A Familiar Dispute in the Indus River Valley

3 MINS READJan 12, 2017 | 09:15 GMT
A Familiar Dispute in the Indus River Valley
Though tension over the contested region of Kashmir has fueled the disagreement in recent months, India and Pakistan's dispute over control of the waters of the Indus River Basin is nothing new.

For centuries, control of the Indus River Basin's waters has been a point of contention among the region's inhabitants. Since 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty has governed use of the region's water between India and Pakistan. But late in 2016, a flare-up between India and Pakistan over the disputed Kashmir region cast renewed doubt on the pact. India even threatened to pull out of the treaty in the war of words that ensued. Even so, the agreement was never in any real danger. As it has throughout history, the Indus River Basin will continue to fuel intermittent disputes between the countries that depend on its waters, disagreements that Islamabad and New Delhi will use to advance their political aims in the coming year.

The latest clash over the Indus River Basin centers around India's Kishanganga and Ratle hydroelectric projects. Pakistan first raised concerns about the Kishanganga venture in 2007, arguing that it would interfere with its own hydroelectric project. Three years later, Islamabad filed a formal complaint with an international court of arbitration, which ruled in 2013 that India could proceed with construction on the project. Islamabad renewed its opposition to the dam last summer. This time, its objection focuses on the amount of water that the project could draw from the Indus River Basin. Islamabad insists that the amount will exceed India's allotted share of the rivers under Pakistan's control — the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum — a case it has now taken to the World Bank, the party that negotiated the Indus Waters Treaty.

Under the treaty's terms, India is allowed to use 20 percent of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers for applications such as agriculture and hydropower projects. (India also has access to the other three main rivers of the Indus basin, the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, in their entirety.) New Delhi does not take full advantage of its allotment, however, because it lacks sufficient storage capacity. In fact, some estimates put its use of the waters under Pakistan's control at just 4 percent of its total allocation. Nonetheless, Islamabad is adamant that the Kishanganga and Ratle projects would infringe on water that rightfully belongs to Pakistan.

In accordance with the Indus Water Treaty's procedures for dispute resolution, Pakistan requested a court of arbitration to consider the matter in August 2016. Bilateral talks over the issue fell apart in September. A World Bank representative held another round of discussions over the dispute in India on Jan. 5. During the visit, Islamabad reiterated its request to convene another court of arbitration, while New Delhi demanded the opinion of a neutral expert — another option available under the treaty. But by all appearances, the two sides are no closer to a resolution. A court of arbitration has already ruled on other aspects of the Kishanganga project. A former Pakistani commissioner of the treaty has expressed doubt that the issue will be settled before the project is up and running.

With no end in sight to the dispute over the waters of the Indus River Basin, leaders in India and Pakistan may try to capitalize on the matter for political gain. Both countries will hold general elections in the next few years, and politicians in Islamabad and New Delhi may highlight the issue during their campaigns. For Pakistan especially, continuing its efforts against India's hydroelectric projects provides an opportunity to keep the conflict over Kashmir in the international spotlight and to bring attention to New Delhi's perceived aggression. As relations between India and Pakistan come under further strain in the coming year, the Indus River Valley will be just another theater of their enduring rivalry.

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