Photographs by Kohi Marri
Photographs by Kohi Marri

On April 1, 1948, a newly independent India turned off the tap to its neighbour Pakistan, blocking the flow of water to key canals across the Radcliffe line. That it took such an extreme step was mainly the result of the chaos that partition generated but over the years the decision acquired the patina of vengeance with some arguing that it was also a measure of the country’s anger with Pakistan over the latter’s aggression in Kashmir.

Sixty-eight years later, in the wake of a militant attack on an Indian army camp in Uri, the Modi government and a section of the strategic community is asking whether water can once again serve as a weapon. On Monday, the prime minister held a meeting with officials to understand the working of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) which currently governs the division of rivers across the Indus basin between the two countries. The meeting was called to assess whether there is a tap India can turn off, and if so, what would the consequences be. It ended with a decision to not consider abrogation but instead find ways of maximising the amount of water India can utilise on its side.

The IWT is the only agreement between the two countries that has withstood four wars, terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and other parts of India, and the military crisis of 2002. Across the world, the treaty is cited as one of the few successful settlements of a trans-boundary water basin conflict. But though it has itself held, the IWT sadly could never goad New Delhi and Islamabad to adopt a similar negotiating mechanism for the resolution of their other differences.

The treaty

When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947, long-standing conflicts over the Indus river system became an international issue between the two countries. Besides the competing claims over J&K, the other factor that internationalised the ‘Kashmir question’ was the sharing of the Indus waters between India and Pakistan. The Radcliffe line which divided the two new sovereign nations cut right through the basin with five of the six rivers – the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej – flowing from India into Pakistan. The partition split an established irrigation system between the two countries without specifying how the waters were to be divided. India was left with control of the waters supplying Pakistan’s irrigation canals, and in 1948 it diverted some of those waters away from Pakistan.

The survival of Pakistan, and India, is dependent on the Indus waters. Although India and Pakistan have fought wars because of their conflicting claims on Kashmir, one of the non-manifest reasons for the wars is control of the strategic asset – the waters of the Indus. In order to fully appreciate how the Indus waters represent a strategic asset both for India and Pakistan, it is necessary to revisit the past.

October 22-27, 1947: Pakistani forces and armed irregulars enter Kashmir, forcing the Maharaja of Kashmir to sign the Treaty of Accession. Indian troops engage the invaders militarily in an effort to vacate the aggression on Kashmir.

December 18, 1947: A standstill agreement is signed, which provides that the pre-partition allocation of water in the Indus Basin irrigation system would be maintained. The agreement is to terminate on March 31, 1948.

January 1, 1948: India takes the Kashmir issue to the UN.

April 1, 1948: India charges Pakistan with failure to renew the standstill agreement and shuts off water supplies from the Ferozepur Headworks to the Dipalpur Canal, the Pakistani portions of Lahore and the main branches of the Upper Bari Doab Canal.

This was a costless strategy from the Indian point of view, since Pakistan, as the lower riparian, could not prevent India from any of a set of schemes to divert the natural flow of water from the Himalaya-Karakorum mountain belt into the Indus Valley: Beas water into the Sutlej, Ravi water into the Beas at Madhopur and Chenab water into the Ravi (through the proposed Marhu Tunnel).

May 4, 1948: The Inter-Dominion Agreement is signed. Pakistan is required “to deposit immediately in the Reserve Bank (of India) such ad hoc sum as may be specified by the prime minister of India” (see Article 5 of the agreement).

The inter-dominion agreement came about because Pakistani leaders knew that in order to survive as a nation state it was necessary to secure a binding agreement on access to water resources that originated in India. War appeared to be the only recourse to alter this equation, but recourse to war had not succeeded because India had pushed back the Pakistani invaders in Kashmir. Even during the height of India-Pakistan tension in 1948, Islamabad sent a ministerial delegation to Delhi to negotiate for the restoration of water. New Delhi got Islamabad’s recognition of its rights to all the waters in the eastern rivers (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) and secured from Pakistan its commitment to pay for any water supplied by India until Pakistan could find replacement from the other western (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) rivers.

January 1, 1949: India and Pakistan conclude a formal agreement of ceasefire.

Isn’t it striking that two warring countries, newly independent but immediately faced with a crisis that threatened their fledgling status as independent-nation states, managed to conclude an agreement on a strategic resource essential to their mutual survival? And even before a formal cease-fire treaty had been signed? Just as the conflict over the Indus waters provided India and Pakistan with a historic opportunity to convert their differences into a negotiated settlement, the current political climate in the region also offers both countries another – and bigger – historic chance to bring about a permanent negotiated peace settlement between them. Sadly, there is little evidence that they are prepared to do so.

As part of their foundational realities, both India and Pakistan recognised that bilateral co-operation with regard to access to water resources was crucial for maintenance of peace in the region. Just as India and Pakistan occupy and share the same Indus basin, they occupy and share the same contiguous geo-strategic space. This understanding averted every potential water-related crisis between the two countries, subsequently, and eventually led to the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. The mechanisms put in place by the treaty and, more importantly, the principle of ensuring equitable access to Indus water resources has worked well since then.

Even at the height of the India-Pakistan military face-off along the border and LoC in 2002, the treaty withstood the pressure.

The operative words in this case are “equitable access to Indus water resources”. In order to appreciate how India and Pakistan developed a common understanding on sharing the Indus waters it is necessary to revisit the unifying vision of water security that made this treaty a reality. It all began with the outlining of a vision, an outlining of a possible solution in the realm of imagination — of future feasible conflict resolution.

The IWT is the only agreement between the two countries that has withstood four wars.

Collier’s magazine requested David Lilienthal, former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the US Atomic Energy Commission to write a series of articles on the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan, created through the partition of the sub-continent. He visited both the countries and was the guest of the respective governments’. In February 1951 he met the then Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali. He also met Sheikh Abdullah at Nehru’s residence and discussed the Kashmir question with him.

What Lilienthal wrote in his article, which appeared in the August 4, 1951 issue of Collier’s, is as valid today as it was then. He wrote:

“The controversy over Kashmir has been so heated that the real issue has largely been lost sight of. The real issue is not the plebiscite, but how best to promote and insure peace and a sense of a community in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent; how best to avoid a UN situation that will create another, though different Korea…The Kashmir issue, as an issue in itself, may not be solvable now, short of war. But the surrounding tensions can be reduced, one by one. It may then be possible to solve the matter of Kashmir’s political future. The starting point should be to minimize Pakistan’s fears of deprivation. Pakistan’s present use of water should be confirmed by India. The urgent problem is to store the water that is presently wasted, so that both countries can use it. This is not a religious or a political problem; it is a problem of the survival of a nation.”

Lilienthal’s articles generated tremendous interest in India and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, also at the highest levels in the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (today known as the World Bank). On November 8, 1951 Eugene R. Black, who was president of the bank at the time and a close friend of Lilienthal, wrote letters to the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, Nehru and Khawaja Nazimudin (Liaquat Ali was assassinated on October 16, 1951) offering his good offices for discussion of the dispute and negotiation of a settlement. His proposal had three essential premises to which both the countries had to express their commitment before he could submit the matter to the executive directors of the bank. They were:

  • The Indus waters are sufficient for present and future needs of India and Pakistan.

  • The water resources of the Indus basin should be developed cooperatively and used in an effective manner to promote the economic development of the Indus basin as a unit.

  • The problem of development and use of the Indus basin water resources should be solved on a functional and not a political plane, without relation to past negotiations and past claims.

These premises were the fundamentals of a possible solution. Both countries accepted the World Bank’s proposal and negotiations began in May 1952. The talks were kept secret so as not to generate any speculation about the settlement of Indus water appropriations. For two years India, Pakistan and the World Bank remained engaged in negotiations, but it was clear that neither country was prepared to run an integrated system of management and development of the Indus Basin. India wanted the waters of the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi (the eastern rivers) along with 7% of the water from the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus (the western rivers). Pakistan’s wanted to retain all the western rivers for itself and the use of 70% of the water from the eastern rivers.

The fact remains that the agreement defused a major source of potential conflict and allowed each country to develop its share of the basin’s waters.

In February 1954, the World Bank put forward a comprehensive plan to break the logjam and transmitted the proposals to the both prime ministers:

  • The entire flow of the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) would be available for the exclusive use and benefit of Pakistan, and for development by Pakistan, except for the insignificant volume of Jhelum flow currently used in Kashmir.

  • The entire flow of the eastern rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) would be available for the exclusive use and benefit of India, and for development by India, except that for a specified transition period India would continue to supply from these rivers, in accordance with an agreed schedule, the historic withdrawals from these rivers in Pakistan.

  • The transition period would be calculated on the basis of the time required to complete the link canals needed in Pakistan to make transfers for the purpose of replacing supplies from India. A temporary co-operative administration would be needed to supervise the carrying out of the transitional arrangements.

  • Each country would construct the works located on its own territories, which are planned for the development of the supplies. The costs of such works would be borne by the country to be benefited thereby. Although no works are planned for joint construction by the two countries, certain link canals in Pakistan will be needed to replace supplies from India. India would bear the costs of such works to the extent of the benefits to be received by her. An appropriate procedure would be established for adjusting or arbitrating disputes concerning the allocation of costs under this dispute.

Though both countries accepted the plan in the first instance, they still had reservations about each other’s intention. India alleged that Pakistan was wary of accepting the plan in its entirety and Pakistan wanted storage facilities for the western rivers so that it could meet its replacement uses in the critical phases of the summer and winter growing seasons. For the next five years there was no movement forward. In May 1959, Black’s visit to the sub-continent became a catalyst for further action. He suggested that India’s contribution for any water storage in Pakistan and other replacement work be set at a fixed amount, regardless of its cost. In exchange, the Bank would give India a loan to construct the Beas Dam at Pong. By August 1959 Black succeeded in persuading friendly governments – the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, West Germany, Australia, and New Zealand – to underwrite a water settlement that would advance the cause at a cost of one billion dollars. The Indus Waters Treaty was signed on September 19, 1960, after eight years of negotiations led by the World Bank, and ratified a few months later by both nations in 1961.

The two main signatories to the treaty – President Ayub Khan of Pakistan and Prime Minister Nehru of India – declared that the primary objective of their countries was rapid development by optimal utilisation of their resources and raising the living standards of their people. They shared a vision of friendly and co-operative relations by transcending and leaving behind old emotional strains and tensions. Both Ayub and Nehru became the target of hostile opposition for having signed the treaty. Morarji Desai and Govind Ballabh Pant were both critical of Nehru. In fact, Pant wanted India’s contribution to the Indus Basin Development Fund to be adjusted against the value of the property left by the Hindus in Pakistan. Ayub, too, was severely criticised for ‘selling Pakistan’s waters to India’.

It is true that Pakistan and India – and especially the state of Jammu and Kashmir – have complaints about the treaty and in a more conducive atmosphere ought to engage in talks to fine-tune the text. But the fact remains that the agreement defused a major source of potential conflict and allowed each country to develop its share of the basin’s waters. The Indus Waters Treaty was established to enable exploitation of the basin’s economic potential for optimal benefit of India and Pakistan. By constructing new dams and irrigation canals, both countries were able to increase agricultural production in the Indus basin.The World Bank and other international agencies provided $870 million to Pakistan and $200 million to India to defray infrastructure costs. Other provisions of the treaty enabled the construction of two additional dams in Pakistan – Mangla and Tarbela – and created new link canals and barrages to develop and sustain agricultural activities in Pakistan, such as the canals that provide water to the Kalabagh desert.

In Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the Mangla Watershed Project was established by the Water and Power Development Authority to prolong the life of the Mangla reservoir. In comparison to the Tarbela reservoir that is estimated to last 55 years against an expected lifespan of 100 years, the life of the Mangla reservoir has increased from 110 to 170 years – with the attendant benefits of irrigation and hydel power, living proof of what foresight and planning can achieve. It is, of course, another story that the Mangla Dam in turn displaced thousands of Mirpuris in PoK, which in turn generated anti-Pakistan sentiment in some pockets of the Mirpur region.

India, too, benefited immensely from the water security provided by the Indus Waters Treaty. Of the 11,219 MW hydro electric potential on the eastern rivers, projects having 8,500 MW installed capacity have already been completed (with others in different stages of construction) without having to worry about the implications of this for the lower riparian.

The bundle of benefits and achievements accruing from a shared vision of the Indus basin transformed water from a source of potential conflict to a resource for advancing peace.

The abiding lesson from the negotiated settlement of the Indus Water Treaty continues to be relevant today. India and Pakistan occupy and share the same geo-strategic complex and there is no way out other than harmonising their nation building activities within this shared space. In the long run, both India and Pakistan will have to find the same resourcefulness and energy to resolve the Kashmir issue.

This article was originally published in The Wire, India

The writer is a journalist and an author for The Wire.