Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India
One paradox in Asia stands out: China, by occupying water-rich Tibetan Plateau, dominates Asia’s water map, yet it refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour. But water-stressed India has a water-sharing treaty with each of the two countries located downstream to it — Pakistan and Bangladesh. And each of these treaties has set a new principle in international water law.
The 1996 Ganges treaty set a new standard by guaranteeing Bangladesh specific cross-border flows in the critical dry season. And the 1960 Indus treaty with Pakistan still remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, in terms of both the sharing ratio and the total volume of cross-border flows.
Under this treaty of indefinite duration, India foolishly reserved 80.52% of the aggregate water flows in the six-river Indus system for Pakistan, with that arch-nemesis securing 90 times greater volume of water than Mexico’s share under a 1944 pact with the US.
In fact, the treaty effectively partitioned the rivers in the Indus Basin, with India’s full sovereignty rights limited to the three smaller rivers in the lower section and Pakistan bagging the bigger rivers of the upper basin. It remains the world’s only water pact embodying the ‘doctrine of restricted sovereignty’ in which the upper riparian state defers to the interests of a downstream state.
To make matters worse, only four of the six Indus-system rivers originate in India; the other two start in Tibet, with China free to reengineer cross-flow flows.
Against this background, the Indus treaty remains a millstone around India’s neck. India should be seeking to mitigate the burdens of a treaty that carries no benefits for it but which emboldens Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan repays India’s unparalleled water generosity with its self-avowed “War of a Thousand Cuts”.
How can India allow its water largesse to be repaid with blood? A feckless India continues to shore up the treaty, including by sending a 10-member delegation to Pakistan for a Permanent Indus Commission meeting from March 1. For the first time in the commission’s history, female officers (all from India) will participate.
The commission’s meetings can be suspended, as they have been in the past, but India clings to the treaty’s letter and spirit, even as Pakistan flouts international norms without incurring any costs. In fact, by failing to build sufficient storage, India allows unutilized waters from its meagre share to flow to Pakistan as a continuing bonus.
Other world powers have dumped binding accords at will. One of Russia’s grievances contributing to the present crisis with the US, with Ukraine as the theatre of Russian invasion, has been Washington’s unilateral termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which was of unlimited duration) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. China has demonstrated its contempt for bilateral pacts through its current border aggression against India and by its 2017 withholding of data from India on upstream river flows.
A scofflaw Pakistan wants rights without responsibilities. It demands eternal Indian water munificence while its military sustains export of terrorism to India. Leveraging the Indus treaty to help reform Pakistan’s behaviour offers India a bloodless path.
Pakistan’s use of state-reared terrorist groups could be invoked by India under international law as constituting reasonable grounds for withdrawal from the treaty. The International Court of Justice has upheld the principle that a treaty may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances.
But without withdrawing from the treaty, India can seek to balance the scales by invoking its treaty rights to enforce Pakistan’s responsibilities. For starters, it should condition further consultations and information exchanges, including on project-related design data, to Pakistan’s verified severing of ties with terrorist groups. Keeping its Indus commissioner’s post vacant for some years would effectively suspend riparian consultations with Pakistan. Given India’s proverbial red tape, such a vacancy will be easy to explain.
India’s approach should be to speak softly but carry a big stick. It should shun meaningless hyperbole and let its actions speak for themselves. India, however, must make clear that it has no intention of turning off or even restricting water flows to Pakistan. Indeed, India doesn’t have the hydro-infrastructure to limit river flows. The issue is about ending Pakistan’s roguish actions.
Building basin leverage can serve as a potent instrument in India’s arsenal against Pakistan.
The worst option for India is to continue hewing to its present approach by mechanically bearing all the burdens of the treaty without any tangible benefits accruing to it. Instead of advertising that its bark is worse than its bite, an imaginative India should work to remake the terms of the Indus engagement.
The writer is a geostrategist.