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Changing the course of rivers?

India has once again threatened to cut back on water flowing through its rivers to Pakistan adding yet another angle to the hostile relations between two neighborly countries. Nitin Gadkari, India’s transport minister said in a Twitter message that “Our Govt has decided to stop our share of water which used to flow to Pakistan. We will divert water from Eastern rivers and supply it to our people in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.” It is the strongest threat India has made since the attack in which a suicide bomber killed more than 40 troops by ramming his explosive-laden car into a CRPF bus near Awantipora on Srinagar-Jammu highway on February 14. Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for carrying out the attack. India has accused Pakistan of being involved in the attack as Jaish has is headquartered in Pakistan.

Though this seemed to have struck a nerve in India, with many people hungry for revenge, India has few good military options. Both India and Pakistan field nuclear arsenals and thousands of troops on the border. Even the most jingoistic members of the army elite are wary of escalating tensions. So the Indian government has looked for other ways to hit back. This is hardly the first time it has threatened to reduce Pakistan’s water supply. In 2016, after militants attacked army’s brigade headquarters in Uri in which 18 soldiers were killed, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “blood and water can’t flow together” and his government threatened to do the same thing. But a few days later, India, after claiming to have avenged the attack by carrying out a surgical strike across the border, did not act on its water-threat. A full-blown water war could be catastrophic to the hundreds of millions of people in India and Pakistan who depend on river water. But this latest threat was not accompanied by details on when or how India might act to divert more water from Pakistan downstream or how large, in reality, such diversions would be.

 

Indus water treaty of September 19, 1960, under which water is shared by India and Pakistan, is one of the most liberal water-sharing pacts in the world. Under the treaty that was signed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistan president Ayub Khan, the water of six rivers – Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum – were to be shared between the two countries. The pact, brokered by World Bank, survived three wars fought between the two countries and constant strain in their bilateral ties. With the rise of hardcore Hindutwa party BJP’s rise to power in Delhi, India is planning to call off the Treaty. Though Pakistan’s response to the latest threat has been casual but in the past Pakistan has made it clear that it won’t allow India any leverage on the Treaty. With an eye on elections, to be held in next two months, Prime Minister Narednra Modi is under severe pressure to take tough stance against Pakistan. The pressure is in some ways of Modi’s own making. He had come to power on the promise of making Pakistan to ‘pay for its actions’. That has made Modi’s position precarious. He is under extreme pressure to show the way.

Scraping IWT would mean to stop water to Pakistan. And to understand how Pakistan would react does not need one to be a scientist. There is also China factor. China has invested heavily in Pakistan and its stakes are quite extreme. According to experts, in case India decides to stop Pakistan’s share, China could respond to this act by blocking River Indus and River Brahmaputra as both of them originate from there. China has not signed international water sharing agreement, so it has no obligation to let the rivers flow. If China came in Pakistan’s support, and diverted the flow of River Indus, India could lose 36 percent of river water. Additionally, China also has the option of stopping the flow of Brahmaputra river into India. The Brahmaputra feeds millions in India and Bangladesh. China is building 11 mega dams on it and is in a position to hurt India’s interests. Government of India is quite aware of all these limitations and is in no way capable of stopping the water.