India, Pakistan and water - Lecture by Ramaswamy Iyer at MIDS

This lecture by Ramaswamy Iyer delivered at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) highlights the conflicts over water sharing in India and Pakistan.

It traces the roots of the conflicts to the strained relations between India and Pakistan following the partition and the framing of the Indus Water Treaty in 1960. The paper highlights the acute sense of anxiety over water in Pakistan, the reasons for blaming of India by Pakistan in this context, what India can do about it and the sense of insecurity and vulnerability that Pakistan has harboured since then, which the paper argues, exists even today.

There have been a number of arguments for and against the treaty. An important criticism of the treaty is that it has carried out a surgery on the river-system, dividing it into two segments, one for Pakistan and one for India. The paper argues that this division of the river system into two segments was not the best thing to do, and that the better course would have been for the two countries jointly to manage the entire system in an integrated and holistic manner. However, the circumstances of the partition and the difficult relationship between the two newly formed countries, made it difficult for this option to work out.

The paper argues that the current differences between India and Pakistan are not about water-sharing, but about certain design and engineering features of Indian projects on the western rivers. For example, the treaty is both permissive and restrictive towards Indian projects, particularly big projects on the western rivers. India tries to use the permissive provisions to the full whereas Pakistan tries to apply the restrictive provisions stringently.

The two countries are thus pulling in two opposite directions. This leads to a permanent tug of war in the Indus Commission. The argument about each project goes on endlessly. Thus, though the treaty has resolved the water-sharing issue, it has created a potentially adversarial situation in relation to the Indian use of the western rivers.Thus, Pakistan continues to look at any attempt by India to build structures on the western rivers with anxious eyes. The problem has got even more complicated as many of the Indian projects are located in Jammu and Kashmir.

Right or wrong, certain misperceptions on water persist and are widespread in Pakistan. This has serious implications for India-Pakistan relations and for peace on the subcontinent. Persistent efforts are needed at both official and nonofficial levels to remove misperceptions and to reassure the people of Pakistan that their anxieties are uncalled for.

At the same time, while these misperceptions need to be dispelled, joint studies are needed on (a) the reported reduction of flows in the western rivers and the factors responsible, and (b) the cumulative impact of a large number of projects on the western rivers. Inter-country consultations and research are also called for on environmental concerns and on the impacts of climate change.

Apart from the Indus Treaty, there are other possibilities of cooperation between the two countries such as timely information sharing on floods and cooperation on the minimisation of damage; sharing experience and knowledge on the problem of water logging and salinity in the Indus basin etc. These possibilities have not been adequately explored.

The paper ends by arguing that the present reality, of climate change, and its possible impacts on water resources, are matters of urgent concern to all the countries of South Asia and realistic efforts need to be made at close collaborations among the countries of South Asia at governmental, NGO and civil society levels to deal with this impending threat to water resources.

The entire paper can be downloaded from below:

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