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Soothing Troubled Waters Essential for India and Pakistan

29 MARCH 2017 Rachael Champtaloup, Research Assistant, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme
Background The Permanent Indus Commission implements and manages the objectives of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). In 1947, immediately after independence, India and Pakistan, the two major beneficiaries of the Indus River basin, began to dispute their share of the natural resource. It took years of hard negotiation to reach an agreement, which was met and signed on 19 September 1960 with the assistance of the World Bank. The IWT provides, in writing, the partition of the Indus River system by allocating the three eastern rivers of the basin – the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej to India and the three western rivers – the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab to Pakistan. Since the signing of the agreement, the commission has met 113 times to discuss technical issues related to the implementation of the treaty. Comment The Indus River basin covers an area of approximately 1,165,000 square kilometres and crosses over four countries – China, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The river originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows north-west before bending to flow south-west through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea. The Indus River basin is a critical natural resource for all the countries that it flows through – Pakistan is particularly dependent on water from the Indus as it supports 75 per cent of Pakistan’s irrigated land. Agriculture in Pakistan provides employment for 45 per cent of the country’s labour force and 60 per cent of the rural population depend upon this sector for their livelihood – the sector has played a key role in providing long-term stability for the country. The Indus River system is also vital to India’s prosperity as it is one of the two main river systems that support the country’s north-west region including Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan – areas that are already considered water deficient. Punjab is heavily reliant on the flow of the Indus River system as the region produces more than 20 per cent of the country’s wheat and is known as the “bread basket” of India. In short, the Indus River is vital to the welfare and economy of both countries. Productive negotiations at the Permanent Indus Commission meetings are essential to securing regional peace, security and development. Turbulent Indo-Pakistani relations, however, have hindered substantial progress on how to best manage the Indus River system. After a deadly militant attack on 19 September last year in Indian administered Kashmir that killed 18 soldiers, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded by organising and chairing a review meeting of the 56 year old IWT and stated that India will ‘exploit to the maximum’ the water of Pakistan controlled rivers and conveyed the message that ‘blood and water cannot flow together’. The Kashmir dispute and water sharing disputes continue to be the biggest issues when attempting to normalise relations between the two countries, but it is in both of their best interests to come to a resolution through productive diplomacy and not reactionary measures. Last week’s Permanent Indus Commission meetings were the first in almost two years, with the last round held in May 2015. Islamabad utilised the meeting to voice concerns over the construction of two Indian hydro power station projects, the 330 megawatt Kishanganga project and the 850MW Ratle plant in Jammu, which it claims are in violation of the IWT. Pakistan has also raised concerns about the design of the 1,000MW Pakal Dul on the Chenab, the 120 MW Miyar and the 43 MW Lower Kalnai. Pakistan has expressed fears that the projects could reduce the flow of the rivers into its territory which, combined with the impending threat of climate change on the natural resource, would be catastrophic for their well-being. Pakistan wants to take the issue to the International Court of Arbitration while India wishes to appoint a neutral observer, which under the treaty is the first step to resolve disputes if the countries cannot resolve it bilaterally. India has remained firm on its position, as stated by a Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Gopal Baglay, ‘There has been no change in the previous Indian position on any of the matters discussed at the commission meeting’. Water and Power Minister, Khawaja Mohammad Asif, said that the United States has intervened at the highest level to help the two countries resolve the issue. India and Pakistan will now hold three-day secretary-level talks under the patronage of the World Bank, in Washington from 11 April. The next stage of talks will be critical in stabilising the region and strengthening Indo-Pakistan relations. Water scarcity is a serious and growing security challenge for both countries – combined with the pressures of population growth and climate change which only put further pressure on the need for diplomacy to provide a favourable outcome for the two neighbours and for the livelihoods of the communities that depend upon the Indus River. Swiftly resolving current water sharing tensions through amiable means will assist in improving regional water security.
 
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