Water politics in South Asia: Technocratic cooperation and lasting security in the Indus Basin and beyond.

Author:Ali, Saleem H.
Position:REGIONAL ISSUES - Report

Water, like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people. Since the very birth of human civilization, people have moved to settle close to it. People move when there is too little of it. People move when there is too much of it. People journey down it. People write, sing and dance about it. People fight over it. All people, everywhere and every day, need it.

--Mikhail Gorbachev (1)

The distribution of environmental resources as a potential contributor to conflict has been the subject of considerable research, and these linkages have dominated the post-Cold War interest in environmental security. (2) Within this genre much attention has been given to water resources, owing to their vital importance for human survival. The distribution of environmental resources may contribute to conflict, but recent scholarship has begun to focus on the potential of environmental threats in stimulating conflict resolution. (3) Uniting around a common aversion to environmental threats, as well as confidence-building through environmental cooperation, potentially hold great appeal for policymakers who aim to engage in proactive problem-solving rather than in precise problem identification. What is most significant for government decisionmakers to consider is that even if a conflict is not environmental in nature, the remedy may well be achieved through environmental means. Environmental cooperation may offer pathways to confidence-building or peacebuilding, whether or not the conflict has environmental roots.

This essay explores the potentiality of such instrumental cooperation in the case of South Asia where regional conflict between two nuclear neighbors, India and Pakistan, is predicated in a history of religious rivalries and post-colonial demarcation. Despite inveterate antagonism, the two countries have managed to cooperate over water resources of the Indus River. How was this riparian cooperation enabled? And can it be reconfigured to provide for lasting peace in the region?


The Indian subcontinent quite literally owes its name to the waters of one river--the Indus. Regional politics are closely tied to the river's history and how different societies have used its waters for livelihood and for consolidating power. Hindu nationalists frequently recount that the very essence of their faith, dating back to the writings of the Rigveda in the second millennium B.C.E., is linked to the flow of the Indus. The name itself is a Latinized version of Sindhu, which means river in ancient Sanskrit, and from which the word "Hindu" and its concomitant ethnoreligious identity emerged. (4) The partition of the subcontinent by the British in 1947 gave all but the very upper headwaters of the Indus to the newly formed Muslim majority country of Pakistan. More significantly, the major tributaries of the Indus that provided irrigation water for the fertile and densely populated region of Punjab on both sides of the border were divided. This was a classic conflict situation between upstream and downstream riparians, exacerbated by a lack of trust and intense territorial animosity between the two sides. This led to a series of disputes related to the Indus and its tributaries. Both countries tried to settle the matter bilaterally several times after partition but no lasting agreement was reached until the World Bank got involved as a mediating entity.

The resulting agreement, known as the Indus Waters Treaty, took nine years to negotiate and was signed in 1960. It is a particularly remarkable treaty since both sides have otherwise had tremendous hostility for one another and have defied efforts at cooperation. It is therefore instructive to consider the development and history of the treaty in greater detail as a potential model for regional environmental cooperation. The treaty is often cited as a success story of international riparian engagement, as it has withstood major wars between the two signatories (in 1965 and 1971), several skirmishes over water distribution and derivative territorial concerns. (5) The agreement is also heralded as a triumph for the World Bank, which played an instrumental role in its negotiation during the height of the Cold War. The World Bank's role in this region was particularly unusual because India was a vanguard of the Non-Aligned Movement and wanted to disavow any pressure from international institutions or Western nations.

The initiator and technical adviser of the agreement was David Lilienthal, the former head of the United States' Tennessee Valley Authority, who suggested that an engineering perspective could contribute to resolving this political stalemate. (6) After a visit to India and Pakistan in 1951, he advised the two countries to divide the Indus Basin geographically. India would have unrestricted use of the three eastern rivers (the Ravi, Sutlej and Bias), while Pakistan would completely control the three western rivers (the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus). The World Bank played a significant role by providing mediation, support staff, funding and proposals for pushing negotiations forward. Under the leadership of President David Black, the World Bank was able to persuade the international community to contribute nearly $900 million for impoundment construction. (7)

Nine years after Lilienthal's initial visit, both countries were finally convinced to sign the agreement. The Indus Waters Treaty obligated Pakistan to build a canal system, which, by utilizing previously less-developed rivers, decreased Pakistan's dependence on the Indus tributaries the treaty gave to India. The treaty also charged India and Pakistan with exchanging information and establishing joint monitoring mechanisms of river flow to ensure enforcement. The key provisions of the agreement are as follows:

* An agreement that Pakistan would receive unrestricted use of the western rivers, which India would allow to flow unimpeded, with minor exceptions;

* Provisions for three dams, eight link canals, three barrages and 2,500 tube wells to be built in Pakistan;

* A ten-year transition period, from 1 April 1960 to 31 March 1970, during which time water would continue to be supplied to Pakistan according to a detailed schedule;

* A schedule for India to provide its fixed financial contribution of $62 million in ten annual installments during the transition period; and,

* Additional provisions for data exchange and future cooperation. (8)

As is often the case with riparian agreements, the treaty also established the Permanent Indus Commission, made up of one commissioner of Indus Waters from each country. In the technocratic spirit of the agreement, these representatives are often engineers rather than politicians. The two commissioners meet annually in order to:

* Establish and promote cooperative arrangements for implementation of the treaty;

* Promote cooperation between India and Pakistan in the development of the waters of the Indus system;

* Examine and resolve by agreement any question that may arise between the two countries concerning interpretation or implementation of the treaty; and,

* Submit an annual report to the two governments.

Both countries have upheld the Indus Basin Commission's information-sharing responsibilities; data on new projects, the water level in rivers and the water discharge of rivers are routinely conveyed to the other parties. If conflicts rise to the level of a dispute, the Indus River Commission will agree to mediation or arbitration, and the World Bank will appoint a neutral expert who is acceptable to both countries to resolve the dispute. Remarkably, although India and Pakistan constructed and carried out this agreement amidst skirmishes, threats and full-scale war, and even during armed conflict, neither country sabotaged the other's water projects. One of the water negotiators for Pakistan has commented that the role of international institutions is vital in making this enterprise function:

Both the parties are under the obligation of the Indus Waters Treaty, which asked the signatories not to disrupt the functioning of the commission. Any hurdle in the working of the commission is challengeable under the treaty, the guarantor of which is the World Bank. (9) No projects allowed under the treaty's provision of "future cooperation" have been submitted since 1960, nor have any water quality issues. (10) There have, however, been several other disputes that have arisen over the years. The first issues arose from Indian non-delivery of some waters during 1965 to 1966 that became questions of procedure and of the legality of commission decisions. Negotiators resolved that each commissioner acted as a government representative and had the authority to make legally binding decisions. (11) Another dispute involving the design and construction of the Salal Dam on the Chenab River in Jammu, India was resolved by way of bilateral negotiations. (12)

As noted in a recent World Bank study of Pakistan's water policy, India and Pakistan advocate conflicting principles of management: "equitable utilization" and "no appreciable harm,"...

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