In addition to the ongoing unrest in disputed Kashmir, an additional bit of escalation by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been to threaten diverting water that belongs to downriver Pakistan under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. The Treaty, which Indians don’t like today, has protected Pakistan’s right to waters that travel through territory controlled by upriver India.
When the Treaty was signed under the auspices of the World Bank, neither party liked it. Some in India thought the big three rivers (Indus, Jhelum, Chenab) had been allocated to Pakistan while the lesser rivers (Beas, Sutlej, Ravi) had fallen to India. Pakistanis were maximalist in their approach; they wanted all the five rivers since historically Pakistan was the Land of Five Rivers.
Today, water is the casus belli between India and Pakistan if ever there was one. When the Kashmir cause takes a beating because of Pakistan’s nonstate actors and the world swings unfairly in favor of India on Kashmir, Pakistan shifts the cause of Pak-Indo conflict to upper riparian India blocking Pakistan’s waters through new dams. Since all lower riparian entities tend to be alarmist—note the rejection of Kalabagh Dam by Sindh—Pakistan has been a bit trigger-happy over what India is supposedly doing messing with Pakistani waters.
The “waters” escalation is going to rile Pakistan dangerously in an international environment favoring India. One good sign is Pakistan’s determination not to escalate the current cross-border shelling by India across the Line of Control. This gesture should be taken forward to achieve an overall “normalization” of relations with India without reference to bilateral disputes. Once normalization takes hold, India can be usefully engaged in the discussion over waters. The fact that India is causing a water alert in Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh may help in adopting a joint position under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and reach a regional solution to the coming water stress.