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The Rivers Run Wild

by Daniel Haines
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Arif Ali—AFP

Nearly 60 years since their landmark treaty, the Pakistan-India water dispute remains contentious.

It is no secret that the Pakistani and Indian governments do not get along. A key point of tension is water: specifically, the way that the two countries share the waters of the River Indus and its tributaries. Since 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty has governed relations over the rivers. The treaty is widely known in the world of environmental diplomacy as a good example of peaceful water-sharing. It was negotiated without bloodshed, and has survived three wars between India and Pakistan.

Yet readers in South Asia hardly need to be reminded of the scale of recent conflict over the rivers. Following a militant attack on an Indian Army camp at Uri in September last year, which many Indians blamed on Pakistan, Indian hawks called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to cut off Pakistan’s water supply. Before that, India’s plans for hydropower projects in Kashmir at Baglihar and Kishenganga had caused tensions. Pakistan protested that both projects broke the treaty. A neutral expert approved India’s Baglihar plans in 2006. A court of arbitration’s verdict on Kishenganga in 2013 was closer to a draw.

Those latest tensions could be blamed on contemporary circumstances. After all, growing populations in growing economies demand more electricity to power consumer lifestyles, prompting both governments to consider new hydropower projects on the Indus Basin rivers. Farmers still need irrigation water to grow crops in the basin’s plains, which are fertile but dry.

Seeing water tension as only an economic problem would be a mistake. As I suggest in my new book, Indus Divided: India, Pakistan and the River Basin Dispute, the history of the Indus-waters dispute highlights the fundamental place that Indus waters have had in Pakistani and Indian politics since 1947. The history of the dispute, during the formative years of independent South Asia in the 1940-60s, holds lessons for how we should think about Indus Basin waters today.

Intensive river-water use has been critical to state authority in the Punjab and Sindh since the late 1800s. Controlling water competently is the mark of a good government. Since Independence and Partition, asserting ownership of Indus Basin waters has been an effective way for the Pakistani and Indian governments to show that they mean business—to their populations, and to each other.

Both states built dams and canals enthusiastically during the 1950s. Jawaharlal Nehru’s administration in New Delhi pegged much of its credibility as a force for economic development on the controversial Bhakra-Nangal project on the River Sutlej. Nehru called the Bhakra Dam an “inspiring harbinger of prosperity.” Successive Pakistani governments built canals in the Thal Valley and two major barrages in Sindh. Pakistan’s President Iskander Mirza announced publicly that the Guddu Barrage would help create “a better, happier and [more] prosperous Pakistan.”

Both governments hoped to inspire loyalty in their citizens by building spectacular projects like these. Politics, as well as economics, lay behind dam-building. It was this intimate connection between water control and state building that drove both governments to lay claims to Indus Basin waters, at each other’s expense if necessary.

Indus Basin waters also problematically cut across international borders. Most famously, the dispute over Kashmir has long been linked to that over the rivers. Two Indus tributaries, the Chenab and Jhelum, rise in the disputed area. The Indus itself rises in Tibet and runs through Kashmir on its way to Pakistan. Dominating Kashmir therefore means having first, upstream access to river water.

Journalists and scholars have long assumed that the water dispute was really about Kashmir, or that the Kashmir dispute was actually about water. But there is little hard evidence for such theories. For example, some historians have speculated that Pakistan’s formal entry into the Kashmir conflict in 1948 was partly intended to capture the headwaters of the Chenab. While researching the book, I found that the historical evidence had not been systematically examined. What I found was not a simple cause-and-effect relationship between the two disputes, but a complex, overlapping, and shifting set of insecurities. Kashmir and river water represented two of the key problems in how the leaderships of both nations imagined their own sovereignty.

“Waters of [Kashmir’s] rivers are the lifeblood of West Pakistan,” a Pakistani diplomatic communiqué warned India in 1951. In private conversations with British and American diplomats, Pakistani leaders emphasized that any Kashmir settlement must give Pakistan control of both banks of the Chenab—something of a problem, since it runs through the heart of Hindu-majority Jammu.

Indian parliamentarians, for their part, vigorously protested against Pakistan’s building of the Mangla Dam in Azad Kashmir, which India claimed as its own territory. India sent a letter of complaint to the United Nations in 1957. The letter warned that the Mangla Dam would extend Pakistan’s “occupation” of Azad Kashmir, and compound “the exploitation of the resources of the territory to the disadvantage of the people of Jammu & Kashmir.” Meanwhile, the Pakistan government faced protests in Mirpur from Kashmiris whose homes would soon disappear under the dam’s new reservoir.

The rivers’ location in contested territory posed a problem to negotiators, but the water treaty discussions eventually sidestepped Kashmiri political issues by adding the caveat that rights over water did not connote rights over territory in Kashmir.

The result was that the treaty did nothing to reduce tensions over Kashmir. In 1962, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, then Pakistan’s minister of information, told an audience in Hyderabad, Sindh, that the struggle for Pakistan could never be complete without a Kashmir solution because the state was the source of Pakistan’s water. The “Chenab formula” has remained under discussion in Pakistan.

The Indus Waters Treaty, representing a very narrow settlement of the water dispute, did not address the geopolitical challenges that Kashmir posed. This is one of the most significant reasons why India-Pakistan water relationships remain controversial.

Further downstream, the Sutlej meandered back and forth across the international border between Pakistani and Indian Punjab. The people of the partitioned province had suffered heavily from communal violence during its bloody division, and tensions along the border were high. “Pakistani border police and Indians sit in adjacent trees on lookout platforms staring at each other,” reported one British newspaper in 1954, “and there is barbed wire everywhere and warning notices of minefields.”

Despite the militarized nature of the border, the national governments took a careful approach to the river there. Local officials, such as the deputy commissioner of Montgomery (Sahiwal) district and engineers in Indian Punjab’s irrigation department, pressed their governments to assert claims to national territory right up to the boundary, and to take forcible control of canal headworks that lay on the border. Higher authorities instead opted for flexible working arrangements and mutual accommodation. Small-scale armed conflicts between civilians and border police, especially over seasonal river islands, dragged both sides into shooting matches. But both armies were wise enough not to risk escalation over patches of land that had little strategic value.

The Indus Waters Treaty was also a product of global geopolitics. It is well known that the World Bank supported negotiations between India and Pakistan throughout the 1950s, and was a signatory to the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. The United States provided the bulk of the $850-million financial package to Pakistan that accompanied the deal (worth approximately $7 billion in today’s terms).

What previously published work on the treaty has not shown, however, is quite how deeply the U.S. was involved in the settlement. Even though American policymakers worried about being dragged into another Kashmir-style dispute at the U.N., they offered behind-the-scenes moral and political support to the World Bank negotiators. U.S. strategists believed that if they could help India and Pakistan solve regional conflicts, South Asia would become an anti-Communist stronghold. They took pains to appear neutral in the Indus-waters dispute, despite their military alliance with Pakistan.

American politicians overcame their reluctance to commit enormous sums to the Indus waters problem when a Soviet aid offensive threatened their dominance of aid projects in the developing world. “In the tremendous task the U.S. has set itself of helping to establish the peace and maintain the hopes of the world,” wrote a State Department official in 1957, a “solution of the Indus waters problem… would be a signal achievement of U.S. foreign policy.”

It was a very specific historical moment of opportunity that enabled the treaty to come about. As well as the global course of the Cold War, an unusual confluence of domestic politics in Pakistan and India was crucial.

After Gen. Ayub Khan’s coup in 1958, Pakistan had a strong leader who had not yet lost his popularity through heavy-handed governance and failed Constitutional schemes. In 1960, General Ayub was in a unique position of strength that has hardly been repeated in Pakistani politics. He was able to stifle domestic opposition to an Indus settlement.

In India, Nehru desperately needed to begin using Indus Basin waters to boost agricultural production and shore up his troubled five-year economic plans. At the same time, ever concerned with his international image, the prime minister wanted to be seen as a statesman. He needed an Indus settlement so that Indian engineers could begin diverting water through Bhakra-Nangal canals without attracting international criticism.

The political and geographical peculiarities of the Indus-waters dispute made it a unique problem. To understand the dispute, we need to understand its intimate relationship to political developments within, between, and beyond Pakistan and India.

The Indus Waters Treaty was a boldly unique solution. The treaty’s key feature—a curiosity in international water-sharing agreements—is that the two countries divided the rivers according to location rather than water volume. India draws water from the three “eastern” rivers, the Ravi, Sutlej, and Beas. Pakistan uses the “western” rivers, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. This arrangement was what made the financial settlement so expensive. Pakistan had historically used water from the eastern rivers, but now needed to construct massive new canals to bring water all the way down to farmland from the western rivers. India, meanwhile, was able to maintain its claim that all of the water of the eastern rivers was Indian property, because the rivers ran through its territory. This territorial assertion of absolute sovereignty over river waters is, again, unusual in international water-sharing agreements.

The highly specific nature of the Indus treaty makes it fragile. Amending or renegotiating the treaty, as some commentators in both countries have recently suggested, could once again highlight basic differences in the way that the two governments view international water rights. This time, with aid budgets already stretched and big dams becoming increasingly unpopular among Western publics, it seems less likely that foreign donors would provide the funds to smooth over such differences.

The treaty is also a poor model for broader India-Pakistan cooperation. In fact, encouraging broader cooperation was the original aim of the World Bank when it intervened in the dispute during the 1950s. American support had depended on the State Department’s ability to convince the U.S. Congress that financial assistance would help improve general relations between India and Pakistan.

As early as the 1960s, an attempt to repeat the treaty failed. Indian plans for a barrage at Farakka on the Ganga sparked fears in East Pakistan that it would reduce water flows downstream. American and World Bank officials persuaded General Ayub to let Roger Revelle, an American scientific adviser, work toward an Indus-style solution to Bengal’s water dispute.

The problem was that Indian politicians violently rejected any such suggestion. In 1968, the irrigation minister, K. L. Rao, had to reassure Parliament that India would not bow to pressure from the U.S., World Bank, and even the Soviet Union to seek an Indus-style treaty on the Ganga. For a start, the geography of the Ganga-Brahmaputra Basin was completely different: there was no easy division between eastern and western rivers. More importantly, the Indus treaty itself had already become a reference point for governmental “weakness” in “selling out” India’s interests to Pakistan. The Revelle initiative went nowhere.

The Indus Waters Treaty, then, deserves credit for its durability, and its role in preventing further escalation in tensions between Pakistan and India during the mid-20th century. But its legacy is a troubled one. On the one hand, it has entrenched both countries in a system of water use that neither finds satisfactory. On the other, it has represented a more or less functional aspect of an otherwise fraught problem. Whatever the national governments choose to do next, the experience of history suggests that any new solution is bound to have unintended consequences. 

Dr. Haines is a lecturer in history at the University of Bristol. His work focuses on the modern environmental history of South Asia, and his books include Rivers Divided: Indus Basin Waters in the Making of India and Pakistan and Building the Empire, Building the Nation: Development, legitimacy, and Hydro-politics in Sind, 1919-1969.

From our Feb. 25 – March 11, 2017, issue.

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