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Why is India clashing with Pakistan on landmark water deal?

Samaan Lateef
February 13, 2023

India is pushing for changes to the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) with Pakistan. The deal, brokered by the World Bank, was once hailed as a massive success.

A boat on the Jhelum river in the Indian-administrated Kashmir
The river Jhelum has a lot of potential for generating electrical power, but the consequences for Kashmir could be severeImage: ingimage/Wirestock/IMAGO

The landmark Indus Water Treaty (IWT), signed by India and Pakistan in 1960, agreed to regulate the flow of Indus River and its five tributaries. But India's current government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is pushing for the treaty to be renegotiated. Many in India are now calling for New Delhi to withdraw from it altogether.

The growing friction has prompted Pakistan to raise the issue at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague. However, Indian officials refused to attend the first meeting in late January, leaving Pakistani representatives to face nothing but empty chairs in front of the PCA officials.

New Delhi's stance is that the PCA is not competent to consider the questions on the IWT, and that an alternative, expert-led process is needed.  

The PCA has signaled it would issue a decision regarding its competence in June.

Three rivers for Pakistan, three rivers for India

The IWT gives New Delhi unrestricted control over the three eastern rivers — the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej — while Islamabad has control over the three western rivers — Jhelum, Chenab and Indus — flowing through India-administered Kashmir into Pakistan.

India can use 20% of the water of the three western rivers for purposes of irrigation, transport and power generation. The treaty also created a permanent commission where both countries' representatives are working to implement water-sharing goals.

The arrangement has survived through decades of rivalry and even open wars between the two countries. But tensions are high once again, and experts warn it would be difficult to re-negotiate the treaty if New Delhi unilaterally withdraws from it.

"The trust deficit is so wide that I don't think even a purely professional review of the treaty, in light of the serious overarching issues like climate change, is possible. Both sides should focus on building further from the treaty rather than dismantling what is already achieved and trying to rebuild something different," political analyst Reyaz Ahmad told DW.

IWT praised as a 'shining example of water diplomacy'

If India unilaterally leaves the IWT, the move would likely trigger public resentment in Pakistan. But resentment could be merely a starting point — if India decides to block the flow of the rivers currently controlled by Pakistan, it would affect nearly 62% of Pakistan's agricultural area.

Political analyst Ahmad said that officials needed to be "fair and reasonable."

He argued that the treaty has stood the test of time — six decades with three wars is a good enough period. "So don't think meddling with it is a good idea — whatever the compulsions may be. It is a shining example of water diplomacy," he said.

Ahmad recommends continuing the treaty and boosting the roles of the members of the Indus Commission in both countries.

"The roles and responsibilities should be enhanced — rather than seeing themselves as custodians of each country's interests, both sides' commissioners should see themselves as ambassadors of their respective countries to increase engagement and cooperation between the countries," he said.

What has become of Mahatma Gandhi's legacy?

What do Indian politicians say?

In India, critics argue the current arrangement is unfair to their country.

A senior leader of the ruling BJP party, Priya Sethi, has called for building electricity dams and irrigation channels "to ensure the water flow into Pakistan is stopped."

"We have to rethink the IWT because why should we allow our water to go to Pakistan, which has troubled us throughout?" she said.

"We will build impediments so that our water is used by farmers of Jammu and Kashmir and northern Indian states instead of going to Pakistan."

Modi himself has hinted at using the IWT to pressure the neighboring country in the past. In 2016, the Indian leader told IWT officials that "blood and water can't flow together at the same time" after militants killed 19 Indian Army soldiers in Kashmir.

New Delhi accuses Islamabad of backing militants in India-administered Kashmir, a charge denied by Pakistan.

Kashmir unhappy with the IWT

People in India-administered Kashmir too have grievances, as they believe the IWT is discriminatory and unfair towards them.

They argue the region's economy has suffered because the IWT has adversely impacted the hydropower potential of the region, since it puts restrictions on the storage volumes on the three western rivers, which are controlled by Pakistan.

A rail bridge connecting two hills in Kashmir high above the Chenab river
The world's highest railway bridge was built over the Chenab river in the Kashmir regionImage: Mohammad Abu Bakar/Pacific Press/IMAGO

People in Pakistan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, are also not happy as they feel the treaty has not fully safeguarded their interests.

A major source of conflict is that the treaty is ambiguous on hydropower projects in the troubled area. Kashmir has the potential to produce 20,000 megawatts (MW) of hydropower, which can become a major driving force for its economic growth, but it currently produces a mere 3,263 MW.

Notably, the Jhelum river has ideal topography for constructing large water storage systems, a senior official of Jammu Kashmir Power Development Corporation told DW. The river flows through Kashmir valley before entering into Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The IWT gave the control of the river itself to Pakistan.

"But any large storage along the Jhelum will inundate Kashmir Valley," he said.

A former official of Kashmir's Irrigation department said New Delhi should build smaller dams, possibly in cascade, on Jhelum's many tributaries. This would be permitted by the IWT.

Would India be able to stop water from flowing to Pakistan?

The western rivers contribute more than 80% (around 117 billion cubic meters, or BCM) of their flow to Pakistan's Indus basin irrigation system. In theory, stopping the flow to Pakistan could be achieved either by storing or diverting the water of these rivers.

However, the water from the western rivers is enough to inundate, every year, nearly 120,000 square kilometers (46,300 square miles) to a height of 1 meter (3 feet 3 inches). It could inundate the whole of Kashmir to a height of 7 meters in just one year. India would need 30 storage systems the size of Tehri Dam (260.5 m high and 592 m long) to store this volume, which is practically impossible, said another expert.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic

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