Troubled waters: Can India and Pakistan bridge differences over river pact?

Story highlights

Indus River system supports livelihoods across Pakistan and northern India

India's PM says he wants to review long-standing water-sharing agreement

CNN  — 

For years, it’s been held up as a rare diplomatic success story between rivals India and Pakistan.

But last year, a long-standing river pact that governs how the two countries share crucial water resources came under threat as violence flared in the disputed region of Kashmir.

On Monday, after a period of heightened tensions between India and Pakistan, the two nations are due to come together for much-anticipated talks on the contentious Indus Water Treaty.

The enormous Indus River system, which supports livelihoods across Pakistan and northern India, originates in Tibet, flowing through China and Indian-controlled Kashmir before reaching Pakistan.

The Indus Water Treaty dates from 1960 and governs how the fractious neighbors manage the vast volume of water, which is a vital resource for both countries.

However, the discussions in Islamabad come seven months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suspended water talks with Pakistan.

Modi announced in September he wanted to review the terms of their 57-year old water-sharing agreement, which some analysts interpreted as a threat to the deal.

“Blood and water cannot flow at the same time,” Modi was quoted as saying by government spokesman Gopal Baglay after an uptick in violence in contested Kashmir.

This week’s discussions are expected to focus on India’s plans to use the rivers to provide hydropower – a move strenuously objected to by Pakistan.

What is the Indus Water Treaty?

The treaty, which was brokered by the World Bank, stipulates that Pakistan receives water from the Indus and two of its tributaries – the Jhelum River and the Chenab River.

India has full control over the three eastern rivers – Beas, Ravi and Sutlej – and limited access to the Jhelum and Chenab.

The agreement is hailed by experts as one of the most successful water-sharing pacts in the world. It has survived the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971 and numerous other standoffs between the two nations.

However, recently, tensions between the nuclear neighbors have ratcheted up and the treaty’s strength has once again been put to the test.

Last September, armed militants entered an Indian army base in the garrison town of Uri, killing 18 soldiers. The attack, which took place near the de facto border, was one of the deadliest on an army base in the region since militant attacks began in 1989.

In the aftermath, tensions flared on both sides of the disputed border, with India launching what it claimed was a “surgical attack” across what is known as the Line of Control with Pakistan. The ripple effects were felt far and wide; India evacuated villages along the border and Pakistan temporarily blocked Indian films.

Shortly after the Uri incident, Modi met with officials to review the provisions of the water treaty.

At that meeting, it was said that India would exploit to the maximum the water of the Pakistan-controlled rivers it had access to – including the Jhelum – while staying within the boundaries of the historic agreement.

Pakistan appeared to be rattled by the move, and in response approached the World Bank to voice its concerns.

In November, Modi reiterated India’s rights over the eastern rivers, as determined by the treaty.

“This water belongs to India’s farmers. That water is not coming to your farm, but is rather flowing to Pakistan and eventually to the ocean,” Modi said.

“I am determined to bring every drop of that water back to the farmers of Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir… for India’s farmers.”

Lifeblood for farming

The point of the treaty, says analyst Rebecca Keller from Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, is that it provides a level of consistency – in writing – for a natural resource that is much needed by both nations, but shared over disputed borders.

The Indus river basin supports an enormous 75% of Pakistan’s irrigated land, says Keller, making it “the largest contiguous irrigation network in the world.”

“Roughly a quarter of the country’s GDP comes from the agriculture sector and it is the largest source of foreign exchange earnings,” she said.

While India has other basins that support its agricultural sector, the Indus still remains essential for regional farming.

Dam dispute

India also wants to use the rivers to provide hydropower – something Islamabad first objected to a decade ago.

In 2010, Pakistan filed a formal complaint with the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague about plans to build the Kishanganga dam.

It feared that India would have the power to control the water flow into Pakistan’s agricultural heartland.

However, three years later, the Hague court ruled India could proceed with its construction.

Islamabad has since renewed its opposition to the dam. It insists the amount of water the project could draw from the Indus River Basin will exceed India’s allotted share of the rivers under Pakistan’s control.

The River Indus.

India, however, argues it utilizes only a fraction of the 20% of waters it’s allowed to use under the terms of the treaty for hydropower and agricultural projects.

“Some estimates put its use of the waters under Pakistan’s control at just 4% of its total allocation,” Stratfor said in a recent report.

Although the two countries are at loggerheads over the water treaty, experts say it’s highly unlikely either nation will be looking to jettison it when they meet this week.

However, talks are likely to be tense, with both nations determined to protect their own interests during the negotiations – especially with general elections on the horizon.

“Both countries can use the dispute as a tool to advance their political aims in the coming year,” says Keller.

“This is not the first dispute that has happened under the Indus Water Treaty, nor will it be the last.”