South Asian Water Tensions And The International Community
By Sumeera Asghar Roy & Engr. Rehan Saeed
Since the BJP reached the corridors of power in India and, more specifically, after the Uri sector attack, tensions with Pakistan have intensified. And now that India started to construct dams on rivers like the Chenab, Jhelum and Ravi, based on Prime Minister Modi’s rather dramatically-expressed approach that “water and blood cannot run together.” Worried by India’s exertions and after the failure of a number of marathon sessions, Pakistan headed to the International Court of Justice for arbitration, claiming that India had violated the Indus Water Treaty 1960.
Examining the Indus Water treaty, one can easily comprehend that India was given control over three eastern rivers, and only limited control over western rivers Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab. India was allowed to utilize an overall 16% of the water of western rivers. And so, India claimed and proved that it has not been using water more than its due share.
By taking this ill-advised and jejune move, Pakistan has brought a crack in its international reputation. It is likely to affect Pakistan in every other stance that it takes before international institutions or organizations. The image of a side which issues false proclamations is one to be avoided at all costs – and Pakistan’s policy-makers would do well to bear this in mind for the future.
Undoubtedly, India has always been able to bring to bear its greater influence and power. It benefits from being one of the largest economies of the world and having commensurate clout in international organizations and institutions. Before reaching the ICJ (International court of Justice) for arbitration, Pakistan involved the World Bank in an attempt to curb India’s construction of dams, but could not persuade it.
Meanwhile, India’s rhetoric on the construction of dams in Pakistani-administered Kashmir and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has not been carefully considered. For instance, India proclaimed that Pakistan does not have the right to start any project or construction in the disputed territory – raising questions over its own construction of dams, namely Kishenganga dam, Ratle Hydroelectric Plant and Baghliar Dam in Indian-administered parts of Kashmir.
If India somehow were to succeed in blocking construction of Pakistani dams due to its influence, power and lobbying, then Pakistan can call into question dam construction in Indian-held parts of Kashmir on firm footing. The construction of Baghliar Dam was challenged in the World Bank, i.e. the signatory organization of the Indus Water Treaty, but India won the approbation of the WB.
As China confronts the US on economic as well as military levels, Washington appears to be using India almost as a marionette to challenge China’s leading role in Asia. But India would do well to learn a lesson from Pakistan. Historically, Pakistan became an ally of the USA twice, and both times, it brought the menace of terrorism on its territory. Moreover it ruined relations with neighbours, for example, Afghanistan and Iran.
Interestingly, along with border disputes, India has water conflicts with a number of countries including Pakistan, China, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. The River Brahmaputra, which basically originates in China and is called Yarlung Zangbo there, can give birth to tensions in India and Bangladesh, especially if China unilaterally diverts its direction or starts constructing dams over it. This gives Pakistan leverage in case India unilaterally backs out of the Indus Water Treaty in the same way as it unilaterally revoked article 370’s special status for occupied Kashmir.
The Teesta River, which flows down from the Himalayas, has become a bone of contention between Bangladesh and India. This river has been considered a lifeline for western as well as northern Bengal. Bangladesh is facing water stress owing to the construction of the Farakka Barrage. This very issue has become an obstacle to the policy-making process.
There is a misunderstanding that China is taking away Nepal from the orbit of India, whereas the reality of India-Nepal disputes lies in water as well as border issues. Nepal has disputes with India over the Mahakali River treaty.
At the same time, India is taking an interest in Afghanistan as recently it constructed a dam there called the Afghan-India Friendship Dam (AIFD), formerly known as the Salma Dam. This may become worrisome for Pakistan as it may cause water blockage of the Kabul River, which streams down into Pakistan.
India’s investment in Afghanistan is at risk after the withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. It may become challenging for the BJP to deal with the Afghan Taliban due to contrasting objectives.
Quite simply, the solution to the emerging strategic mess is that the BJP must reconsider its extreme behavior towards its neighboring countries, even if it is emboldened by the Trump administration. After all, the Trump administration’s survival of upcoming elections is an open question, especially after its faulty and inefficient handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
India’s errors and transgressions, grievous as they are, should not serve as an Pakistan’s excuses for its own incompetence, complacency or mishandling of water and related strategic issues.
On the one side, Pakistan is challenging India’s water stoppage as an illegal move, whereas on the other side, the former is not able to construct even a single dam on its own since 1975. In fact, the issue was raised in ICJ that Pakistan did not have storage capacity, owing to which, precious water amounting to 29 MAF (Million Acre Feet) was being dropped into the Arabian ocean – a resource of net worth more than Rs. 4,500 Billion. Eventually, the Pakistan government has signed a contract of Rs. 442 billion for the construction of the Diamer-Basha Dam with a joint venture of China Power and the Frontier Works Organization (FWO).
Neither have we in Pakistan been able to control floods nor have we been able to store and utilize flooded water for irrigation and other purposes. We could have stored plenty of water in recent rains, for instance, which have proved devastating due to a lack of storage capacity. On the one hand, Karachi is flooded. Yet, according to international standards, the minimum water storage capacity for a country is 130 days, and Pakistan has only 30 days’ supply, while India and the US have 190 and 900 respectively.
Trans-boundary water conflicts have always been challenging, not only for the countries at loggerheads, but also for international institutions and organizations. The disputes become even more perilous when they happen to exist between nuclear-armed countries. It is commonly believed that the conflicts to come are likely to break out due to water crises. That is an issue for the international community to take very seriously – lest we all end up sorry.
And Pakistan must try to build dams rather than dragging ill-considered accusations to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and exhausting precious diplomatic capital.
Sumeera Asghar Roy is a PhD candidate at the National Key Laboratory of Fruit Sciences, Beijing, China. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan. She has represented Pakistan at many global platforms, conferences and workshops, including the United Nations Organic Forum 2019. Her work has been published in numerous outlets in and out of Pakistan, including Haaretz, The Nation, The Policy Forum, Pakistan Today, The Financial And Business Times Ghana, ModernGhana.com, NayaDaur, Technology Times Pakistan, Eurasiareview.com, Cameroon Magazine, etc.
Engr. Rehan Saeed is a postgraduate student at the College of Agricultural Engineering, China Agricultural University, Beijing, China. He holds his bachelor’s degree from the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad, Pakistan.
The author is a Ph.D. candidate at China Agriculture University, Beijing