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Indus: The water flow can’t be stopped

| MOHAN GURUSWAMY
Published : Sep 28, 2016, 11:16 pm IST
Updated : Sep 28, 2016, 11:16 pm IST

The social media is aflame with elated stories, tall stories really, about India’s retaliation for Uri by turning off the spigot of the three western rivers of the Indus basin that flow unhindered int

The social media is aflame with elated stories, tall stories really, about India’s retaliation for Uri by turning off the spigot of the three western rivers of the Indus basin that flow unhindered into Pakistan and sustain its agriculture. Prime Minister Narendra Modi lent much credence to this when he said that “blood and water cannot flow together”. But the truth is that the flow of blood can be stopped, but water will continue to flow.

The Indus river system has a total drainage area exceeding 11,165,000 sq km. Its estimated annual flow is about 207 km, the world’s 21st largest river in annual flow. It’s also Pakistan’s sole means of sustenance. The World Bank brokered the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan after many years of intense negotiations. It was designed to allocate the Indus river basin waters after the 1947 Partition. The British had constructed a complex canal system to irrigate undivided Punjab. Partition left a large part of this network in Pakistan, but the headwork dams remained in India, fuelling much insecurity among Pakistan’s Punjabi landowning elite. The IWT was mainly intended to address these Pakistani fears. Jawaharlal Nehru and Field Marshal Ayub Khan signed the treaty in Karachi on September 19, 1960.

Under this agreement, control over three “eastern” rivers — Beas, Ravi and Sutlej — was given to India, while that over three “western” rivers — Indus, Chenab and Jhelum — went to Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s rivers flow through India, the treaty allowed India to use them for irrigation, transport and power generation, laying down precise regulations for Indian building projects along the way. The treaty was a result of the Pakistani fear that, since the source rivers of the Indus basin were in India, it could potentially create droughts and famines in Pakistan, specially at times of war. Since the treaty’s ratification in 1960, India and Pakistan fought three wars, but the flow of water was not hampered even for a single day.

On the face of it, the pact seems generous to Pakistan as it gives the lower riparian state 80 per cent of the western rivers’ water. The reality, however, is that IWT makes a virtue out of necessity, as it is the region’s geography that decides this, rather than any altruism. The Kashmir Valley is just 100 km wide at its maximum and 15,520.3 sq km in area. While the Himalayas divide the Valley from Ladakh, the Pir Panjal range, that encloses the Valley from west and south, separates it from the great plains of northern India. This picturesque and densely settled Valley has an average height of 1,850 metres above sea level but the surrounding Pir Panjal range has an average elevation of 5,000 metres. Thus the Pir Panjal range stands between the Kashmir Valley and the rest of the country, and is an insurmountable barrier that precludes the transfer of water anywhere else. Neither do the contours of the Valley allow for more waters to be stored in any part of it. As the waters can’t be stored or used by diversion elsewhere, it has to keep flowing into Pakistan.

Of the three western rivers “given” to Pakistan, the Indus, which leaves Indian territory near Kargil, flows entirely in Pakistan-controlled territory. The Jhelum originates near Verinag near Anantnag and meanders over 200 km in the Valley before it enters Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. After flowing through Srinagar it fills up the Wular Lake and then traverses past Baramulla and Uri. The hydel projects constructed on it supply most of the Valley’s electricity.

The Chenab, also known as Chandrabhaga, originates in Lahaul Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and flows through the Jammu region into the plains of Pakistani Punjab. In J&K, the Chenab basin covers Kishtwar, Doda, Ramban, Udhampur, Jammu and Rajouri districts. The catchment of the Chenab is elongated and narrow, and the catchment area mostly in India. But the Chenab runs through deep valleys and the river drops by 24 m per km, imposing physical constraints and huge costs in harnessing it.

The Uri incident fuelled much anger within India and the Modi government, that came to power promising to deter Pakistan-based terror in India by threatening retribution, is now hard pressed to deliver. It is discovering there is a yawning gap between promise and reality. The PM’s pre-election speeches are being played back to taunt him. The Modi government is flailing for options, short of the use of arms. Thus the somewhat exasperated suggestion that the government would take a relook the treaty, though senior Pakistani diplomat Sartaj Aziz has made it clear that this will be tantamount to an act of war.

But a relook is easier said than done. For a start, India will find it very difficult to repudiate IWT as there is no clause in it for any one party to “denounce” (legalese for repudiation) the treaty, making it incumbent under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties for both parties to agree on this. Pakistan will never agree to have a bullet fired into its head. Besides as Dr Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of earth sciences at the geology and geophysics department of the University of Kashmir, says: “Let us assume we stop water supply for the sake of argument. Where would the water go We do not have infrastructure to store this water. We have not built dams in J&K where we can store water. And being a mountainous state, unlike Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, you cannot move water to another state. So you cannot stop the water technically.”

But even if it can be done, climate change is upon both nations with severe implicit consequences for both, but mostly for Pakistan. The Indus river basin is fed mostly by glacier melt, unlike the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins, that are fed mostly by the monsoons. Since climate change is first affecting the Himalayan glaciers, the water patterns in the Indus basin are already showing changes. Hence Pakistan constantly keeps up a drumbeat of false charges on non-adherence to IWT by India. It has only reinforced its determination to seize J&K in the mistaken belief that it will control the water to its irrigation network. But will there be water for very long

Widely-referenced estimates indicate a troubling long-term trend for the Indus river basin’s flow. River water provides 80 per cent of all irrigation water for Pakistan’s critical agriculture sector. These water sources are already near their limits, with most water diverted to northern Pakistan’s agricultural regions at the expense of the south. In fact, so much water is diverted from the Indus before it reaches the ocean that seawater has invaded the river channel miles inland.

Based on current projections, the Indus river system is expected to fall below 2,000 flow levels between 2030 and 2050. The drop-off is estimated to be most serious between 2030 and 2040, with a new equilibrium flow of 20 per cent below that of 2,000 reached after 2060. Not only is Pakistan running out of water, it seems it will soon be running out of time. As its founding father poet Allama Iqbal wrote: Watan Ki Fikar Kar Nadan! Musibat Ane Wali Hai/Teri Barbadiyon Ke Mashware Hain Asmanon Mein. (Think of the homeland, O ignorant one! Hard times are coming/ Conspiracies for your destruction are afoot in the heavens.)

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy.