Indian Parliament’s Standing Committee on Water Resources has recently recommended renegotiating the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan. This World-Bank mediated Treaty is in operation since 1960, and it is often given as an example worldwide of how the shared rivers can convince hostile countries to cooperate.
Though the signing of a water treaty is usually being seen as an end to water disputes, it is not always the case. Countries do fight over the river water even after signing an agreement.
In the last six decades, India and Pakistan have fought over the interpretation of the Indus Water Treaty innumerable times, have sought the intervention of the Court of Arbitration and neutral experts to resolve those conflicts.
Though the Indus Water Treaty had not ended water conflicts of the Indus River, the two riparian countries never questioned its relevance until 2016. However, in the last five years, the demands have come regularly to withdraw from the Treaty.
In this context, the Parliament Standing Committee’s recommendation to renegotiate the Treaty is being carefully watched in Pakistan. However, the Indus Water Treaty is not the only river treaty that has failed to end the water conflicts in South Asia.
South Asia houses several important transboundary rivers such as the Indus, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra. These shared rivers are sources of livelihood for an estimated 900 million people in this corner of the world. Besides the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, India has signed treaties on the Sarada, the Kosi, the Gandak, the Mahakali rivers with Nepal, and the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty with Bangladesh.
India has also signed a series of Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on hydropower generation with Bhutan and an MoU over the Brahmaputra River flow data sharing in the flood season with China.
Huge water insecurity
South Asia has probably more river treaties than any other region in the South, and at the same time, there are no fewer water conflicts than any other region in the world. Countries in the region have been under considerable water insecurity from a growing population and the absence of carefully crafted sustainable development strategies.
Climate change has made the river sharing situation further precarious. The rivers like the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra have been the cradles of human civilisation and sources of nation-building in the past. These same rivers are causing frequent conflicts between India and its neighbours: Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, and Nepal.
Indus Water Treaty was signed in 1960. Despite their hostile bilateral relations, both India and Pakistan decided to keep the river outside politics and had agreed to mediation by the World Bank. Hydrology, engineering, and international law, not politics, had guided the finalisation of the Treaty.
In recent years, particularly since 2016, the Indus Water Treaty has found its way into the political rhetoric of the India-Pakistan dispute, mainly concerning Kashmir as a significant portion of the river basin is in the territory. China, being in control of part of the Indus upstream, and its involvement in the dam building in the areas of Pakistan administered Kashmir has further added to the tension over Indus water sharing.
Similarly water relations between India and Nepal date back to the Sugauli Treaty, signed in 1816. Nowadays, all major rivers in Nepal are subject to some form of a signed agreement with India, and these rivers contribute 40 per cent annual flow of the Ganges River.
However, all these treaties have become somewhat controversial in Nepal. In particular, the Mahakali Treaty has found its way into Nepal’s domestic political narrative surrounding the party divide. The China factor has also made the water sharing between India and Nepal more politicised as both China and India vie for influence in Nepal.
Adding to further mistrust, China has signed an Agreement on Boundary Management System in 2019 with Nepal and has agreed not to change the course of any ‘boundary’ rivers.
On the Ganges River, India and Bangladesh, after more than two decades of disputes, had signed a water-sharing treaty in 1996. The Treaty has endured thus far despite continued tensions over the water distribution as Bangladesh continues to lament not getting its guaranteed share during the dry season when water is of most crucial necessity.
This time-bound Ganges Water Sharing Treaty will expire in 2026, which has raised serious apprehension in Bangladesh about the future of water sharing.
The politics in the Indian state of West Bengal has blocked any agreement on another shared river, Teesta, for over a decade. Bangladesh fears the renewal of the Ganges Water Sharing Treaty will become hostage to India’s internal politics.
The water treaties between India and its South Asian neighbours are indeed being instrumentalised for political purposes on all sides. They are often peripheral to other issues of contention in bilateral politics.
Ongoing Kashmir conflicts between India and Pakistan, the border dispute between India and Nepal, and competition for the depleting water resources between India and Bangladesh have all come to be associated in some way with politicians questioning them as evidence to strengthen a nationalist sentiment.
The river treaties in the region, including the Indus Water Treaty, instead of being the catalyst for cooperation, are frequently being utilised as a means of flexing nationalist-political muscle. The evidence from South Asia suggests that the river treaties don’t necessarily lead to cooperation and end the water conflicts.
For peace and development, all sides need to signal genuine political will.