Six decades of Indus Water Treaty: What India Should Push For

When the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was signed on September 19, 1960 at Karachi, Pakistan after almost a decade of deliberations, it was described as a treaty between India and Pakistan “concerning the most complete and satisfactory utilization of the waters of the Indus System of Rivers”.

But this “complete and satisfactory utilization” of waters left out one crucial aspect: the ecological flow for the Indus itself. Another aspect that is missing from the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) is climate change. Not just has the term gained currency in recent years, both India and Pakistan have already started facing impacts due to it.

Climate staring at Hindu Kush Himalayan region

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report , pointing out the direct impact of climate change on water, has warned how precipitation in days to come will not be uniform. India, and in fact, entire South Asia, will see fewer rainy days but with more intense rainfall. It directly leads to floods causing huge loss of life and damage to agriculture land/property. 

If the IPCC report was for a larger area, there is a dedicated report for the Hindu Kush Himalayas region – Indus Basin is part of HKH – styled on the lines of IPCC report. ‘The Hindu Kush Himalayas Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People’  by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has warned that “even the most ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century would lead to a 2.1 spike in temperatures and the melting of one-third of the region’s glaciers.” 

While India’s north-western states have had its share of erratic weather patterns, Pakistan has had more than enough of it. Examples are just too many and the list long. Suffice to say, the impact of climate change is already being felt across the two neighbours. Less snowfall means there will be less water in the upper reaches of the Indus and other five main rivers. Even more important as to why the Treaty’s clauses will need to be negotiated again keeping in mind the lesser availability of water.

Similar precarious climatic changes have bothered Afghanistan and water scarcity has emerged as a real threat in both Afghanistan and Pakistan apart from the politically instable conditions. The Kabul River Basin extends over nine Afghan provinces and two Pakistani provinces. The 700-km-long Kabul river originates in the Hindu Kush Mountains in central Afghanistan, flows eastward past Kabul, Surobhi, and Jalalabad in Afghanistan. East of Jalalabad, it is joined by its main tributary, the Kunar river, which originates in Pakistan. After crossing into Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the Kabul River runs past Peshawar and Nowshera and joins the mighty Indus River near Attock, northwest of Islamabad.

A 2017 media report described it as “pertinent to examine the subject” by pointing out: “Pakistani officials and experts have, time and again, suggested the negotiation of an Afghanistan-Pakistan treaty to regulate the sharing of the Kabul River Basin (KRB). These calls have, however, not been reciprocated by Afghanistan. Given the looming water crisis in Pakistan and Afghanistan’s plans to utilise its water assets to meet the water, food, and energy needs of its impoverished and rapidly growing population”. 

On the other hand, there have been demands from within Afghanistan and also from within Pakistan that “Pakistan should divert 6 MAF water of Indus to Afghanistan for regional economic uplift.” 

All four riparian countries need to be on board 

It is here that all the four riparian countries need to be on board for taking collective decisions about the river, for the river. As on date, the Indian government has no plans for it. “There is no new proposal under consideration with regards to water sharing between India and Pakistan,” the government told the Lok Sabha in July last week. But given China’s involvement in the proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project that has large areas in the northern stretch of the PoK, it will be prudent to involve China in the reframed Treaty. 

It is not that India does not want a treaty with China, what with India being the lower riparian for several rivers, including the mighty Brahmaputra, originating in Tibet. To a question raised in May 2013 in the Rajya Sabha “whether India needs a water sharing treaty with China in order to protect the interest of its people and land against devastation of the lower riparian region of India”, the government had then answered: “As a lower riparian state with considerable established user rights to the waters of the River, India has conveyed its views and concerns to the Chinese authorities. India has called on China to ensure that the interests of downstream States are not harmed by any activities in upstream areas.”  

Bilateral or multi-later, a water sharing treaty including China is long overdue.

Incidentally, China has rejected the ‘UN Watercourses Convention’ , which entered into force in August 2014, while both India and Pakistan abstained when more than 36 countries sponsored a convention on the law of use of international water courses (non-navigable) and 106 countries voted in favour.

Health of Indus should be central

Of course, the river, the Indus should be central to the any Treaty. 

The entire discourse today is only about MAFs, dams and soon, due to climate change, will further be about decreasing snowfall in the upper region and increasing floods in the lower regions. Need is for an integrated river basin approach involving the four countries. India needs to take the lead for it. It is high time India stopped the flip flop on the Indus Water Treaty and owed it up. 

Afterall, why does India forget that THIS is the river that has given her its name?

Nivedita Khandekar

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes about environmental and developmental issues. She loves to capture images of people and landscapes as and when she is out in the field.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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