India’s weaponisation of the Indus Water Treaty

India’s pitch to “modify” and “amend” the treaty without giving any specifics has raised immense concern for Islamabad

Ozer Khalid February 07, 2023
The writer is a senior consultant, foreign policy expert and a columnist. He can be contacted at [email protected] and tweets @OzerKhalid

India’s recent pitch to “modify” and “amend” the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) without offering any specifics has been viewed with immense concern by Islamabad. The Indus water is Pakistan’s lifeblood as 70% of rural Pakistan depends on the Indus River and any drastic unilateral changes by Delhi will escalate tensions between India and Pakistan.

A key perspective on the latest IWT announcement is to understand exactly what type of “modifications” Delhi is seeking, which have not been specified. If the “amendment” is linked to the dispute settlement process, over which India has qualms it might be reconciled. A major reason the IWT stood the test of time is due to its resilient dispute settlement. This itself becomes a bone of contention for Delhi revealing mala fide spoiler intent. With only one party (India) seeking modifications, the IWT now faces a protracted litmus test.

If however, as Pakistani hydrologists suspect, India seeks changes in the “river use sharing protocols” then major escalations are imminent. As an upstream riparian state, India provocatively builds controversial hydroelectric plants to prevent water from flowing westwards and downstream into Pakistan. India’s intransigent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been threatening to “modify” the IWT for years. If “modify” implies “divert major waters away from Pakistan” things will be dire for Pakistan. Islamabad must nip this in the bud and deal most effectively with this ticking conundrum.

Under the IWT’s status quo, Pakistan and India are each allotted control over 3 rivers, the Western ones are under Pakistan`s control and the Eastern ones are under India’s authority. Pakistan remains the lower riparian state, meaning the more vulnerable of the two, rendering Pakistan’s causes for concern ever-more legitimate. To address this vulnerability, the IWT, at present, allocates 80% of the total Indus Basin River flows to Pakistan. Pakistan’s major concern remains how India flagrantly withholds water from canals that flow into Pakistan as it did in 1948. India previously delayed Pakistan’s building of canal systems for the utilisation of Western rivers.

An intergovernmental Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague currently hears a dispute between Pakistan and India on the latter’s illegal Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric projects contravening the IWT. The Kishanganga project encroaches upon the River Jhelum whereas the Ratle courses through the Chenab River over Indian illegally occupied Kashmir. The 1996 Water Convention, which no South Asian state has yet ratified, protects lower riparian states such as Pakistan. Islamabad should ratify this Treaty on an urgent basis to be granted additional hydrological and legal protection and remedies under international transboundary water laws.

If India seeks to divert water away from Pakistan it will be in violation not only of the IWT but also of the 1996 International Water Treaty, which provides mechanisms for cooperation and information exchange between one or more countries regarding their use of river water under the arbitration of a neutral expert. It fixes and delimits the rights and obligations on the judicious use of river water.

External analysts and environmentalists have since long envisaged amendments to the IWT to reflect the evolving climate and demographic realities. However, this is envisioned under mutual reciprocity and collaboration, which is not the Modi government/BJP’s strong suit.

India already has a notorious track record of illegally storing, diverting and weaponising water all over South Asia. Delhi has contravened the Indus Basin’s Western water flows by diverting them away from Pakistan in violation of the 1996 Water Treaty. India has long-ranging water disputes with Bangladesh and illegally diverts the Ganges River from Northern India away from Bangladesh in abrogation of the 1996 Ganges Water Sharing Treaty. Bangladesh’s rivers often dry up, especially during the dry season as India purposely draws excess water. Past wars were fought over oil. Future wars will be waged over water, especially due to global scarcity.

Kashmir is a strategic nerve-center for Pakistan and India as it is the water artery from where most rivers emanate and flow. India’s recent border skirmishes with China and clashes are due to Pangong Lake, which is strategically important to Taiwan. India and China also clash over the vital Brahmaputra, a basin most at risk for interstate water conflict. Both the Brahmaputra and the glaciers that feed Ganga emanate in China. As an upstream riparian, China maintains an advantageous stance and can erect infrastructure to intentionally prevent water from flowing downstream into India. Delhi and Beijing are also hotly contesting the Indian Ocean region where future battle lines are being drawn. US-China and a possible third world war are contingent upon power contests over the South China Sea.

Witness how Israel unlawfully claims the Jordan River Basin to solidify their Middle Eastern hegemony — a central issue in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Russia partly invaded Ukraine to control the Sea of Azov’s flow to the Black Sea. Ukraine also leveraged water by geo-strategically reducing the volume of water flowing via a canal to Crimea.

Modi`s recent bravado over the Indus Water Treaty is likely a pre-election sloganeering stunt. If so, Modi, Mohan Bhagwat, Samant Goel and Yogi Adityanath are increasingly desperate for pre-elections, taking India down a deleterious path. Their whole Sikkim-Ladakh misadventure with China backfired and future antics over the IWT could escalate Pakistan-India tensions along the Line of Control. India now fears China and the Afghan Taliban, thus the back-handed dealing between Taliban Defence Minister Mohammad Yaqoob, Stanikzai and the Indians. India seeks a stumbling Pakistan as a buffer and hedge with the Taliban.

Pakistan’s recent power outages and now a strategically pre-meditated threat of water diversion intensify Pakistan’s threat matrix. The BJP, RSS and Research and Analysis Wing could be planning water diversions and cyber hacking of Pakistan’s power grids to further destabilise the country. Therefore, Pakistan must fully prepare for multi-pronged hybrid warfare, both physical and virtual.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 7th, 2023.

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