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Time to amend water treaty with Pakistan

The treaty, brokered by the World Bank and signed in 1960, gives India control over the waters of the eastern rivers
Last Updated : 02 February 2023, 22:16 IST

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India’s frustration with Pakistan’s obstructionist approach has culminated in its notification to Islamabad calling for negotiations to amend the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). The treaty, brokered by the World Bank and signed in 1960, gives India control over the waters of the eastern rivers—the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej, and Pakistan control over the western rivers—the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum. It also allows India to use the western rivers for limited and unlimited non-consumptive use, such as for power generation, navigation, fish culture, etc. While the IWT has survived upheavals in bilateral relations, including wars, it has in recent decades seen the two sides pointing accusing fingers at each other. Pakistan, for instance, has objected to the already constructed Kishanganga hydropower project and the planned Ratle project on the Chenab and Jhelum rivers respectively. India is annoyed with Pakistan blocking what it sees as its legitimate rights under the IWT and is fed up with Islamabad delaying its projects. Instead of sorting out its water quarrels with India through negotiations in the Permanent Indus Commission of Experts that meets regularly, Pakistan has taken the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Meanwhile, the World Bank has appointed a neutral expert in response to India’s request. While the IWT allows for both a neutral expert and a court of arbitration, these are not supposed to run concurrently. If the two mechanisms give conflicting rulings, it would escalate the conflict and lead to a deeper deadlock.

India has plans to build several hydropower projects in the Kashmir region. Apprehension over conflicts arising over all these projects and a consequent slowing of implementation of its plans has prompted India to issue the notification calling for an amendment to the treaty. An amendment is overdue as much has changed in the 62-plus years since it was negotiated—populations have grown, water-storing technologies have advanced, and the threat of climate change looms. A new treaty would reflect changes and new concerns and remove fuzziness on contentious issues.

But there is a danger that by issuing a notification for amendment of the IWT, India may have opened a new front in its already complex relationship with Pakistan. Will the two countries be able to negotiate a water-sharing settlement within a time frame when simpler disputes are festering? Water is an issue that evokes great passion and has triggered wars. India and Pakistan must avoid the temptation to use it to rally nationalists on either side of the border. The two countries vote in general elections within a year and there is a danger that water-sharing could be made a campaign plank by unscrupulous politicians. That would serve neither country.

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Published 02 February 2023, 18:15 IST

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