Even using Indus waters will take time
Given how, in the campaign phase of the 2014 polls, candidate Modi drummed up expectations of strong action against Pakistan in the face of a terror attack, it isn’t surprising that Twitterati and TV channels have been baying for war after the Uri attack. With PM Modi disappointing hawks by not proposing a counter-attack, revocation of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT)—and cancellation of the MFN status extended to Pakistan—have been pushed as the next best offensives. The prime minister, against this backdrop, asserting that “blood and water can’t flow together” had also raised expectations of a punishing retaliation. But the PM has done well to talk instead of using the available space within the framework of the IWT to squeeze water supply to Pakistan, given an abrogation of the treaty would have meant stoking international support for Pakistan. It would have also set a precedent for China to choke off the flow of the Indus—both the Indus and the Sutlej originate in Tibet—and the Bramhaputra river systems. An abrogation would have also seen India spending billions to create water-management capacity. With geographical features limiting the diversion of water to areas outside the Kashmir Valley, the gains from such expenditure can only be uncertain.
The IWT does provide room for India to arm-twist Pakistan—though the control of the three Western rivers of the basin, Chenab, Jhelum and Indus, lie entirely with Pakistan, India is allowed to use 20% of their waters. There is enough space for use of this water—against the irrigation of a potential 13.32 lakh acres allowed under the treaty, Western rivers’ waters irrigate only 8 lakh acres in India. This is also probably why the government is talking about expediting work on the Sawalkot, Pakal Dul and Bursar dams on the Chenab and reviving the Tulbul navigation project on the Jhelum. Such actions can hurt Pakistan—an agrarian economy, 65% of whose geograhical area is part of the Indus basin. But, the government and those calling for it to act “decisively” must remember that the best India can do in the short-run is withhold flow for only a short duration. The talk of using the 20% water from the Western rivers can only be realised if there is commensurate storage/channelling capacity—as per the IWT, this amounts to 3.6 million acre feet. Creating this, even with the work expedited, is going to take a few years—only the Bursar project has any storage capacity, while the two other projects are in various stages of planning. Such a precedent will also likely make Nepal and Bangladesh, with whom India has similar river-water sharing arrangements, uneasy. The best step thus would be keep up a diplomatic offensive while developing capacity to make good the threat of making greater use of Indus waters.