From the pulpit of a mosque in Lahore, Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed delivered the manifesto for 26/11. Fields across Punjab, the jihadist leader said, would turn to dust as new dams then rising in Kashmir began choking the rivers running from its mountains into Pakistan. “The crusaders of the east and the west,” he went on, “planned to starve Pakistan into submission.” “The only language India understands is that of force,” the cleric concluded, “and that is the language it must be talked to in.”
Earlier this week, Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif told the world that the three wars with India had brought his nation nothing but misery. “We have learnt our lesson, and we want to live in peace with India, provided we are able to resolve our genuine problems.” Then, just a day later, his office announced no dialogue was possible until India restored Kashmir’s special constitutional status.
Kashmir is key to Pakistan’s problems—but not in the way its leaders seem to imagine. Locked by climate change into a flood-drought cycle tearing apart the agricultural sector—the source of half of all jobs in the country—Pakistan is perched on the edge of catastrophe. The rivers running west from Kashmir could help manage the looming crisis if the two countries engage creatively on water resources—but time is not on Pakistan’s side.
To defer peace with India because of the political conflict in Kashmir is to condemn tens of millions to generations of poverty.
The secret water-war
The architect of Pakistan’s failed attempt to seize Kashmir in 1947 had water on his mind. The new country’s “agricultural economy was dependent particularly upon the rivers coming out of Kashmir,” Major-General Akbar Khan recorded in his memoirs. “The Mangla Headworks were actually in Kashmir, and the Marala Headworks were within a mile or so of the border. What would be our position if Kashmir was in Indian hands?” he wrote.
“Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan was not simply a matter of desirability,” the General emphatically wrote, “but of absolute necessity for our separate existence.”
Even as General Akbar’s insurgents battled Indian soldiers in Kashmir, the two countries entered a temporary agreement on water sharing. The agreement expired at the end of March 1947, though, and the government in Indian Punjab shut off canals leading into Pakistan.
Finally, in 1960, then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan President and military ruler General Muhammad Ayub Khan signed a World Bank-mediated agreement partitioning the five rivers that made up the Indus system. India received the waters of the so-called eastern rivers, the Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej; Pakistan got the Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab.
The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) also gave India the right to exploit the hydroelectric potential of the three rivers headed through Kashmir into Pakistan—but with hard-wired limits on how much water it could store in dam reservoirs so that flow into Pakistan would not be affected. These limits led to legal sparring over projects like Baglihar and Kishanganga, as political scientists Robert Wirsing and Christopher Jasparro have noted. Still, the IWT mechanism has survived multiple wars and political crises.
Even though hawks in the Indian security community have periodically called for the abrogation of IWT to coerce Pakistan, the idea appears to have little traction in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
The parched rivers
The problem is this: Evidence emerging from climate science research shows the dependable flows the IWT was premised on are evaporating. Experts at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development have warned that Himalayan river systems could see severe impacts from climate change. Through this century, its experts say, “shifts in the timing and magnitude of streamﬂows in mountain rivers will become apparent as climatic and cryospheric changes progress.”
The Indus river basin, hydrologists W.W. Immerzeel and Marc FP Bierkens show, is far more dependent on glacial melt than other systems originating in the Himalayas. The Ganga receives just 3 per cent of its water from melting glaciers; the Indus 24 per cent.
As temperature increases, glaciers will melt more quickly, and less snow will fall each year to replenish them. Though accelerating glacial melt could mean more water in the short term, as experts Alexandra Giese and her colleagues point out, it also makes long-term shortages more likely.
To make things worse, river flow will become more unpredictable—which means there might be too little water when it is most needed and too much when it is not. Today, annual water availability in Pakistan is already below 1,000 cubic metres per person, and groundwater depletion is threatening to make crops like sugarcane, rice, wheat, and cotton unsustainable.
Islamabad has responded by pushing forward with a cascade of large dams on the Indus in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, hoping the storage will ensure more reliable supplies through the year. The plans, as Amit Ranjan, a research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, has observed, come with massive debt obligations to China, which the Pakistani economy is unlikely to be able to sustain.
Thinking beyond partition
For decades, scholars have noted that there are more effective solutions than the partition of rivers brought about by the IWT. Political scientist Rameez Bhat, among others, has argued for India and Pakistan to craft a new IWT that would allow for the joint development of dams across the entire Indus basin, allowing both countries to optimise the production of hydroelectricity and minimise hardship in drought years.
“The Indus Waters Treaty was not designed to respond to rapidly increasing demand and the looming South Asian water crisis,” law scholar Manav Bhatnagar has observed. “The treaty was designed on the assumption that the Indus waters were sufficient to supply the region.”
From unsigned notes exchanged between diplomats Satinder Kumar Lambah and Tariq Aziz—who conducted secret negotiations for the two countries seeking a resolution of the Kashmir conflict—it is known that joint management of the region’s watersheds was among the keystones of the conflict-resolution architecture. The need for more power in India and more water in Pakistan would have made joint projects mutually beneficial.
There is no way a new IWT can be negotiated. Not unless Islamabad moves beyond its ideological obsessions on Kashmir and accepts the status quo as the foundation for a peace agreement. For decades, politicians in both countries have understood that the transformation of the Line of Control (LoC) is the only strategically feasible option they have.
However, Shehbaz’s volte-face on peace talks and a loud polemic from Indian politicians on recapturing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) shows leaders don’t feel able to risk political capital for this end, though.
Failure to address the water problem, though, could end up empowering jihadists who threaten the stability of both nation-states. The LeT adroitly capitalised on the floods that devastated Pakistan in 2014, using its networks of charities and welfare institutions to recruit from among Pakistan’s poorest. Like Saeed, other Lashkar leaders claimed India was waging a water war – “This water bomb is no different from the atom bomb,” LeT leader Abdul Rauf said. “This is a premeditated plan by India to make Pakistan suffer.”
LeT-linked charities again emerged in the course of last year’s floods—campaigning in public even as the country’s government sought to evade international sanctions by insisting it had shuttered jihadist networks.
New Delhi must have a serious conversation about its water to secure its interests. The implosion of Pakistan will come with terrible costs for India. The failure to secure a water deal, though, will come with even more awful costs for Pakistan. Shehbaz and the country’s political leadership need to ask if their ideological fixations in Kashmir are actually worth this price.
Praveen Swami is ThePrint’s National Security Editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)