The third bone of contention between India and Pakistan

Arooj Naveed

WB says cannot mediate in Pakistan-India water disputeis a statement important enough for Pakistan to consider water issues with its neighbour India; which is also its third bone of contention, with the other two being Kashmir and cross-border terrorism. When tensions between Pakistan and India rose, after a terrorist attack in 2019, which killed 40 officers of India in Kashmir, retaliation was expected. It soon came, when in part it was decided by New Delhi to cut off the river flowing into downstream Pakistan. Another decision concerning build-up of a dam on the River Ravi, the water of which has been granted to India under the Indus Water Treaty with a portion of it being permitted to flow through Pakistan, became an additional source of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbours.

Professor of South Asian Studies, Sunil Amrith at Harvard University called the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) as that of a paradox and is of the view that while the treaty legislates water management and division between the two states, India’s periodic calls for unilaterally withdrawing from the treaty, a threat it issued during 2016, leaves things uneasy. However, no action was taken in this regard, and an ‘uneasy coexistence’ prevailed. While there is much to lose for both the states while separating from arrangements like these, ‘the global slide to unilateralism’ together with regional tensions always leaves a probability of rhetoric which could provoke water conflict. With Indian government having unilaterally announced a presidential order for revoking Article 370 in Kashmir, from where Jhelum and Chenab’s river water, allocated under the IWT to Pakistan, flow from the Indian-administered Kashmir in Pakistan, future actions by India on this subject might become a call for action and concern for Pakistan.

Adding to this development is this statement, “ The World Bank has expressed its inability to take an independent decision on the appointment of neutral expert or court of arbitration for settlement of a long outstanding water dispute between India and Pakistan, saying the two countries will have to choose one option bilaterally.” What implications does this have for both the states?

1) It means Pakistan and India have to bilaterally agree upon yet another issue, with no role of a third party: Historically, both India and Pakistan had signed the IWT in 1960, after an effort of nine long years. It was described by the Dwight Eisenhower, the former President of the United States as “ one bright spot …in a very depressing world picture that we see so often.” The role of the third party thus is imperative, especially when it comes to two arch-rivals, India and Pakistan. From Cleveland State University, Neda A. Zawahri writes about the active role that can be played by third parties for assisting adversarial states for navigating their disputes in international rivers.  Through the policy of “carrot and stick” compromises are facilitated, allowing mediators to participate in negotiations and at times becoming a signatory to international river treaties. However, given the nature of the problem which concerns the riparian states, these efforts in the long-run can lead to unstable cooperation, instead of cooperation. With mediation absent from the scene, an environment of conflict is likely to surface. Because there exists a confrontational relationship between these riparian states, the need for a mediator to continuously manage disputes or developments on the international rivers is thus, important. With the help of a mediator, cooperation can most effectively be facilitated, helping developing states, having historical antagonism, effectively establishing commissions over river basins and oversee treaty implementation. Leaving the affair related to water, as that ‘to choose between states’, the solution of which was resolved after nine years would mean non-resolution of the issue. If these two states do come onto an agreement regarding ‘coming together as to which option to take forward,’ that would strengthen the case of Treaty Survival, in times when tensions between the two states continue to be on a high.


2) While India did not detail on its act of diverting water for Pakistan, what option’s does Pakistan have if the act becomes policy or threat? Historically, Pakistan has relied solely on the peace treaty, the IWT. However, India’s arguments, rhetoric and its slide towards unilateralism, as detailed above need to be a wake-up call for Pakistan. Author of two books on geopolitics and security, Brahma Chellaney has argued that India can stop its regular participation in meetings and commissions which monitor the IWT or not exchange on the data of the flow for water levels, which are currently shared by Pakistan, in real-time. From a legal point of view, India can also make use of terrorism, which fundamentally can change the necessary essence of the treaty. Being an upstream riparian, unilateral withdrawal from the treaty can also be decided upon. Nevertheless, ‘using water as a weapon is not as simple as it sounds.’

While, there is not much to worry about, for now, Indian action in Indian-Administrative Kashmir, the decision by the World Bank and its diction of using water against Pakistan, should not be ignored. Pakistan needs to outline and strategize its policy options in the worst-case scenario.

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