The Kashmir Conflict and the Indus Water Treaty: the Sword of Damocles over Regional Water Cooperation

“Blood and water cannot flow together,” said Indian PM Narendra Modi. It appears that water cooperation will get swept up in regional conflicts. In response to the recent resurgence of violence in Kashmir, India has made threats to review the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), a water sharing agreement between India and Pakistan that was brokered by the World Bank dating back to 1960.

India’s MFA spokesperson recently stated that there are differences on the treaty. “For any such treaty to work, it is important that there must be mutual trust and cooperation. It can’t be a one-sided affair.” Sartaj Aziz, Foreign Affairs advisor to Pakistan MP Nawaz Sharif responded by saying revocation of the IWT could be taken as an act of war and would give Pakistan good reason to address the UN Security Council. In the meantime India has unilaterally suspended the Indus Commission. Noting the high stakes for local and national-level India-Pakistan relations, what could be the regional implications for water cooperation?

The IWT has seen challenging times before. The Indus Commission has had to make over a hundred tours to solve outstanding issues. However, the IWT has stood the test of time and is therefore hailed globally as an example of a successful water treaty. It has survived the 1965 and 1971 wars, the attacks on the Indian parliament in 2001, Mumbai in 2008 and numerous other disputes over infrastructure development and water sharing.

Frustrations with the IWT do exist across all levels of government, especially in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2003 the local Legislative Assembly unanimously called for a review, some even for international renegotiation. In 2010 Pakistan brought a case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague over hydropower development and interference with river flow. It was awarded to Pakistan, securing a certain minimum flow to be released by India. Differences have always been resolved peacefully through negotiation and mediation.

As water is under the jurisdiction of the individual states and not the Union of India, water is treated separately in India’s relations with its neighbors. Since the signing of the IWT, India and Pakistan have indeed historically been able to separate water from other major issues. However, with the IWT being used as a tool in high-level negotiations over the Kashmir dispute, it would appear that the current situation deviates from this decades old modus operandi. Water has become strongly embedded in high-level bilateral negotiations over attacks in Kashmir. This may be the result of rising nationalism in both countries, which makes hard line approaches more attractive.

Evidence also showed that historically, bilateral relations in the region have been isolated from regional relations, meaning bilateral events had limited knock-on effects on relations with other neighbors and vice-versa.  However, regional water cooperation will certainly not benefit from the developments in Kashmir. Water cooperation is all about trust, and seeing the IWT used as a negotiating tool could strengthen perceptions of India as a non-cooperative counterpart. If India’s threats of review are seen as indicative of a new attitude to water, it could herald a negative turn in the entire region.

What happens in the Indus basin could have ripple effects in the Brahmaputra basin. It has already been noted that unilateral review of the IWT, besides disgruntling the World Bank who brokered the treaty, could set a precedent for similar responses by China in the Brahmaputra basin. The media reports on whether China would back Pakistan are ambivalent, but there is no doubt that due to the current political context, water cooperation between India and China could change.

Up to now, water cooperation between India and China over the Brahmaputra is based on temporary mechanisms. The Expert Level Mechanism set up to cooperate on flood detection depends on a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on data-sharing that has to be renewed every five years. Unilateral, non-cooperative actions in the Indus basin could erode China’s trust and complicate the work of these mechanisms.

Water cooperation between India and Nepal over the Ganges is already tense and plagued by slow progress and a lack of trust. The perception of India as an unwanted big brother or a regional ‘bully’ is common, and fear of loss of sovereignty by Nepal is a constant in their relations. This in part has resulted in large hydropower projects facing increasing difficulties in attracting crucial foreign investment, preventing the full realization of hydropower potential.

India and Bangladesh have signed the Ganges Water Treaty, a water sharing agreement like the IWT, in 1996 after years of painstaking negotiations. With the dispute over the IWT, the value of other treaties may be questioned. Non-cooperative attitudes to water and threats to review the IWT can only fuel regional mistrust and reinforce perceptions of India as a regional bully.

The situation in Kashmir and the future of the IWT remain uncertain. In light of the regional implications, both parties should refrain from threats and address the grievances in relation to the IWT through dialogue.

A much-needed first step would be to resume talks through the Indus Commission. The Indus Commission has resolved many disputes in the past and it could continue to do so. These talks should take the growing water scarcity in the Indus and Brahmaputra basin as a given starting point. In both basins water is becoming increasingly scarce due to economic growth, population increase and climate change, which will increase tensions between many stakeholders. With such prospects, dysfunctional water cooperation due to a lack of trust is the last thing the region needs.

Thanks are extended to Rens de Man for reviewing this article.

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