Delegates from India and Pakistan met in India from 29 to 30 March as part of the annual meeting of the Indus Water Commission, a requirement under the Indus Water Treaty. It was the 114th meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC). Prior to the meeting, sources believed that Pakistan would raise concerns over the building of Indian dams. The Pakul Dul and Lower Kalnai, under construction in Jammu and Kashmir, were expected to feature, and the Ratle project being built on a tributary of the River Chenab is also seen by Pakistan as being in breach of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). Under the IWT, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab are reserved for Pakistan, and the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas are reserved for India. The Indus meetings, however, are not only used for the discussion of transboundary issues.
The meetings are usually coloured by preconceived perspectives as to the intentions that India has for Pakistan and vice-versa. Pakistan is especially apt at using the forums to blame India for the vast majority of its national water woes. Pakistan sees India as overly belligerent and determined to cut off an already vulnerable country’s access to the water it needs to fuel its agricultural industry. At times, Pakistan has attempted to combat what it sees as Indian intransigence with heavy international pressure. In 2016, Pakistan initiated proceedings to have India referred to the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague over India’s planned dams on the Kishenganga and Ratle rivers. It has especially welcomed the pressure China has placed on India. The annual Indus meetings are another tool that Pakistani politicians and media types employ to blame India for their country’s water crisis.
A common theme that surfaces at every annual meeting of the PIC is the idea that Indian dam building is the reason why Pakistan finds itself so water scarce. The IWT grants Pakistan the right to diplomatically challenge any Indian hydro project or development strategy that involves building on rivers that flow into Pakistan, and rightly so. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s insistence on bringing up Indian dam building as the reason why Pakistan is so water scarce is not just a common staple of bilateral water diplomacy, but a product of Pakistan’s India-centric foreign policy that attempts to exonerate the many domestic barriers to Pakistani water security.
There is nothing wrong with using the PIC to challenge Indian hydro projects. Overextending the Commission’s mandate and using those challenges to blame India for many problems arguably caused by domestic Pakistani policy is, however, demonstrable of the real problem: wilful neglect.
The Pakistani media, as well as the Indian media when it covers Pakistan, have realised that anti-Indian coverage boosts viewership and ratings. The vast majority of Pakistanis probably know that serious environmental damage caused by flooding and heavy rainfall is not caused by India, but by their own government’s inability to prepare for them. It is much easier for citizens to believe, and for politicians to argue, that domestic water problems could not possibly be the fault of domestic policymakers.
As this author has written elsewhere, Pakistan does more to blame India than it does to construct any sort of domestic capability aimed at managing existing water supplies. India has built thousands more dams than Pakistan and, while complaining of Indian troublemaking, Pakistan has refused to financially contribute to the management of the rivers that flowing into it from Afghanistan. Even though India is adhering to its legal obligations under the IWT, including the 2013 ruling by The Hague that requires India to provide a minimum of nine cubic metres per second of water in the Kishanganga River, Pakistani politicians complain that it is an ‘inefficient forum for resolving water issues’.
Given that Pakistan has taken a treaty designed to promote transboundary co-operation and attempted to use it to appease its India-centric foreign policy, it is, therefore, no surprise that that is Pakistan’s overall assumption of the IWT and the PIC. The “inefficient forum” has been called just that because Pakistani politicians have expected it to address Pakistan’s water crisis in a way that they would like it to. For Pakistan, in that light, the forum is unlikely to be successful because politicians are treating a domestic crisis as a foreign policy problem. Pakistan needs to focus on the effects that rapid urbanisation, poor urban planning, high youth unemployment, the population bomb and government corruption has on the country’s water problems. It seems that a readjustment of perspective might be a more useful first step to take.