India and Pakistan ended their talks in Washington over the Indus Water Treaty without reaching an agreement in August. This came a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that blood and water can’t flow together in September 2016 when his government suspended the biannual Indus Water Commission meeting with Pakistan. In Pakistan, a fear had developed that India would turn off the taps.
Can India really threaten Pakistan over water? TFT asked Jaweid Ishaque, an economist who has worked in agriculture and is editing a forthcoming monograph on water in Pakistan by Adnan Asdar Ali, a civil engineer with diverse experience in structural and forensic engineering, who has become an advocate for awareness on water in Pakistan.
TFT: What are the rivers we are talking about?
JI: There is a six-river system in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. Our current area was being watered by six rivers, tributaries and the main river Indus. The three eastern rivers of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej in India, had a course, which brought them from overall Kashmir down into east Punjab and into Pakistan. Ravi was entering Pakistan around Narowal, Beas enters Pakistan just south of Kasur and Sutlej enters Pakistan in Haroonabad district, Bahawalnagar. In Pakistan, you have the three western rivers, of Jhelum, Chenab and Indus.
TFT: What is the Indus Water Treaty?
JI: At Partition, Ravi and Sutlej were major rivers and Beas was already almost reduced by half in its inflows. The headworks of both these rivers were uniquely given to India at Partition in the last minute revision of the Radcliffe Award (that decided the boundary), although both the headworks belonged to districts which were originally Muslim majority and which were expected to come to Pakistan. This is the crucial, unfinished business of Partition!
The Radcliffe Award twisted it in the last moments—although this is a story for another time—when both the headworks were given to India. So now, for the three eastern rivers, the major headworks were in India, and their water was coming to Pakistan. So India started flexing its muscle in 1948. They stopped water first in 1948, sparking a diplomatic crisis for the fledgling state; then in 1954-55 when peak floods came they let out more flows and when there was a drought in 1955-56 they reduced the flow unilaterally. Then there was another similar problem in 1958, though of smaller magnitude.
Then when Ayub Khan came to power in 1958 he developed a good relationship with the US administration at the time. The Eisenhower Administration used its global clout to involve the World Bank into an in-depth assessment of the fundamentals of the simmering water disputes and insisted on diplomatic engagements under the moderations of US and WB officials.
In 1960, after years of negotiations, finally, the Indus Water Accord (also called the Indus Waters Treaty) took place. It was signed in Washington and guaranteed by the World Bank, because the US involved it. They wanted a principled and enduring solution. Combined we, (India/Pakistan) made up one-fifth of humanity at that time and were mired in poverty and subsistence agriculture. They did not want this one-fifth of humanity going to war over water. The Eisenhower Administration inducted the WB because the accord that took shape needed major infrastructure investments, which were subsequently underwritten by USAID and the WB.
TFT: What did the treaty decide?
JI: A compromise is alway a give and take. In the give and take, the people who have more, give more, and the people who have less take more. Otherwise there can be no compromise, just hegemony. When the IWT happened, we had to compromise, there had to be some give and some take on both sides. Therefore it appears frivolous when we observe statements by “responsible” politicians on both sides that leaders of that time “sold out” the interests of respective nations.
In the Accord, it was decided that for the disputed rivers, allocations should be on the basis of share of river runs or courses as measured from their headwaters to their lower confluences with a larger river. Thus the eastern rivers whose courses primarily ran more in India, were allocated to India, and the three western rivers, that come directly from Kashmir into Pakistani Punjab and pass less through India, should be allocated to Pakistan.
TFT: So we gave up three rivers to India?
JI: Everyone says we took three and gave up three. But a reality check is in order: What did we give up and what did we get? A PPP leader had said that Ayub Khan gave our three rivers away to India in the IWT because he was a dictator. A little scientific evidence is in order here and the numbers present a different picture.
All river flows are measured at rim stations which are the northern most monitoring stations. They were established in colonial times starting around the 1860s. [We] extracted the readings of the Indus rivers at the time that this Accord was signed to see how much water was going where. We wanted to know what were the rim station readings which would have been on the table during the negotiations. It turns out, Pakistan gave up 29MAF of water in the three eastern rivers to India, a fact recorded in the IWT details. But at that time our three western rivers were giving us 114MAF.
TFT: We still lost 29MAF to India?
JI: When this happened, Pakistan asked what would happen to southern and eastern Punjab which were being served by the 3 eastern rivers allocated primarily to India. They feared they would be badly affected. That’s when the WB, the US and the UK got together. They asked, what is Pakistan losing? 29MAF? So, to make up for this you have excess water in the Jhelum and Chenab. Your population centres are more towards the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas. Pakistan’s rivers did not follow the spread of Pakistan’s population as it has taken place historically, over the last 100 years. The spread of the population and industrial centres took place more in the region of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej and to some extent in the Chenab basin: Gujranwala, Lahore, Faisalabad, Sahiwal. These points were getting water from Chenab, Ravi, Beas and the Sutlej. Sutlej feeds Bahawalpur and lower Multan division. Lodhran, Vehari, Chishtian, Bahawalnagar, Haroonaabad are the areas that would get affected by a reduction in flows of the Sutlej.
The IWT sponsor entities (US, UK & WB) decided to launch an ambitious scheme to compensate for the loss of the 29MAF of the eastern rivers. A whole new system of barrages, dams and link canals was master planned to bring water from Jhelum and Chenab, which are surplus water areas, into the water-deficient areas into the beds of the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.
It was estimated to cost about $8b. The WB and USAID committed to provide, in the course of 10 years, funding on the softest of terms and the expertise to design and build this infrastructure. USAID and the WB literally midwifed our entire irrigation system [post-Partition]. (The British did a lot of work pre-Partition).
A fact that is never mentioned is that $60m was even levied on India as contibution, however small but by no means negligible in those times, as its compensation to the building of this infrastructure in Pakistan. No reciprocal payment was to be made by Pakistan for its full usage of flows from the western rivers, most probably in recognition of the fact that there was no substantive agricultural usage in the Indian geography of the western rivers. However, some marginal use for “domestic and industrial” segments was allowed to India from these rivers. Furthermore, a period of 30 years was agreed as the time required to build up the “alternative infrastructure” on both sides.
By putting the treaty in place, we crystallised for all time to come an agreement to share the waters, which is guaranteed by multilateral institutions as well as de facto by the US government. In fact, a detailed procedure for “dispute resolution” was also envisaged and embodied in the treaty/accord, which to date has stood the test of time even during active armed conflict between the two nations.
TFT: What happened in Pakistan after the treaty?
JI: This infrastructure building was a multi-decade programme. The WB said the first priority would be to make Mangla dam on the Jhelum, the second would be Tarbela and the Indus Waters programme clearly stated that after the completion of these two, the Pakistani government will need to undertake at least three more dams, one in each succeeding decade. This was all thought out in 1961-65. The WB and US assisted and directed the making of two dams immediately because storage was needed to develop Pakistan’s agricultural sector. Thus Mangla started construction in 1967 and was completed in 1971. Tarbela was started in 1974 and was completed in 1979.
The Accord has clearly stated that Pakistan will need to build at least three more dams. We are stressing this because today everyone is taking credit for these dams. Well, this was actually envisioned back in 1967.
TFT: But we still share water with India and it can stop the supply?
JI: A smaller clause in the treaty was that India would let at least 6% of the eastern river flow into Pakistan or whatever peak floods allowed. But it has to give a minimum of 6%. That is why if one takes readings from the rim stations for even the last decade one can see what has been happening. India is messing around with it a little but is still giving us water. If you freeze the levels in time, and just consider a flow of 29MAF from the rivers, 6% of it comes to 2-2.5MAF and India has been regularly giving between 1MAF and 3MAF, sometimes even more during flood flow years. But this is nothing to fight about. It does not appear a big deal, at least in our humble opinion when seen in the background that we are losing far greater amounts from our own water flows through surface and unlined canal seepage, water logging, wrong choice of crops, surface evaporation due outmoded irrigation practices, rainwater wastage in Balochistan, etc. Peace is far more important than 2-3MAF of water.
TFT: What are other restrictions on India?
JI: There is no lingering problem on the Eastern rivers. On the Western rivers, concurrently, it was envisaged that Pakistan would have exclusive rights—but India can use the water in its own territory for “run-of-the-river” projects to create hydroelectricity or even for domestic and industrial and some “limited” agricultural uses. But this was capped or limited to never exceed 5% (equivalent in cusecs) of the three western rivers wherever they wanted to do work, on Kishanganga or Wullar barrage or Baglihar.
If India wants to make a dam or barrage it can only do this if it is for a run-of-the river project (ie they don’t store water), they make electricity and let bulk of the water pass through. Whenever dams are built for run-of-the river projects, a lake will always be created behind the dam. But the difference is that if it is an RoR project then the lake will only have the capacity to allow the turbines to get the headflow and avoid siltation on lake bed. You don’t make a bigger lake unless it is for storage. It would be a lake for a maximum of 2MAF. Storage lakes are bigger. India dandi mar sakta he, they are allowed as long as at any point it is not taking more than 5% from the flow of the river.
So, we are not that worried about the Eastern rivers because while we may have lost 29MAF, the link canals and infrastructure that was added, brought in 20MAF or slightly more from other rivers and compensated for that “loss”.
TFT: Who checks this?
JI: Independent experts. Of late a satellite image-based, telemetric system has been emplaced to record and monitor flows of all disputed rivers. Everything is in place; it is the most well-recorded irrigation system outside of the US and EU. I think they might even be able to tell you how many fish passed in a river! Because it is monitored by the WB as a third party. IWC members are paid by the WB. So no one can say dandi mar rahe hain, or stealing. Their website is updated weekly, monitored by the WB.
TFT: What if Modi turns off the tap to Pakistan’s water?
JI: Let’s suppose he has his finger on the “water button”. All of India’s dams on these existing rivers; how much water do you think they can store? It is less than 5MAF. [So if they stop the water from flowing down to Pakistan and store it] what will they do after [their dams] fill up after eight days? They will be forced to let the water through [or their dams will burst]. There is a limit to how much they can stop.
On these three rivers they have barrages but they have only two or three dams and they can store a total of only roughly 4-5 MAF. They will talk of stopping the Western rivers but as yet lack the capacity to hurt Pakistan beyond the above volumes. Wullar barrage hardly has 1MAF of storage.
TFT: Why have they left it like that?
JI: India has built a lot of dams—small dams. You need to undertand the geography to understand the politics. They will have to let the water through particularly from May to September which is peak monsoon flow season. It is all dhamki that they will stop our water.
Let’s assume India decides to store and build storage for 10MAF on the eastern rivers, which it could do. But the day India takes over 5% Pakistan can go to the IWC Tribunal or even the ICJ. Both these courses are open to us, without need for recourse to diplomatic spats or armed threats.
TFT: So India just sat there all these years?
JI: The IWT of 1960 has a clause that says that for 30 years, other than these approved projects, India and Pakistan can’t interfere in each other’s waters and cannot make any structures on rivers allocated to the other country. Even beyond the 30 years if India wishes to develop dams or barrages on the western rivers they will need to share the design so Pakistani experts can ensure that the parameters of minimum water storage are being complied with.
We are making them on the western rivers, but they are already approved. We did Mangla, then Tarbela and then we had approval for two or three more. We have exclusive use by the treaty. We can keep on making dams on these western rivers whether for hydel or storage.
India started planning in 1987 because the 30 years were to be over in 1990. They prepared for Wullar barrage in 1987 and for Baglihar around 1996-97. It was completed in 2011-12. Kishanganga started in 2007-2008 and is still being planned and it is a problem as it is on the Neelum. They state it is their river, which we dispute since it is a tributary of the Jhelum, meeting at Muzaffarabad and will directly impact the inflows into our river rights. These design features are still under adjudication by the Arbitrator under IWT provisions, which Pakistani experts are pursuing vigorously.
Whatever they did was after 1990. The clauses said you can do hydro, you can do run-of-the river and you can do storage, but not more than what the clauses specify, which is why we objected to the design of Baglihar and Wullar. In Wullar barrage our position was held up. In Baglihar our contention was modified. India had actually offered in 2008-09 that they were willing to modify the design just enough to to maintain what is called the mean dead level.
You are allowed to keep a mean dead level of water otherwise the damn starts to silt up. But the PPP government at the time insisted on going to the international court. At the end of the day, even if there is a difference of say 1MAF, is it worth bad relations?
TFT: But what about India saying it will build dams?
JI: They say they have six projects in line. Let them say it. Why create war, jang ka samaa? Sit and talk. Have another Indus water commission meeting.
We must assume that they have saner voices on the Indian side too. They have a National Water Authority for the IWC. Its experts openly stated that India can’t stop Pakistan’s water; it is an international treaty guaranteed by the World Bank and the US government. Why are you putting all your foreign policy at stake on a small matter. You can’t do it technically, others said.
TFT: What would happen if they built more dams upstream on “our” 3 western rivers?
JI: If they do so without significantly altering or reducing the flows of these rivers, and after sharing the design features with Pakistani experts, we should welcome it in the interests of good neighbourly relations. It does not violate the IWT.
However, we would be sceptical of the technical possibility. They would have to build further and further upstream into the mountains. They would have to contend with what is called the silt load. They made plans to make lots of dams in Uttrakhand and Arunchal Pradesh. Bhagirathi river and Alaknanda come out of Kashmir and go through Uttrakhand and meet up with the Ganges. They thought of a series of dams here. All initial construction work along with mountains of silt washed away villages and towns downstream. The environmentalists went to court, which stopped 23 out of 30 projects to build dams.
If they stop our water they will have to make dams to store it in the mountains. You can’t just build a dam at 12,000 feet altitude.
TFT: Any threat to build a dam is hollow?
JI: It’s not a hollow threat in the sense that it would take them eight to ten years to do it. Make a noise, object, but don’t make it an existential issue. That gives you enough reaction time. It’s not like you press a button and stop the waters. It is physically, engineering-wise not possible.
This is an abridged version of a longer interview that is available in full online