Indus Waters Treaty (IWT): Recent Developments and Options for Pakistan

Pakistani delegation has recently participated in the annual Permanent Indus Water Commission and it is the first engagement between both neighbors since ties deteriorated after India’s move to scrap Kashmir’s special status. Although, the outcome of this meeting is yet to be seen but this major engagement is being interpreted as a thaw in ties between Pakistan and India. The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has proved to be a classical example of conflict resolution, so far, as it has survived four wars between the two nuclear powers. The survival of IWT has become strenuous due to the rise of Hindu Nationalists in the power corridors of India. Thus, despite the rare development, Pakistan should be very cautious as the right-wing political leaders of India have a history of deceits and lies.

Since 1947, Pakistan and India have been archrivals. Although, Kashmir dispute has been a core reason behind tense ties between the two countries but the water conflict has also significantly contributed to animosity and enmity between them. The water conflicts between India and Pakistan have a long list against Indian infrastructure on the western tributaries, which had been given to Pakistan under Indus Waters Treaty. Pakistan is of the view that India is robbing Pakistan’s water supplies and building its water management capacity only as a political maneuver to gain political supremacy by practicing hydro-hegemony.

India, as it does in the case of the Kashmir issue, denies the facts and tries to maintain that it is not violating the treaty and only constructing infrastructure within the scope of the Indus Waters Treaty, and the decreased water flows in Pakistan are due to climate change. Owing to Indian construction works on the western rivers and the Pakistani interests in safeguarding its water supplies, water disputes are routinely referred to the legal mechanism prescribed in the IWT. It is pertinent to mention that, despite destructive wars between the countries, the Indus Waters Treaty has survived, so far.

The 116th meeting of the India-Pakistan Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), which was held in New Delhi from 23-24 March 2021, has finally removed the deadlock of over two years. The Indus Waters Treaty is often portrayed as a classical example of cooperation between India and Pakistan. The recent meeting of PIC has, once again, proved that the treaty still has the potential to survive. The meeting of PIC is held annually alternately in Pakistan and India but it could not happen in the last over two years as the relations between India and Pakistan deteriorated after India’s move to scrap the special status of occupied territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

The last meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission took place in August 2018 in Lahore. In this meeting, Pakistan raised objections over the construction of Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai hydropower projects on Chenab by the Indian government. The representatives of the Pakistani side categorically conveyed the message to the Indian officials that if India does not accept Pakistan’s request to entertain the objections over the construction of stated hydropower projects by India then Pakistan would approach the International forums, such as the appointment of neutral experts, taking the case to the international court of arbitration, as defined in the Indus Waters Treaty.

Moreover, Pakistani officials had also asked the Indians to reduce the height of Pakal Dul’s reservoir up to five meters, maintain 40-meter height above sea level while making spillways’ gates of this project, besides clarifying the pattern and mechanism for the water storage and releases. Similarly, Pakistan raised some technical concerns over the design of the Lower Kalnai hydropower project, requesting India to address them at the earliest. Finally, India agreed to get the sites of Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai projects inspected by Pakistani experts. It also assured Pakistan of taking up its objections/concerns over the two projects seriously by resolving them amicably in the light of technical memorandums to be prepared and exchanged by the two countries in the next meeting to be held in New Delhi.

Later on, India’s failed attempt to establish new normal in South Asia by breaching the sovereignty of Pakistan brought the countries on the verge of war –the incident of 27th February. Pakistan’s ruthless response to India’s hegemonic agenda decimated the Indian ambitions and later the wise decisions deescalated the situation between the two countries. However, India did not stop here, it abrogated Article 370 on 5th August 2019 and took away the autonomy of the occupied territory of Jammu and Kashmir. This illegal and inhuman action by the Indian government worsened the ties between the two countries.

Since August 2019, the ties between Pakistan and India went from worse to worst. Therefore, the recent meeting of the India-Pakistan Permanent Indus Commission is interpreted as a thaw in relations. Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa in which they reiterated Pakistan’s position on the relationship with India and called for resolution of the disputes through dialogues see the next week’s meeting as an important development in the wake of recent statements. Both the Pakistani leaders have nonetheless asked India to take the first step by agreeing to resolve the Kashmir issue according to the wishes of its people.

The meeting of PIC was held in New Delhi and the Pakistani side was led by Syed Muhammad Mehar Ali Shah, Pakistan Commissioner for Indus Waters. The issues related to the IWT were discussed during the meeting. Pakistan’s side reiterated its objections to the Indian projects including Pakal Dul, Lower Kulnai, Durbuk Shyok, and Nimu Chilling. The construction of the controversial Pakal Dul Dam is currently underway on a tributary of the River Chenab by the Indian authorities in the Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan side also urged the Indian side to share data of water flows as per the provisions of the IWT following the practice in vogue since 1989. Pakistan’s side emphasized the importance of early resolution of the outstanding issues in accordance with the provisions of the IWT. Both sides agreed to make endeavors to resolve the issues, conduct tours of inspection, and hold the next meeting of the Commission in Pakistan at an early date.

The rare development between Pakistan and India is a good sign but it should not be taken a decisive move that can change the Indian course of action. The ruling party, BJP, in India, thrives on Anti-Pakistan and Anti-Muslim rhetoric. The Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, has been whipping up ideas to scrap the Indus Waters Treaty. The construction of hydropower projects is aimed to restrict water supply and sabotage the treaty. Therefore, Pakistan should be proactive in dealing with the water issue with India.

The current government in Pakistan has given attention to how to deal with this crisis. It is important to note that the construction of dams is underway, the government should build the dams on an urgent basis. The construction of dams should be made a top priority by the government. Moreover, Pakistan should initiate active diplomatic and academic campaigns to present its point of view on the Indian violations of IWT which would not only gather the attention of the world but also mitigate the misinformation which is being propagated by the Indian government-sponsored media outlets and think-tanks.

India is in a weak position to revoke the Indus Waters Treaty due to strong provisions in the treaty. If India chooses to violate the treaty, Pakistan has the option to use legal and diplomatic means to deter Indian hegemonic and illegal moves against Pakistan. As a last resort, Pakistan can use the right of “necessary countermeasure” complying with the law of self-defense. In self-defense, Pakistan can remove any headwork, dams, or other diversionary installations in Indian illegally occupied Kashmir that illegally restrict the flow of Western Rivers into its territory.

In short, the 116th meeting of the India-Pakistan Permanent Water Commission is perceived as a thaw in relations between India and Pakistan. It is a good sign that the government of India has accepted Pakistan’s request to resolve the issues through dialogues. This rare development can be considered as a small step in the right direction but the history of Indian lies and illegal actions suggests that Pakistan needs to be very cautious and should be proactive while dealing with the BJP-led government of India which has gained power by using Hindutva Ideology, Anti-Pakistan and Anti-Muslim slogans.


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