Using water as a political weapon

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Using water as a political weapon

As tensions in South Asia rise, forget the nuclear threat or the use of other sophisticated modern weapons on the battlefield; tensions now are all about going back to basics. At a high-level meeting to weigh options in the aftermath of the Uri attack, Indian Prime MInister Narendra Modi discussed the possibility of stopping Pakistan’s share of water promised by the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. He said that “blood and water cannot flow together.” While it would be unlawful for India to unilaterally revoke the agreement, Pakistan has always been aware of the possibility.
It is expected that by 2025, large parts of the world may experience perennial water shortages. According to IMF figures, Pakistan remains one of the most water-intensive economies in the world, but water scarcity is fast emerging as a serious problem for the country. Being largely an agrarian economy, water remains central to Pakistan’s food security as well as for powering its industrial output. A burgeoning population, global warming and mismanagement of water resources have only compounded the country’s problems. In addition, Pakistan has failed to reach a political consensus concerning the construction of large dams and water reservoirs, and this failure has increased the possibility of future droughts. Any major water shortages will stall the country’s economic growth and trigger social unrest. Therefore, Pakistan can be expected to take the Indian threat as an “act of war” and make all-out efforts to protect its right to access the river water.
The role of Pakistan’s “iron brother,” China, has gained additional significance in this context. Just days after India began reconsidering its water treaty with Pakistan, China moved ahead to block a tributary of the Brahmaputra River in Tibet in order to build a “most expensive” $740 million hydropower project in the region. As China has not signed any international water-sharing agreement, it is not obliged to let the rivers originating in its territory flow freely. This development has alarmed New Delhi as it subtly shows Chinese support for Pakistan. It also creates another irritant in Sino-Indian political relations which have suffered from border disputes for decades.
The possibility of using water as a political weapon shows the desperation of the Indian government which has failed to bring forward any concrete evidence against Pakistan from the Uri incident. In fact, such an unwise and illegal move would only increase pressure on Indian authorities as it would be unacceptable under international law. Any substantial reduction in water flow to Pakistan would cause a huge humanitarian crisis that would worsen if China retaliated by blocking river supplies to India. As hinted by Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs adviser to Pakistani Premier Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan may seek assistance from the United Nations or the International Court of Justice in case India abrogates the water treaty. At the same time, this should serve as a wake-up call for politicians in Pakistan to push unanimously for the construction of large water reservoirs in the country.
Rather than exploring new ways of maximizing pressure on each other, India and Pakistan should make a concerted effort to resolve their outstanding issues. War-mongering is not in the interest of either country as each faces similar challenges in improving the socio-economic status of millions of people in their countries through inclusive growth.

Muhammad Waqas is a Pakistan-based freelance writer and editor.
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