India Can’t Shut Indus Water Flow To Pakistan
“In a series of tweets, Union water minister Nitin Gadkari said: “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”.”
The Indus river system has a total drainage area exceeding 11,165,000 sq km.
The World Bank brokered the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan after many years of intense negotiations to allocate the waters of the Indus river basin.
After the Uri incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Blood and water cannot flow together.” Now the BJP’s PM-in-waiting Nitin Gadkari has chipped in by saying that India will cut off water to Pakistan. By implication Mr Gadkari was repeating the old threat that India would retaliate, this time for Pulwama, by turning off the spigots of the three western rivers of the Indus basin that flow unhindered into Pakistan and sustains most of its agriculture and power generation. The truth is that the flow of blood can be stopped, but water will continue to flow.
The Indus river system has a total drainage area exceeding 11,165,000 sq km. It is the 21st largest river in the world in terms of annual flow. It is also Pakistan’s sole means of sustenance. The British had constructed a complex canal system to irrigate the Punjab region of Pakistan. Partition left a large part of this infrastructure in Pakistan, but the headwork dams remained in India, fuelling much insecurity among the Punjabi landowning elite in that country. The World Bank brokered the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan after many years of intense negotiations to allocate the waters of the Indus river basin. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Ayub Khan signed the treaty in Karachi on September 19, 1960.
According to the IWT, control over the three “eastern” rivers — the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej — was given to India, while control over the three “western” rivers — the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum — to Pakistan.
Since Pakistan’s rivers flow through India first, the treaty allowed India to use them for irrigation, transport and power generation, while laying down precise regulations for India building projects along the way. The treaty was a result of Pakistani fears that, since the source rivers of the Indus basin were in India, it could potentially create droughts and famines in Pakistan, especially at times of war. Since the ratification of the treaty in 1960, India and Pakistan have fought three wars, but the flow of water as per the treaty was not hampered even for a single day.
On the face of it the pact is seen as generous to Pakistan as it gives the lower riparian state 80 per cent of the water of the western rivers. But the reality is that IWT makes a virtue of a necessity, as it is the geography of the region that decides this rather than any altruism. The main Kashmir Valley is just 100 km wide at its maximum and 15,520.30 sq km in area. While the Himalayas divide the Kashmir Valley from Ladakh, the Pir Panjal range, which encloses the Valley from the west and the south, separates it from the great plains of northern India. This picturesque and densely settled Valley has an average height of 1,850 meters above sea level but the surrounding Pir Panjal range has an average elevation of 5,000 meters. Thus, the Pir Panjal range stands between the Kashmir Valley and the rest of the country and is an insurmountable barrier that precludes the transfer of water anywhere else. And neither do the contours of the Kashmir Valley allow for more waters to be stored in any part of it. Since the waters cannot be stored or used by diversion elsewhere, it has to keep flowing into Pakistan.
Of the three western rivers “given” to Pakistan, the Indus, which debouches from Indian territory near Kargil, then flows almost entirely in Pakistan-controlled territory. The Jhelum originates near Verinag near Anantnag, and meanders for over 200 km in the Kashmir Valley before it enters Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. After flowing through Srinagar, it fills up the Wular Lake and then traverses past Baramulla and Uri into PoK. The hydel projects constructed on it supply most of the electricity to the Valley.
The Chenab, also known as the Chandrabhaga, originates in Lahaul Spiti in Himachal Pradesh and flows through the Jammu region into the plains of Pakistani Punjab. The catchment area of the Chenab is elongated and narrow and is mostly in India. But the Chenab runs through deep valleys and the river drops by as much as 24 meters per km, imposing physical constraints and huge economic costs on harnessing it.
The three eastern rivers allocated to India by the IWT are the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej. These waters sustain agriculture in Punjab and to some extent Haryana, and are substantially used. What enters Pakistan is usually just enough to keep the stream flushed. But nevertheless Pakistan has from time to time blamed India for its floods to the sudden and deliberate release of storage gates. Despite this, the IWT has worked exceedingly well for both countries, and both are loathe to disturb it. Even when India and Pakistan went to war in 1965, 1971 and over Kargil in 1999, the waters flowed without interruption. The fact is that the IWT works because it suits both countries by making a virtue of the geography.
The Pulwama incident has fuelled much anger within India and the Narendra Modi government, which rode to power promising to deter Pakistani-origin terrorism in India by threatening retribution is now hard pressed to deliver. After Uri, it discovered that there is a wide yawning gap between promise and reality. The PM’s pre-election speeches are now being played back to him to taunt him. The Modi government is flailing for options short of the use of arms. Thus, the somewhat exasperated suggestion seemingly made by the Modi government that it would take a relook at the treaty. It can take a relook it till kingdom come, but the reality remains the same.
As Dr Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of earth sciences at the geology and geophysics department of the University of Kashmir, recently said: “Let us assume we stop the water supply for the sake of argument. Where would the water go? We do not have infrastructure to store this water. We have not built dams in J&K where we can store the water. And being a mountainous state, unlike Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, you cannot move water to another state.
So you cannot stop the water technically.”