“Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict. If all the world’s peoples work together, a secure and sustainable water future can be ours.”
— Kofi Annan, former UN secretary-general
The period between 2005 and 2015 was declared the decade of water cooperation by the UN and concepts of transboundary water collaboration, shared waters and shared responsibilities were initialled. Co-riparian states were asked to use this, so that natural resources could be used for the common good and for development, and not for conflicts and wars.
Pakistan and India are among 145 countries which share common international basins. Decrease in water quality, climate change, migration, population influx and several other factors have influenced both the riparian states to develop water cooperation mechanisms to meet their challenges. The recent floods in the rivers Chenab and Jhelum have caused severe damage to the people, their livelihood and the environment. In Pakistan, many blame India for discharging waters without advance information sharing. But this is an absurd idea. How can India kill people in occupied Kashmir or Indian areas touching the Chenab and Jhelum river beds?
The main irritant of the water conflict between Pakistan and India is sharing of information between them. The UN and several other regional forums have developed systems to deal with conflicts of water-sharing on common and shared basins. Pakistan and India signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in 1960, which fixed and delimited the rights and obligations of both countries concerning the use of waters of the Indus River system.
Decrease in water quality, increase in demand, and control over water has affected the cross-border political relationship between Pakistan and India, and if both shared-basin riparian states are not going to resolve these issues through a one-basin approach, things may worsen.
It is in Pakistan’s interest to persuade India to follow international laws and the spirit of the IWT framework. The IWT recognises Pakistan’s right on the western rivers. Being lower riparian, Pakistan has an edge over Indian claims on shared waters. Water commissions have been established on both sides to ensure data-sharing related to water flow, construction of any structure, and flood warnings.
Pakistan’s Indus River Commission has said several times that India is constructing more than 200 dams and hydropower structures on all three western rivers and especially on the Jhelum and the Chenab. Pakistan went to the International Court of Arbitration (ICA) to stop India from constructing conventional dams. The ICA barred India from constructing anything permanent. When Pakistan went to a neutral expert, the verdict was given in India’s favour and some river projects were allowed. According to the IWT document, we have recognised certain quantum of water as India’s on the western rivers.
In this situation, the only option left for Pakistan is to pursue its case as a lower riparian state to protect water
On December 11, 2011, the UN general assembly adopted a resolution on the Law of Transboundary Aquifers, which suggested that states “make appropriate bilateral or regional arrangements for the proper management of their transboundary aquifers”.
It is time to develop a transboundary water cooperation commission under the IWT mandate to develop a futuristic and viable plan for water use. Globally recognised instruments and protocols are the way forward to protect our rights on shared waters for sustainable development.
Interestingly, both states are avoiding signing the 1997 UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses because this convention ensures “equitable and reasonable use” and “the obligation not to cause significant harm” to neighbours and co-sharers. This international instrument specifically established the key principles to facilitate states regarding issues that arise from shared international watercourses. Signing of this treaty by Pakistan and India can be a great start in transboundary cooperation to develop a prosperous region.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2014.