Pakistan's Commissioner for Indus Waters (PCIW) Syed Muhammad Mehar Ali Shah (L) talks with Indian Indus Water Commissioner Pradeep Kumar Saxena (R) with other members of the committees in Lahore in August 2018. (Photo by Arif Ali / AFP)

The Indus River has once again created headlines in India and Pakistan after New Delhi declared it would stop the unused share of its water from going to Pakistan. The move stirred a hornet’s nest, with many calling it election time jingoism. Pakistan, meanwhile, responded with mixed signals.

India’s Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari on February 21 tweeted and also later announced: “Under the leadership of Hon’ble PM Sri @narendramodi ji, Our Govt. has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.”

The 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan governs the water sharing arrangement for the six rivers of the basin. Pakistan receives the entire flow from the three western rivers, Chenab, Jhelum and Indus, while India has complete rights over the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers.

The latest announcement by Gadkari comes on the heels of a terror attack on the Central Reserve Police Force convoy at Pulwama in the troubled state of Jammu and Kashmir that left 46 dead and several injured.

This reminded many of a similar announcement by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September 2016, shortly after a terror attack in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, when he said, “Blood and water cannot flow together.”

In December 2018, India started the construction of a dam at Shahpur-Kandi on the Ravi river. It also announced that the Ujh project in Jammu and Kashmir will store its share of water for use in Jammu and Kashmir with the balance of the water flowing from a Ravi-Beas Link to provide water to other basin states.

Of the total supply of 207.2 billion cubic meters, India’s share of the water from the three allotted rivers is 40.7 billion cubic meters, or roughly 20%. India reportedly uses approximately 94% of this share as defined by the Indus Waters Treaty, while the remaining water currently remains unused and goes to Pakistan.

Storage capacity?

Professor Shakil Romshoo, head of the department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University, recommends caution as he points out that the IWT does not allow diversion of water from one river system to another. Water can be transferred from one river to another within the Indus system or the Chenab river system, but not from the Indus to the Yamuna river system. He said: “Even when we say we will create storage, infrastructure cannot happen before 15-20 years legitimately.”

“Rather than posturing, rather than having ad-hoc or knee jerk policy for Jammu and Kashmir, government of India needs to make solid investment. (To) date, there was no scheme developed, no infrastructure created for storage,” he added.

Observers further note considerable scope for creating additional irrigation facilities by creating storage in Jammu’s Kuthua and Sambhar regions, which are rain fed areas.

Talk vs. action

Many suspect this latest declaration to fizzle out in the same way as Modi’s 2016 announcement. Then, the Indian government announced that an inter-ministerial group would take a look into India’s rights to its share of the water, leading to nothing of note.

Even as ruling party leaders are going gung-ho over the announcement, opposition party leaders beg to differ. Saurabh Bhardwaj, spokesperson of the ruling Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, said: “We should stop all favors to Pakistan, all business relations with Pakistan. It should have been done long back. It’s too late and too little.”

In fact, India has gone out of its way this year to accommodate a meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission. The meeting, which was due in March 2019, was actually held in August 2018. The Pakistan team, that has to visit India once every five years, was invited in January. Between January 28-31, Pakistan’s Indus Commissioner Syed Mohammad Mehar Ali Shah and Indian Indus Commissioner Pradeep Kumar Saxena, along with their respective advisers, undertook a tour of the Chenab basin in Jammu and Kashmir.

But as Romshoo noted, creating infrastructure is easier said than done. “Our economy is not that big. This is a huge investment and then we have the fragile ecology of the Himalayas.” He went on to say that Jhelum has the capacity for storage of 1.85 billion cubic meters, yet not a single bottle can be stored due to the region’s precarious ecology.

Mixed signals

For its part, Pakistan has sent mixed signals following India’s announcement. United Nations and the World Health Organisation’s data from early February showed how consistent drought was having serious public health implications in Sindh and Balochistan provinces. Since 2013, Pakistan has received a below average amount of rainfall, and in 2018, less than 10% of the projected annual rainfall fell in the two provinces. The country is set to witness yet another drought this year. The Indus is the lifeline of Pakistan and irrigates 80% of its land, feeding more than 50% of its population. Even when Pakistan receives waters from all three western rivers as per the terms of the Indus Water Treaty, it still complains of India holding back waters.

As reported by its leading newspaper Dawn, secretary of Pakistan’s Ministry of Water Resources Khawaja Shumail said: “We have neither concern nor objection if India diverts water of eastern rivers and supplies it to its people or uses it for other purposes, as the IWT allows it do so.”

But at the same time, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was quick to dash off a letter to the United Nations Security Council president drawing his attention to what he called a “deteriorating security situation” in the region resulting from Indian rhetoric in the wake of the Pulwama attack. He also said, “members of the Indian government are also threatening to “use water as a weapon”, thus endangering long-standing legal arrangements agreed between the two countries under the treaty.

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