July issue 2017

By | Bookmark | Published 2 months ago

The irrigation system in pre-partition India was designed for a single country. Thus the distribution of water was one of the key issues that needed resolution after the division of India in 1947. Since the rivers in Pakistan flow through India, a scheme had to be devised to share this water. Such a scheme was agreed by way of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) that was signed in 1960 by President Mohammad Ayub Khan of Pakistan and Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru of India. The World Bank acted as the facilitator of the treaty. This and other details have been painstakingly researched by Ijaz Hussain in his recent book on the IWT.

According to the IWT, India got the exclusive use of the three Eastern Rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) while Pakistan had the full use of the three Western Rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab).

In spite of political tension between Pakistan and India, the treaty has, by and large, worked successfully and issues have been resolved by discussions between the two countries. However, as India started building dams on the Western Rivers for hydroelectricity and navigational use, Pakistan raised serious concerns that the design of the projects was in violation of the terms of the IWT. According to Pakistan, the dams gave India control over the flow of water in the Western rivers which it could use as a strategic weapon by reducing or cutting off water to Pakistan.

A large number of documents exist regarding the treaty but Ijaz Hussain’s book is the first comprehensive study covering the legal and political aspects of the IWT. Hussain, a former Dean of Social Sciences and Chairman of the International Relations Department at the Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad, started researching the book in 2010.

He travelled to the United Sates to consult documents related to the treaty at the Library of Congress, including those that have been recently declassified. Interestingly, he points out that most of the declassified material is from the World Bank while India and Pakistan declassified only a limited number of documents.

The book makes four key observations:


  • That the World Bank (WB) was not an impartial broker of the IWT and was siding with the Indian position. It asserts that the WB forced Pakistan to sign the IWT.
  • That Pakistan lost the case on the Baglihar Dam (built by India) because the decision of the neutral expert was not fair. The attitude of the head of the Pakistani delegation was also a contributory factor.
  • That the potential impact of climate change on the treaty was not factored in.
  • That India shows an intransigent attitude in dealing with the concerns raised by Pakistan.

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first two chapters cover the geography of the river system in India and the territorial and political issues that the newly formed countries of India and Pakistan had to face in the early days of the Partition. The four key areas mentioned above are covered in the remaining six chapters.

The author maintains that the World Bank was not impartial in its role as the broker of the treaty. The book argues that after an initial resistance, India agreed to the appointment of a third party, i.e., the WB, in the IWT negotiations because the Bank had assured India that it would be given exclusive use of the three Eastern Rivers. This was an idea that Pakistan opposed.

The author states that Pakistan’s agreement of the WB proposal was effected through modifying the text of a draft letter that Pakistan had agreed to, with comments. In support of this assertion, Ijaz states, “While rummaging through the archives, I came across a two-page document which unequivocally revealed that the Bank had forced Pakistan to do so [accept the proposal]. The document in question is Pakistan’s draft reply written by its executive director at the Bank, Mohammad Shoaib.” He goes on to say, “This document confirmed this conspiracy theory and brought it to the realm of hard political reality.”

When the letter was presented to Pakistan, it was returned to the Bank with some handwritten comments. Pakistan’s suggestion was to add the following words to the acceptance of the proposal, “…my Government is willing to participate in arrangements for cooperative work in preparation of a plan on the basis of the Bank’s proposal.” The author says that these words were changed by the Bank’s vice president, Sir William Iliff, to read, “…accepts the Bank’s proposal in principle on the basis of an agreement.” Two weeks after this alteration, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Sir Zafrulla Khan, sent the country’s acceptance of the Bank’s proposal.

For the author this acceptance by Pakistan of the changed letter is an irrefutable proof that Pakistan was pressured by the Bank to agree to the proposal.

Later, the book questions the motives of the World Bank in providing funds for the construction of Mangla and Tarbela dams to allow Pakistan to offset the loss of efficiency of water use due to the IWT. It states, “The answer lies in the fact that the Bank’s principal backer, the US, which was the main provider of this largesse, was happy with Pakistan for conceding the three Eastern Rivers to non-aligned India which it hoped would help rope the latter in to the capitalist fold.” This is obviously a very important statement regarding the geopolitics of that time and one that merited a serious and well-substantiated discussion. However, such a discussion is absent.

From 1960 to 1970, the accord proceeded smoothly. It was around this time that India started building dams on the Western Rivers for hydroelectricity. IWT allowed India to build dams for power but with the provision that there would be no restriction or quantity reduction in the flow of water to Pakistan. Pakistan first raised objection to this in 1970 when India presented the design of the Salal Dam that was proposed to be built on the Chenab River. After a lot of technical discussions and meetings, an agreement was reached in 1978 and India completed the construction of the Salal Dam in 1995.

Issues cropped up again when Pakistan objected to the Wullar Barrage Project that included a 450 megawatt power plant on the Chenab River. Of the four objections raised by Pakistan, the main bone of contention was the design of the dam that called for drawdown flushing to allow for the removal of silting.

After a series of inconclusive discussions between the two countries it was agreed that a neutral expert would be appointed to give a binding decision. The expert chosen was Professor Raymond Lafitte of Switzerland. After 18 months the expert delivered his report in February 2007. The report agreed with Pakistan’s position on three of the four points but the fourth point, that was the most significant, i.e., drawdown flushing, was decided in India’s favour. Both India and Pakistan claimed victory.

Ijaz asserts that the decision of the neutral expert was not fair: “It is clear that his determination was flawed and amounted to a miscarriage of justice because it was not well founded in law.” Further, he narrates that the attitude of the Pakistan delegation, headed by Secretary of Water and Power, Ashfaq Mehmood, toward the neutral expert could be deemed insulting and that may have negatively influenced the latter’s decision. However this argument is weak on that score.

The meetings during which the Pakistani delegate had putatively angered the neutral expert, took place after he had already given his draft recommendation (which was not in Pakistan’s favour). Thus there is little likelihood that the decision had anything to do with personal acrimony between him and the Pakistani delegation.

The book continues with a detailed discussion on the next big issue, the design of the Kishenganga Hydroelectric Project, a 330 megawatt dam project that India is building on the Jhelum River. There were two main issues here: First, Pakistan objected to the diversion of the Jhelum River as it would result in reduced water supply for agriculture and power output to the Neelum-Jhelum Hydro Electric Project by 15 to 30 per cent. Second, Pakistan argued that India could not bring the reservoir level below the dead level storage, except in an emergency. Doing so, Pakistan argued, would allow India to control the flow of water into the river if it chose to.

Again, as in the case of Baglihar, India and Pakistan were unable to resolve it bilaterally and the case was taken to the International Court of Arbitration in 2010. The court ruled that India could build the dam as designed but determined a fixed quantity of water that had to be released to the river so that the quantity of water for Pakistan was not reduced.

The author concludes here that India got what it needed in the short term (permission to build according to the design it had submitted), but Pakistan came out a winner for the long term as the judgement of the court declared that India was not allowed to store more water than the quantity stipulated in the IWT, even if it was for silt management. The same conclusion was reached by another expert quoted in the book, John Brisco, a professor at Harvard University with a long term involvement in the study of the IWT. He writes, “In this case there is no doubt that India has won the battle, but I think that it has, in fact lost a far more important one.”

At the time the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) was signed in 1960, climate change was an unknown factor and only gets mentioned in Chapter 7. But it is something that needs to be urgently addressed now. Ominously, as the author points out, India is arguing that climate change would so radically affect the water flows that it would render the IWT meaningless and is trying to scrap it: “In this context, some Indian analysts are of the view that the treaty deserves to be scrapped or rewritten because it was concluded without taking into consideration this (climate change) phenomena.” On a further positive note, reverting to the climate change issue, the book then provides data from 1922 to the present, to show that the flow in the Western Rivers has remained nearly constant and fortunately, at this time, no impact of climate change is in evidence. However, it is recognised that this may change in the future, but the book provides no substantial references to substantiate this fear.

The penultimate chapter is devoted to the importance of water for both India and Pakistan and thus the pressure that the IWT is under. The author views water is an even more important issue than Kashmir. Clearly, any act by India to cut or reduce water to Pakistan will be seen by Pakistan as an act of war. The author feels that India may use excuses like terrorism on Indian soil, that has its origin in Pakistan or in Kashmir, to terminate the treaty. However, Ijaz confirms that, “…no [Indian Government] document suggests that India has its sights set on the Western Rivers.”

In the final chapter, the author presents options available to Pakistan to challenge Indian intentions of grabbing more of Pakistan’s water. He rejects the option of approaching the World Bank.

The second, more viable, option is to push for the concept of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). This relatively recent concept looks at the water issue holistically to optimise the use of water resources. Such an approach is possible only if there is a reasonable level of trust between the two countries. The Indo-Pak water issue is therefore directly linked to the progress of the peace process.

The strength of Ijaz Hussain’s book lies in its solid research on the IWT genesis, and the past and current issues related to the treaty. And its weakness lies in the authors predisposition towards seeing Pakistan as a victim of Indian and World Bank conspiracies and a tendency to assume that India has set upon a policy of stealing water from Pakistan by a malafide interpretation of the IWT. This approach has coloured the analysis to a point where the credibility of some of the author’s conclusions has become moot.

Nevertheless, the book is a serious effort at detailing the IWT issues and is a valuable addition to the literature on the subject.

The writer is an engineer by training and a social scientist by inclination.