, Pakistan launched its second war against India to grab the rest of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir before India had recovered from its humiliating rout in 1962 at the hands of the Chinese. In the first war soon after its creation in 1947, Pakistan seized more than one-third of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

India’s 1996 Ganges river treaty with Bangladesh guarantees minimum cross-border flows in the dry season — a new principle in international water law. In fact, the treaty equally divides the dry-season downstream Ganges flows between the two countries, while in other seasons when the total Ganges flows average more than 71.48 billion cubic meters per year, Bangladesh’s share is larger than India’s.

Today, Pakistan expects eternal Indian munificence on water even as its military establishment continues to export terror. Yet, with all the water flowing downstream under the treaty, the same question must haunt the Pakistani generals as Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?”

In 2010, Pakistan filed a case with the International Court of Arbitration to halt India’s construction of a modest-size, 330-megawatt Kishenganga hydropower plant. Even as India last fall suspended work on the project in response to the arbitration proceedings, Pakistan has fast-tracked its own three-times-larger, Chinese-aided hydropower project at a nearby border site on the same stream, apparently to gain priority right on river-water use under the doctrine of prior appropriation.

Meanwhile, India’s portion of the Indus basin — according to the 2030 Water Resources Group, an international consortium of private-sector companies and institutions — confronts a massive 52 percent deficit between water supply and demand.

The Ganges treaty’s allocations to Bangladesh, while not comparable to the cross-border flows under the Indus treaty, are much larger than the combined allocations set out in the world’s other inter-country water accords signed since the 1990s, including the Jordan-Israel water arrangements, the Komati River sharing between South Africa and Swaziland, and the Lebanese-Syrian agreements over the Orontes and El-Kabir rivers.

Because of the Ganges precedent, Bangladesh now is pressing India to similarly reserve by treaty half of the flows of another but smaller river — the Teesta. And New Delhi seems ready to oblige.

Under the Indian Constitution, water is a provincial issue, not a federal matter. Yet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has sought to strong-arm a reluctant West Bengal state into accepting a Teesta River treaty on terms dictated by New Delhi.

The fact is that unlike Bangladesh, India is already a seriously water-stressed country. Whereas the annual per-capita water availability in Bangladesh averages 8,252 cubic meters, it has fallen to a paltry 1,560 cubic meters in India.

Lost in such big-hearted diplomacy is the fact that a parched and thirsty India is downriver from China, which, far from wanting to emulate India’s Indus- or Ganges-style water munificence, rejects the very concept of water sharing.

Instead, the Chinese construction of upstream dams on international rivers such as the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Arun, Sutlej, Indus, Irtysh, Illy and Amur shows that Beijing is increasingly bent on unilateral actions, impervious to the concerns of downstream nations.

Over the next decade, as if to underscore the strategic importance it gives to controlling water resources, China plans to build more large dams than the U.S. or India has managed in its entire history.

By seeking to have its hand on Asia’s water tap through an extensive upstream infrastructure, China challenges India’s interests more than any other country’s.

Although a number of nations stretching from Afghanistan to Vietnam receive waters from the Tibetan Plateau, India’s direct dependency on Tibetan waters is greater than that of any other country. With about a dozen important rivers flowing in from the Tibetan Himalayan region, India gets almost one-third of all its yearly water supplies of 1,911 billion cubic meters from Tibet, according to the latest U.N. data.

Against this background, it is fair to ask: Is India condemned to perpetual generosity toward its neighbors?

This question has assumed added urgency because India has started throwing money around as part of its newly unveiled aid diplomacy — $1 billion in aid to Bangladesh, one-fifth as grant; $500 million to Myanmar; $300 million to Sri Lanka; $140 million to the Maldives; and hundreds of millions of dollars in new aid to Afghanistan and Nepal. If pursued with wishful thinking, such aid generosity is likely to meet the same fate as water munificence.

Generosity in diplomacy can yield rich dividends if it is part of a strategically geared outreach designed to ameliorate the regional-security situation so that India can play a larger global role. But if it is not anchored in the fundamentals of international relations — including reciprocity and leverage building — India risks accentuating its tyranny of geography, even as it is left holding the bag.

Brahma Chellaney’s most recent book is “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
The Japan Times: Friday, Aug. 10, 2012