Through two wars and a half-century of suspicion and resentment, the Indus Waters Treaty has governed the sharing of a strategic river between the bitter nuclear rivals eager to control and to profit from it. But will India and Pakistan's treaty survive the emerging water crisis?
This article was reprinted in The Caravan magazine.
Halfway between Islamabad and Peshawar, the Indus River dips beneath the smooth six-lane blacktop of Pakistan's National Highway. One day last month, I stood on the shoulder and watched the river ripple beneath the bridge. It was an olive ribbon half as wide as the riverbed, where standing puddles glinted in the afternoon sun. It looked like a creek. Or a dying river.
The Indus—the name comes from the Sanskrit for "river"—is an ecological icon of the subcontinent that bears its name. Like all great rivers, it shaped the history of the ancient civilizations that appeared along its banks. Over the last century, it has grown an exoskeleton: a sprawling system of canals that has expanded into what is now the world's largest irrigation basin fed by a single river. It is a big job that's taken a heavy toll. Today, hundreds of miles downstream, the river, deprived of runoff from receding glaciers and choked by upstream diversions, no longer reaches the sea. And the sea has pushed back, intruding into the mainland, destroying millions of acres of crops and causing the evacuation of whole towns. It is a parable of human demand and its limitations.
Inevitably, the consequences are political. The river's flow has always been a source of tension between India and Pakistan, both of whom rely on it to generate hydroelectric power and to irrigate their agricultural heartland, and it springs from the heart of their most bitter dispute. The headwaters of the Indus and its tributaries flow south and west from Himalayan Kashmir, watering the rich Punjabi farmland on either side of the border, and into Pakistan where they merge and continue together toward the Arabian Sea. On a map, the waters look like a forked bolt of lightning, or a claw that reaches across a volatile divide.
In 1947, the partitioning of India and Pakistan divided the Indus basin, and the river became a potential source of conflict. In the six decades since, the river system has been a cauldron of tensions that have inevitably increased as the world became warmer and more populous. But for nearly as long, a unique accord, the Indus Waters Treaty, has, if not kept the peace, at least restrained the conflict.
"The Indus treaty is one of the chapters that is taught in all universities when you talk about conflict and cooperation," says Kishor Uprety, a senior World Bank lawyer who has spent his career working on development and legal issues about rivers. It's a sign of the treaty's success, he argues, that India and Pakistan have only fought two wars since it was signed. "Without a treaty," he says, "there would have been five or six wars between them."
Today, both countries are plagued by water stress—strained by demand from booming populations and increased competition for the Indus's dwindling resources. Against the river's fickle currents, dams and large reservoirs offer a measure of control, allowing each country to produce desperately needed food and energy: The Indus's waters are a critical outlet in the quest for power to fuel India's 8-percent annual growth rate, and the water lifeline on which Pakistan's agriculture-based economy relies, even amid the turmoil of fighting that has displaced some 2 million people there in recent months. And while the seven major river basins in South Asia, which are home to a quarter of the world's population, are all vulnerable to the unpredictable effects of climate change, the Indus's flow is uniquely dependent—to a startlingly unclear extent—on the seasonal runoff from rapidly shrinking Himalayan glaciers. Taken together, the incalculable impact of these factors raises questions about the future of the Indus, and the stakes for the rivals building new dams to harness its power.
"There is insufficient data to say what will happen to the Indus," says David Grey, the World Bank's senior water advisor in South Asia. "But we all have very nasty fears that the flows of the Indus could be severely, severely affected by glacier melt as a consequence of climate change," and reduced by perhaps as much as 50 percent. "Now what does that mean to a population that lives in a desert [where], without the river, there would be no life? I don't know the answer to that question," he says. "But we need to be concerned about that. Deeply, deeply concerned."
Amid tensions over a spate of Indian dams being built upstream in Kashmir, and water crises destabilizing both countries from within, will the region's fragile politics survive the environmental crises?
Facing $4.5 billion in annual losses from environmental disaster, Pakistan formed a task force on climate change last year to investigate global warming's potential impact on the nation. The task force, says one of its cochairmen, the 76-year-old Shamsul Mulk, is now "aiming at developing the capacity to at least be able to give some estimates" of the coming change in its water patterns. "We are not the culprits of climate change—you are the culprit," he tells me, meaning the western world, over a tea tray in an office parlor in a leafy residential neighborhood of Islamabad. "And you have done nothing about it."
If Mulk is unnerved by the lack of data it is because he has spent his career tending to Pakistan's delicate hydrology, and he understands its narrow margins. His was a generation of engineers that brought a fledgling, arid nation through its environmentally challenged infancy. He also served as director at Mangla, one of the country's largest dams, which displaced more than 100,000 Kashmiri villagers when it was built under the terms of the Indus treaty.
There is disagreement over the factors behind the Indus's decline—reduced glacial runoff, the heavy silt erosion typical of young mountains, and Pakistan's own upstream diversions. "It's very hard to prove any causation," says Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, "but across many different sectors of Pakistani society there is a belief that India is responsible for water scarcity, including the fact the rivers are disappearing."
When I ask Mulk why his country is so suspicious of its upstream neighbor, he tells me a story. In the months before partition, Pakistani officials had been worried that India might turn the tap on the British-built canals under its control. "Pakistan was misled by their apparently very sincere statements. 'How could a brother stop water to a brother?' These were their exact words," Mulk tells me. On April 1, 1948, India shut the canal gates and cut off water.
About 1.7 million acres of productive land went out of cultivation, he goes on, and with it almost as many jobs. India denies it was a strategic calculation, but the incident is a constant reminder in Pakistan of its vulnerability should India decide to starve or flood it—either as an act of war, or an act of espionage, or even as reckless disregard to undermine its posture in diplomatic negotiations.
Tensions were high at that time. The countries had already fought over the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir, stoking fears in diplomatic circles that a struggle for the Indus could provoke a series of intractable wars. An American named David Lilienthal traveled the region in 1951, on assignment for Collier's magazine, and soon took up a role negotiating the dispute. A former head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, Lilienthal envisioned a shared management of the river basin that would rely on cooperation between technocrats, which he hoped might transcend the political problems and possibly even lead to a Kashmir settlement.
It was an engineer's solution, and was soon thwarted by politics. Only after nine frenzied years of debate, and under the firm hand of the World Bank, did a solution emerge: India would get control of the three tributaries that flow through Kashmir; Pakistan would get the Indus and the two western tributaries. There has been resentment in both countries ever since—Indians unhappy with Pakistan's 75-percent allocation of the waters and Pakistanis upset because 90 percent of the irrigated land was in India's territory.
Now silt from the natural erosion of the Himalayas is clogging up Pakistan's canal system, which delivers water to other parts of the country, and there is a food shortage in many areas of Pakistan. As Mulk looks to worsening food and energy crises, he sees large dams as a necessary part of the solution. Which means the Indus. Which means that the treaty that safeguards Pakistan's interest must be honored, especially if the river falters as the planet warms.
But that will mean a renewed commitment to the spirit of the treaty, and the sacrifice it requires. "Even between a husband and a wife, as long as there is a sustained mutuality of benefits that relationship will remain," Mulk says. "The moment it is not, then that relationship has a problem."
"We have learned to share affluence. But sharing poverty is not so easy."
Mulk believes the compact should be guarded jealously: It allows for Indian hydroelectric projects upstream on Pakistan's tributaries, he concedes, but those provisions "have to be interpreted" not to allow projects that store too much water, which could then be withheld during the lean winters or crucial agricultural phases. Some Indians consider Pakistan's myriad objections to be baseless saber-rattling.
I start to ask Mulk if his fears were proportional to the threat. "I will just say," he cuts me off, his mood darkening, "Is it against the treaty? Because I don't want this treaty to be slowly and steadily eroded on the basis— well, it is a very minor thing, it is insignificant," he says. "It is essential that you stop the erosion on day one."
In addition to being a nuclear power, Pakistan is also, a land divided by mountains and deserts, corruption and inequality, paranoia and conspiracy. It's a nation literally at war with itself, and trying to pull itself together. As such, it has a hand in its own problems.
Just as the canal-replacement system (which Mulk worked on when he was 27) ranks as a great success, Mulk admits, the country's water management has its share of "tragic failures," namely the extreme inequities in distribution at the heart of its public-health crises: As many as a quarter of the country's illnesses come from a lack of access to safe water and sanitation.
Islamabad's diversion of water to upstream communities with ties to the government are inflaming sectarian loyalties and stoking unrest in the lower downstream region of Sindh. And in the port city of Karachi, water theft—in which public water is stolen from the pipes and sold from thousands of tankers around the city, especially in slums—may be a $500-million industry, says Mustafa Talpur, a Pakistani water activist. The water theft is also a mark of the state's decreasing capacity to provide for its own in a city of 17 million people that is "an ethnic and sectarian tinderbox waiting to explode," as the political commentator Ahmed Rashid recently described it. "It's been going on for 20 years," Talpur says, "but it's getting worse because all our governance is getting worse in Pakistan. Everything is really messed up institutionally."
The Indian perspective regarding water tensions is that Pakistan has made unreasonable objections to projects needed to sustain India's 8-percent annual growth rate and a population of more than a billion. Despite its status as an emerging economic giant, India is also a truly parched state in which millions of people face water and power shortages and where—as in Pakistan—politicians can win office on campaign promises to bring water to desperate communities. But to learn about why the country's hydro projects in Kashmir were so important, and whether Pakistan had reason to fear them, I spoke with Ashok Jaitly, former chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir (the Indian-administered area of Kashmir) who now works for the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. He called Pakistani objections "a delaying tactic."
"Every time we take up a project on any of the rivers," he says, "Pakistan objects. That's almost a given policy and we expect that." He says that India's dams upstream on Pakistan's rivers are all, in accordance with the treaty, "run of the river" dams, which use the flow of water to generate power, then release it again. "It's not reducing the flow of the water," he says. "But, yes, you do manage water for hydro-generation and therefore there is a change in the timing of the flow, which is—which should be—acceptable."
He continues, "They are always free to look at the design and the structures and express their views on it. But at the end of the day, we also have a right to the water. We are not denying them their right."
But Pakistan doesn't trust its agricultural lifeblood to Indian hands. For most of its existence, the treaty's arbitration clause remained untried; then Pakistan, concerned about the impact of an Indian dam called Baglihar, being built upstream, invoked the measure of last resort and a neutral expert was appointed to mediate in 2005. India kept building and, two years later, the arbitrator ruled that modifications should be made to accommodate both sides. The Baglihar episode proved, says the World Bank's David Grey, that "the treaty worked—both parties accepted the ruling, and then proceeded accordingly."
But the controversy didn't end there. When India filled the dam last October, Pakistan says its water share was halved, threatening hundreds of canals, and millions of acres of crops. The Pakistani press was alive with claims of "hydrological warfare" and predictions—as well as threats—of a water war going nuclear. For some Pakistanis, the episode confirmed India's designs "to deprive Pakistan of water and render it into a desert," as an op-ed in Pakistan's Nation newspaper recently articulated it. For others, it is a reminder of their downstream susceptibility to Indian negligence or malfeasance, even as new Indian dams are being built with greater potential to disrupt Pakistani crop cycles and hydropower generation downstream. Jaitly argues that Pakistan's objections came late in the game, and that India's project was allowed to go forward with some modifications. But John Briscoe, a former senior water advisor at the World Bank, says Indian authorities were "not fully forthcoming on either inspections or information." To him, the issues with the Baglihar dam established a worrisome precedent—to build first and inform later: that Indian authorities, in their quest to meet pressing needs, will continue to ride roughshod over Pakistani objections, provoking a dangerous feedback loop of intransigence on both sides.
Until the Mumbai attacks overshadowed it last November, the dispute over planned dams with environmentally questionable impacts became the leading threat to improving relations between the countries. But the focus on big dams, says Jaitly, is part of a mentality that obscures the need to manage demand with conservation, water tariffs, and an end to destructive but politically popular practices in both countries. "In many cases we are not doing the right things," Jaitly says. "But their policies are as bad as ours. Maybe even worse." Pakistan is too dependent on an agriculture-based economy and is plagued by inefficiency and mismanagement, he says, pointing to major diversions of rivers within Pakistan that benefit the elite upstream land barons that have triggered unrest in the country's downstream provinces. "They still have a very feudal land structure, so their water management is that much more inefficient than ours," he says.
He acknowledges that Pakistan faces the threat that Indian dams could be used to turn off the water—theoretically, at least. "If somebody on this side of the border turns off water and creates a scarcity or suddenly opens it and floods downstream, it would be so obvious," says Jaitly. "Nobody's going to be that idiotic, unless it's an act of war—which is of course a totally different ball game. But it hasn't been done so far. And hopefully it won't be done."
And what about the canal dispute in 1948? Jaitly says it was a temporary reduction to clean the canals. "Nobody attached any great significance to it over here. They made a bit of a noise. But then, Pakistan always keeps making a bit of noise as far as we are concerned."
But life downstream is less certain. Tariq Hassan, his Harvard Law diploma on the wall behind him in his office, can speak to the view that India flexed its might in treaty negotiations. Hassan was a senior lawyer at the World Bank and the chairman of Pakistan's Securities and Exchange Commission, and now heads his own law firm in Islamabad. He calls the water debate "one of the most strategic issues facing the subcontinent. If there is a war here in the future," he tells me, "it will be over water."
Hassan came by his wariness naturally. His father, Sheikh Ahmad Hassan, a junior member of Pakistan's negotiating team during the debate that formed the Indus treaty, who would later became the country's secretary of irrigation and power. He was an outspoken critic of the treaty for what he saw as a surrender of the eastern tributaries. ("President Ayub Khan threatened him with treason if he didn't stop talking about it," Tariq says. "My brother swears he's seen the actual letter.") The salient lesson he learned from his father: No country gives away its water rights.
The lesson came back to him during the Baglihar debate, in which Tariq Hassan played a role as an advisor to Pakistan's finance minister. Hassan says he argued that Pakistan should negotiate the dispute itself without invoking the arbitration clause, because, he figured, by the time the ruling was made, India would already have finished construction (which it did). Hassan feared that, no matter what the arbitrator believed was fair, he wouldn't rule that India should unbuild its dam.
The problem, he says, is that, rather than distribute the scarcity between both parties—as would have happened in a joint-management system—the treaty made Pakistan dependent on Indian goodwill. "At the end of the day," he asks, leaning back in his armchair with a wry smile, "who's monitoring the tap? We've already lost three rivers, and it depends on how long they want to behave if we will lose the others. The treaty will hold until it becomes unbearable, and then there will be a water war. Of course," he adds, "the treaty will still be intact."
Kishor Uprety, the World Bank lawyer, says he is confident the treaty will survive. "History has told us that the Indus treaty was designed the right way. Pakistan has lost some but gained some. India has lost some and gained some. Both countries are winning," he says.
It's a cautious enthusiasm shared by several of his colleagues at the World Bank, which is the treaty's guarantor and is still involved in the negotiations. But behind that optimism is the reality that "history" will be less applicable as the environment changes. And the World Bank no longer has the same influence it did when the nations were young and the politics less involved.
More relevant than whether the treaty survives is whether each side feels it is winning more than it would lose. This is a delicate balancing act that depends as much on the spirit as the letter of the law. And it will face serious pressures from the combined effect of India's planned projects, according to John Briscoe. "In the case of Baglihar," he says, "had the decision gone against India, who had already basically built the dam, there would unquestionably have been calls to abrogate the treaty." He believes that both sides are dragging their feet, creating a conflict that jeopardizes the fragile peace the treaty sustains. "I believe it will come crashing into conflict sooner rather than later," he says.
The treaty, like the river, connects both countries in a fragile political ecology. While it has not settled the Kashmir dispute, or prevented war, it represents the single thread between the countries that has never been cut, its commissioners meeting and paying their dues and preserving the singular line of communication between the nations that has remained open through wars and public calls to abrogate it. Negotiations over the water issues between the two countries, derailed by last November's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, are taking up where they left off, with a Pakistani delegation heading to India as this piece goes to press.
In a January article for The Washington Post, the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, made the link explicit: "The water crisis in Pakistan is directly linked to relations with India. Resolution could prevent an environmental catastrophe in South Asia, but failure to do so could fuel the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism."
A serious challenge will be how each country manages its resources—within and across the boundaries, and considering the wounded history between them.
As a lawyer, Kishor Uprety takes heart from the treaty's potential to resolve both countries' differences. "But one has to understand," he cautions, that a treaty is "first and foremost a political instrument, and politicians will ultimately be responsible for either respecting it or disrespecting it. The future is absolutely uncertain.
"Even when you build a dam," he says, "it has an age. Even a dam breaks."
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