After the Uri terrorist attack, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said: “Blood and water cannot flow together.” By implication, he was suggesting that India could retaliate by turning off the spigot of the three western rivers of the Indus basin that flow unhindered into Pakistan and sustain most of its agriculture. Now, possibly having realised that the western river waters can’t be stopped, Mr Modi, while campaigning in Haryana, raised the question of the water of the eastern rivers flowing into Pakistan. 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 of over 11,165,000 sq. km. Its estimated annual flow stands at around 207 km3, making it the 21st largest river in the world in terms of annual flow. It is also Pakistan’s sole means of sustenance. The British had constructed a complex canal system to irrigate the Punjab region of Pakistan. Partition left a large part of this infrastructure in Pakistan, but the headwork dams remained in India, fuelling much insecurity among the Punjabi landowning elite in that country. The World Bank brokered the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan after many years of intense negotiations to allocate the waters of the Indus river basin. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Ayub Khan signed the treaty in Karachi on September 19, 1960.
Under the IWT, control over the three “eastern” rivers — the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej — was given to India, while control over the three “western” rivers — the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum — to Pakistan. Since Pakistan’s three rivers flow through India first, the treaty allowed India to use them for irrigation, transport and power generation, while laying down precise regulations for Indian building projects along the way. Since the ratification of the treaty in 1960, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, but the flow of water as per the treaty was not hampered even for a single day.
The three eastern rivers allocated to India by the IWT are the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. These waters sustain agriculture in Punjab and to some extent Haryana, and are substantially used. What enters Pakistan is usually just enough to keep the stream flushed. But nevertheless, Pakistan has from time to time blamed India for its floods, saying these are caused by the sudden and deliberate release of storage gates. Despite this, the IWT worked exceedingly well for both countries, and both are loathe disturbing it. Even when India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, 1971 and over Kargil in 1999, the waters flowed without interruption. The fact is that the IWT works because it suits both countries by making a virtue of their geography.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power promising to deter Pakistani-origin terrorism in India by threatening retribution, and is now hard pressed to deliver. The terrorist attacks continue, even without Article 370. Mr Modi is discovering that there is a wide, yawning gap between promise and reality. The Modi government is flailing for options, short of the use of the military option. After the Uri incident, Mr Modi threatened to withdraw from the IWT. Nothing happened. Instead, Pulwama happened. Even the raid on Balakot has not had quite the effect on Pakistan as most of his followers claim it did.
Now campaigning in Haryana, Mr Modi has once again begun to somewhat obliquely raise the issue of the Indus waters. He now tells Haryana’s farmers we are giving away much of the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas waters to Pakistan. This is just not true. Out of 33 million acre-feet (MAF) that is by right India’s, only about two MAF utilisable from the Ravi and Beas flows into Pakistan. Yet Mr Modi threatens Pakistan, saying: “The water which belongs to India was allowed to flow to Pakistan for 70 years… This will not happen now. We will divert the water which belongs to India, it will be given to the farmers of Haryana, and water should be given to the farmers of Rajasthan.” But the main reason why Haryana, Rajasthan and even Delhi are being denied the Indus basin waters is because Punjab refuses to permit the completion of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (SYL) from just below the Nangal Dam to join the Yamuna canal near Karnal in Haryana.
Of the three western rivers “given” to Pakistan, the Indus, which debouches from Indian territory near Kargil, then flows entirely in Pakistan-controlled territory. The Jhelum originates near Verinag near Anantnag and meanders for over 200 km in the Kashmir 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 electricity to the Valley.
The Chenab, also known as the Chandrabhaga, originates in Lahaul Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and flows through the Jammu region into the plains of Pakistan’s Punjab. The catchment area of the Chenab is elongated and narrow. The catchment area of the Chenab is mostly in India. But the Chenab runs through deep valleys and the river drops by as much as 24 meters per km, imposing physical constraints and huge economic costs on harnessing it.
Besides, as Dr Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of earth sciences at the geology and geophysics department of the University of Kashmir, recently put it: “Let us assume we stop the water supply for the sake of argument. Where would the water go? We do not have the infrastructure to store this water. We have not built dams in J&K where we can store the water. And being a mountainous state, unlike Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, you cannot move the water to another state. So, you cannot stop the water technically.”
But even if it can be done, climate change is upon us with severe implicit consequences for both countries, but mostly for Pakistan. The Indus river basin is fed mostly by melting glaciers, unlike the Ganga and the Brahmaputra basins, which are fed mostly by the monsoons. Since climate change is now affecting the Himalayan glaciers, the water patterns in the Indus river basin are already showing changes. This is why Pakistan constantly keeps up a drumbeat of false charges about the non-adherence to the IWT by India.
Widely referenced estimates indicate a troubling long-term trend for the flow of the Indus river basin. 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 2000 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 2000, reached after 2060.
Not only is Pakistan running out of water, it seems to be soon running out of time as well. 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.)”