Narendra Modi's second term as Indian prime minister is underway following his Bharatiya Janata Party's landslide victory in last month's parliamentary elections, and the National Institution for Transforming India, a policy think tank of the Indian government, has released a 100-day agenda. Among the proposals for developing infrastructure and lowering India's unemployment rate, currently at an all-time high, is an emphasis on better managing the country's water resources. Water management is a controversial and touchy subject in India, but with one-third of the country in drought, water supplies in India's sixth-largest city, Chennai, running dry, and dire predictions that this year's delayed monsoon season will fail to deliver adequate rainfall totals, water management is likely to rise higher on India's priority list.
The Modi government is focused on building a network of dams and water-linkage projects, especially across northern India, to reduce the threat from China's dam-building activity on India's northeastern border and to ensure that it is effectively using the share of water allotted to it under the decades-old Indus Water Treaty before it flows into Pakistan. Adding to an escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan in February that followed a suicide attack in Kashmir were comments by Nitin Gadkari, then India's water resources minister, declaring that India would not allow excess water to flow into Pakistan and that New Delhi would work toward completely using its portion of the shared river basin, the Indus. While persistent tensions between India and Pakistan have threatened the Indus treaty, a variety of reasons explain why India is unlikely to withdraw from it and is more likely to follow through on increased usage of water, which in itself could be detrimental.
The Indus Water Treaty
For almost 60 years, India and Pakistan have shared the rivers and tributaries of the Indus Basin under the aegis of the Indus Water Treaty. Brokered by the World Bank in 1960, the Indus Water Treaty effectively split the six main rivers of the Indus Basin into geographic halves, with the three western rivers — the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab — to be used by Pakistan and the three easternmost rivers — the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej — to be used by India. Certain restrictions were placed on India as the upper riparian nation, especially with regard to storage and irrigation activity. The Permanent Indus Commission manages the treaty. Hailed as a success story, the treaty has survived numerous wars and skirmishes between the two neighbors, and while India and Pakistan have been in a permanent state of conflict over a variety of issues since 1947, no war has been fought over water.
At a time when states within India have yet to find lasting solutions to shared bodies of water, a Teesta River agreement with Bangladesh remains elusive and a treaty with China on the Brahmaputra River abides as a pipe dream, the Indus treaty is an example of how water resources can be shared through a legal framework. However, the treaty — more of a divorce settlement between India and Pakistan — represented the best arrangement possible at the time it was signed. By creating an equal division on the use of waters in the rivers of the Indus Basin and not an equitable or jointly integrated planning and management system of the entire basin, the treaty fails to safeguard the long-term rights and health of the Indus River itself. The current state of the river, stressed by the region's growing population, changes in the climate, long-pending disputes on dam-related activity and misuse of the treaty during times of war, raise the question of potential revisions to the treaty.
Right for Its Time, but Right for Now?
During times of tension between India and Pakistan, speculation arises around the possibility of India's misuse of the Indus waters as a weapon of war. After the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament by Pakistan-based militant groups, reports suggested that then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had studied the treaty's use as a potential option for retaliation, though no official stand was taken. In 2016, Modi directly referred to the Indus waters, stating that "blood and water can't flow together," in the aftermath of an attack on India's Uri army base by the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. While Modi's dramatic statement could be interpreted in many ways and fed the public outcry for revenge, the Indian government remained within the confines of the Indus pact, though it decided to review and restart construction on the Tulbul navigation project on Wular Lake, which is fed by the Jhelum River. Similar strong statements were made in February when Gadkari, the water resources minister, said India would maximize the use of its share of the eastern rivers, where currently underutilized waters flow into Pakistan and to sea.
Questions about the Indus Water Treaty's efficacy and how well it reflects current realities will become more pressing in the years ahead.
While politicians and the administration might make certain statements to appease the public, it is clear that India is likely to continue to operate within the confines of the treaty. The international community, which views the pact as part of a successful conflict resolution, would see its abrogation as irresponsible. However, while the treaty might have withstood four wars, its potential misuse, existing disputes on proposed activity, and the lack of trust between Pakistan and India could lead to consequences beyond political bluster and public sentiment. Further, the treaty does not include China, which possesses the Indus headwaters. At present, China is more closely aligned with Pakistan. The tenuous nature of the relationships among India, China and Pakistan does not rule out the possibility of Beijing's involvement in the river basin. China's dam-building activity on the Tibetan Plateau is already a cause of tension on India's eastern front (Brahmaputra-Ganga Basin), and any similar activity on the Indus will affect its flow into India and Pakistan.
India uses about 95 percent of the water allotted to it under the Indus Water Treaty. To consume the remaining 5 percent — about 2 million acre-feet (2.5 billion cubic meters) — several dams and storage facilities would have to be constructed in a manner that does not violate the treaty. However, this does not consider the decrease such additional use would cause to the river's flow, which is vital to maintaining the health of the river itself. Across the entire basin, more than 90 percent of the allotted water is already used for irrigation purposes, and further activity coupled with uncertain changes in climate will place an even greater strain on the river basin.
While it would be detrimental to suggest the Indus Water Treaty be abolished, questions about its efficacy and how well it reflects current realities will become more pressing in the years ahead. Over the past five decades, discussions on certain aspects of the treaty have been resolved through dialogue and arbitration and are possible through the Permanent Indus Commission. One area of consideration for future discussion is developing a more integrated management system that safeguards the health of the Indus River and addresses the needs of growing populations, hydroelectricity and irrigation demands on both sides of the river basin. Lessons from around the world indicate that such improvement is possible, and recent testing of the waters for a revival of talks between Pakistan and India provides a potential opening for renewed discussions.