The Politics Of Water

The Politics Of Water

“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.”

This statement was made by Ismail Serageldin, a former high-ranking executive at the World Bank and renowned water security activist. The veracity of his assertion stands confirmed when one sees the state of affairs between Pakistan and India – two nuclear power neighbors who have been wrangling over the waters of the Indus river system for the past seven decades.

The Radcliffe line not only divided the Indian subcontinent into two sovereign nations, but also cut through a developed irrigation system without providing any mechanism for the division of water between the newly created states. The Indus river system flows from Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan. Indian forces illegally and unilaterally occupied Kashmir in 1948 and gained control over the flow of water into Pakistan. The Kashmir issue, which has since become an international human rights problem, is inextricably linked with the Indus river system, as both countries want unfettered jurisdiction over the waters of Indus.

India, following its illegal occupation of Kashmir started using this precious natural resource as a weapon and turned off the flow of water into Pakistan to pressurize its neighbor to rescind its claim over Kashmir. This act of aggression threatened the very existence of Pakistan, as the country’s agrarian economy and food security are largely dependent on the smooth flow of the Indus river system. However, after international intervention, India was forced to reinstate the water supplies.

The Indus river system remained largely unregulated until 1960 when the much-celebrated Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was signed between the two squabbling neighbors. The treaty was signed after eight years of arduous rounds of negotiations between Pakistan and India, led by the World Bank. World powers including the United States, United Kingdom, Germany and Australia also played a pivotal role in making this treaty a reality, which was finally signed between Pakistani President Ayub Khan and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on September 19, 1960 and ratified in 1961.

The treaty provided an amicable settlement for the division of waters of the Indus. The scheme envisaged in the treaty gave complete control of the three western rivers of the Indus system namely Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab, whereas the waters of the eastern rivers including Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, were made freely available to India.

The conclusion of the treaty of 1960 between the two countries was a miracle in itself. The countries found a diplomatic solution for the division of a resource, which was paramount to their survival and prosperity. Dwight Eisenhower, then president of the United States, described it as “one bright spot in a very depressing world picture that we see so often”. The Indus Water Treaty can be rightly termed as a quintessential display of amicable dispute settlement. The treaty has survived almost five decades of a turbulent relationship between the two states during which they have fought three wars. The resolve of the two neighbors to abide by the treaty demonstrates their willingness to cooperate with each other in order to safeguard their access to the waters of the Indus river system.

However, despite the success of the Indus Water Treaty as a whole, the Indian government has continued their hostile policy, first deployed in 1948, of using water as a strategic weapon against Pakistan.  A recent example of this strategy was the harsh rhetoric used by Indian leaders in the aftermath of the September 2016 Uri attack carried out in Indian occupied Kashmir. The Indian government hastily blamed Pakistan for this atrocity in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed and threatened to disrupt Pakistan’s supply of water. An antagonistic Indian premier stated on September 26, 2016, “blood and water can’t flow together”, thereby reiterating India’s long lasting stance on the subject.

Apart from these occasional threats and unruly ultimatums from India, Pakistan has also raised its concerns on international forums, including the World Bank, about India’s illegal construction of dams and power projects on the western rivers of the Indus system. Pakistan disagrees with the construction of the 330 megawatts Kishenganga and 850 megawatts Ratle hydroelectric plant being built by India on the Jhelum and Chenab River, respectively. The treaty entitles Pakistan to the unrestricted use of the water of these rivers and as such India stands in violation of its obligations under the 1960 treaty, as these projects are deemed to disrupt the supply of water into Pakistan.

The prosperity of Pakistan is essentially dependent on water security. According to estimates, the country is believed to become the most water-stressed state of the region by the year 2040. In order to grapple with the issue of water security, Pakistan needs to follow a two-pronged strategy. Not only does it need to make a strong diplomatic case against the continued violations of the 1960 treaty by India in order to secure its uninterrupted supply of water from the Indus system but it also needs to preserve and store the water it already has. According to the Wapda Chair, Pakistan loses Rs 25 billion worth of water every year due to non-preservation and lack of storage facilities. The shortage of dams and reservoirs to preserve water for future usage poses a serious threat to the economy of the country.

Corruption, terrorism, nepotism and flight of capital are important challenges which the country is facing. However, the water issue needs to be tackled with the utmost diligence and commitment by our government. Additionally, the media, civil society and policy-makers need to highlight the severity of this situation if we want to make our future generations food and water secure.


An earlier version of this article appeared in Nation. Republished here with permission.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of or any other organization with which he might be associated.

Usama Malik

Author: Usama Malik

The writer is a practising lawyer from Lahore who holds a Masters degree in International Development Law from the University of Warwick. He has experience practising with Aitzaz Ahsan and human rights lawyer Asma Jahangir.