Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Parched Tiger: Fears of a “Water War” Between India and Pakistan are Overstated

Via Future Directions International, commentary on rising

Hopes that tensions between India and Pakistan over the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) might be easing were thrown into doubt, following a terrorist attack in Kashmir last month. Pakistan-based militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed 40 Indian soldiers. In response, India launched air raids, targeting what it claimed was a JeM training camp. Despite a generally conciliatory tonefrom Pakistan, New Delhi has been less circumspect. Not only did it retaliate almost immediately, but has made a number of statements threatening more military action and questioning the merit of the IWT.


At one rally, Nitin Gadkari, the Indian Minister for Water Resources, Shipping, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation claimed that the attacks demonstrated that Pakistan is not honouring its commitments under the IWT. As a result, Gadkari claimed that India planned to divert the share of water from its eastern rivers, away from Pakistan and to Indian states, including Punjab and Rajasthan. Gadkari’s claim echoes sentiments expressed in 2016, after JeM killed 18 Indian soldiers in Kashmir. In the aftermath of that attack, similar sabre-rattling took place and the future of the IWT was again cast into doubt by Indian nationalists, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who claimed that ‘blood and water cannot flow together.’

Recent events notwithstanding, India is unlikely to take particularly strong action against flows into Pakistan. Gadkari’s statement seemed to imply that India would divert water from Pakistan by damming the Ravi River, in retaliation for the attacks. Plans to dam the Ravi have existed for over a decade, however, and were recently approved when funding was made available. It will block some of the water that flows into Pakistan, but as India utilises 95 per cent of the water on its three eastern rivers (the rivers over which the IWT gave India exclusive control), most of the water that enters Pakistan is enough to maintain environmental flows. The three western rivers, which the IWT allocated to Pakistan, are responsible for the greater part of the Pakistani water supply. As these rivers flow through mountains, it would be costly and difficult for India to divert them elsewhere.

As much as nationalists enjoy threatening the future of the IWT, especially during periods of tension, the treaty has worked remarkably well for both countries and it is not in the interest of either to leave the IWT. Both India and Pakistan are badly water-stressed. While it may be too much to expect them to actively co-manage the rivers they share, by legislating how the rivers are to be used, the IWT has achieved a remarkable feat in bringing co-operation to two rival states, even during times of war.

More importantly, India is able to keep as much of the water from its eastern rivers from Pakistan as it wants, but completely cutting off water from Pakistan would be a much riskier endeavour. To do so would mean unilaterally withdrawing from the IWT. Strictly speaking this could technically be possible, but the legal and diplomatic ramifications would be more than it would be worth to win temporary domestic political favour. There are no mechanisms for any party to unilaterally suspend the treaty, and doing so would damage India’s reputation as a responsible rising power and open it to legal challenges from Pakistan. It also poses the risk that China, a strategic ally of Pakistan, would use that precedent to its advantage (especially as several of India’s major rivers originate in Tibet).

As India continues to take a hard-line against Pakistan, it is important to note that a general election is scheduled to take place in the next few months, and Modi is not guaranteed a victory. Control of water is of deep symbolic value to many images of Indian nationalism and by threatening to use the flow of water against Pakistan, the BJP Government stands to benefit far more than if it simply revoked the IWT.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 6th, 2019 at 2:31 am and is filed under India, Indus, Pakistan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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