October 23, 2016

HOTSPOTSH2OlogoTensions are heating up between India and Pakistan over key water sources in Kashmir, with India threatening to revoke the nearly 60-year-old Indus Water Treaty.

Tune into a timely HotSpots H2O podcast conversation with Michael Kugelman, India authority at the Woodrow Wilson Center, who joins Circle of Blue’s Cody Pope to discuss the Indus Water Treaty, Kashmir, and the importance of the treaty on India-Pakistan relations.

In an era when more risks are becoming profound realities, HotSpots H2O, a new series from Circle of Blue, helps make sense of a changing, often stressed global waterscape. Transcript follows.

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Interview Transcripts 

Cody Pope for Circle of Blue:
Good morning, and welcome to our first installment of Circle of Blue’s Hotspots H2O Interview series. Today we have Michael Kugelman on the line, Michael is a senior associate of Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where his main specialty is Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, and U.S. relations with each of those nations. He also writes monthly columns for Foreign Policy’s South Asia channel and monthly commentaries for war on the rocks. Michael, nice to have you and good morning.

Michael Kugelman:
Thanks, Cody, it’s great to be here with you.

Let’s jump right into it, in your late September Foreign Policy piece, you quoted India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman as suggesting that New Delhi might revoke the Indus Water Treaty, specifically Vikas Swarup said “For any such treaty to work, it is important for mutual trust and cooperation. It cannot be a one-sided affair. It cannot be a one sided affair.” Can you tell me the significance of this statement and the role the Indus Water Treaty plays in Indian-Pakistani relations?

Yeah, well, the Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman was very subtly, but none the less suggesting that India reserved the right to essentially back out of a treaty that it had been partied to with Pakistan for nearly 60 years and he was essentially saying that Pakistan hasn’t shown a willingness to cooperate with India in ways broad enough to ensure that the treaty would be able to work out. Now, why is it significant for him to say or him to suggest that India could back out of the treaty. Well, it’s sort of complicated but the bottom line is that the Indus Water Treaty is an accord that’s nearly 60 year olds that was essentially, it essentially governs how India-Pakistan manage the rivers, and the many tributaries, of the Indus River Basin, which is huge, I mean you’ve got the Indus River there but you got many more rivers and many more tributaries and the important thing to remember here is that this river, oh pardon me, this treaty looks at rivers and tributaries that flow through Kashmir which is the disputed region that both countries claim in full, even though in reality they control only a portion of it. If India were to revoke the treaty, nothing would happen literally, in that sense that India were to back out it wouldn’t cause immediate disruption or problems for Pakistan, but what it would allow India to do would be to take the time to build large dams and other hydroprojects that could in time, bottle up enough water to prevent water from flowing downstream to Pakistan. Pakistan is the lower riparian in this regard, India is the upper right riparian. So in effect, India could prevent a lot of water from flowing down into Pakistan, which is so important because Pakistan depends so heavily on the Indus River as a water source, I mean an entire province of Pakistan, Sindh province, is totally dependent on the Indus River for its water resources and Pakistan is a pretty water insecure to start with. So this could be a pretty major deal if India were to revoke the treaty and were to carry out the most draconian followup act in response to that, where then essentially bottles up all this water. Could cause a lot of problems for Pakistan down the road.

So you just went through the worst case scenario of revoking the whole Indus River Treaty. Without revoking the treaty and staying within the confines, could India use it as a tool to limit water in Pakistan or as pseudo-weapon of war?

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson CenterMichael Kugelman, Woodrow Wilson Center.”…but the bottom line is that even if India does not revoke the treaty, it still has ways of putting pressure on Pakistan by building more dams that could have an impact, albeit a modest impact, on agriculture in Pakistan.” – Micheal Kugelman

Well, there are things that India is able to do within the bounds of the treaty that could hardships for Pakistan but still would be considered legal per the treaty itself and the main thing India could do, and in fact it’s suggested it’s going to do this, is essentially to build more dams on particular rivers. I mean the way the Indus Water Treaty works is it essentially allocates control over what are regarded as the western rivers to Pakistan and, you know, these are the major rivers of the Indus Basin, I’m talking about the Indus River, the Chenab River, and one other, and these are significant rivers because they’re very large and they in fact constitute 80% of the total water flows within in the entire basin. So these rivers are allocated to Pakistan in the sense that Pakistan is able to control the flow of these rivers and be able to do what it wants on them. However, the treaty does say that India is entitled to build dams and other infrastructure on these western rivers so long as it minimizes storage, that’s the key thing. They need to be runner rivers in the sense that they can’t bottle up water from continuing down into Pakistan. Now, India could decide to build a series of dams on these western rivers and so long as they don’t store that much water, they wouldn’t be illegal. Now the thing is even if that were to be done, a number of studies that I’ve seen, that I’ve been involved with, have essentially concluded that even if you build a series of dams, even if India were to build a series of dams on these rivers, these western rivers, that don’t take up, that don’t store that much water, there could still be downstream effects in Pakistan, which are hard to quantify, but some of the more credible estimates that suggest you could have cases in Pakistan where you could have enough water that is somehow prevented from falling, from flowing downstream and that could impact an entire planting season in Pakistan. Now of course in Pakistan, there’s a lot of rhetoric that suggests that India has already been doing this and has already been preventing water from flowing into Pakistan. There’s no indication that it has, but the bottom line is that even if India does not revoke the treaty, it still has ways of putting pressure on Pakistan by building more dams that could have an impact, albeit a modest impact, on agriculture in Pakistan. Again, even if it’s acting within the bounds of the treaty, in legal ways there are still things it could do that could make Pakistan realize, “Well, you know India can do things here that could have an effect on Pakistan.”

Let’s talk a little bit about the rhetoric that exists in Pakistan regarding this treaty then. You wrote a little bit about Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan terrorist group and they’ve often accused India of basically water theft. Do you think there’s a risk going forward if Modi’s government were to build these dams or to start to reduce water, there would be an uptake in terrorist activity as a result of these actions?

Well, I mean, Lashkar-e-Taiba first of all is a very prominent and very vicious Pakistan based militant group, that has always been focused on India, I mean it’s Lashkar-e-Taiba that staged the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai in India. It killed dozens of people including some Americans. And so Lashkar-e-Taiba or LET as it tends to be known has always used water issues as key propaganda item in its anti-India rhetoric, it has long argued that India is essentially stealing water, and you know, I should say until relatively recently the Pakistani government was making similar comments about how India is preventing water from flowing into Pakistan. And LET has often responded by saying something to the effect of, “Well, we’re going to use blood, we’re going to essentially do a lot of terrible things to India in return for these terrible things that India is doing to us,” e.g. stopping the flow of water. So, I would argue that if India were to start building more dams, you know, the subtleties of what I was saying before, the nuances of what I was saying before about how it’s perfectly legal for India to build these dams as long as they run of the river, that doesn’t mean anything to LET and it doesn’t mean anything to LET supporters, which do not only include terrorists, but also significant pockets of society in Pakistan that have a soft spot for militant views. If India were to start building these dams that’s perfectly in a position to build, that would provide huge amounts of ammunition to LET, which LET could basically say, ” Well look, India is doing more of this, they’re following up, they’re doing what we’ve always that they’re doing and now we reserve the right to stage attacks in retaliation.” So, I’m not going to say that this cold lead to a war, but I do fear that if India were to start taking full advantage of its legal right to build more dams on the Western rivers of the Indus Basin, you could have a new campaign of terrorist attacks in Kashmir or conceivably more broadly across India in which LET essentially jumps on these water machinations of India and uses them as a pretext as provocation.

Do you think the infrastructure, the things like the dams, could actually be threatened or is that out of the realm of capabilities of LET?

Well, anything is possible. I wouldn’t rule against it. This not something LET has done, though I will point out that other terrorists groups in Pakistan have attacked water infrastructure, the Pakistani Taliban several years ago attacked the Tarbela Dam, which is one of the largest dams in the world, until recently was a huge source of water for Pakistan. There’s a military base on the fringes of the Tarbela Dam, so that what was targeted, but they manage to get to the spot where the dam is. So, certainly anything is possible and what unfortunately one thing has been clear in recent years is that India has not done a very good job of fortifying its most strategic assets and its most important infrastructure, which obviously entails military bases, but also structures like dams. So, I certainly within in their realms of possibilities for LET to attack a dam in India though, again, if India-Pakistan tensions continue to rise and become even more acute and if water continues to be a key bone of contention, so to speak, maybe that will make India decide that it needs to do more to fortify security and have more of a military presence around its dams, so that could serve as a deterrent to LET.

Stepping back a little bit regionally, China has a role to play in these rivers as well since the Tibetan Plateau is sort of the source for many of the rivers that end up in both Pakistan and India. Could you speak a little bit about the role that Beijing might play either for or against Pakistan, should India move forward with these kinds of infrastructure projects? Or also, if China may move forward without consideration of either Pakistan’s or India’s needs and build their own dams regardless of the geopolitical relationship between the nations?

Yeah, well, a few things to highlight here. First of all, India, unlike Pakistan, oh pardon me, China, unlike India or Pakistan or a number of other countries in the south Asia region including Bangladesh, Nepal, many others, has never signed any sort of water sharing accord. It has never signed any sort of transboundary water management accord. China simply does not find those important and is perfectly happy to build dams whenever it would like to regardless of the impact that could have downstream neighbors. Another thing here, is that China is a close ally of Pakistan, so it would see any Indian effort, or even an Indian threat, to do things that could compromise Pakistan’s water security in a big way as something that’s worth paying attention to and for China could be a spark to retaliate in a way that could hurt India. So, you know, it would certainly be possible for China to decide to bottle up the Indus in a way that could cause a lot of problems for India because let’s keep in mind the water geography of the south Asia region, India is the upper riparian relative to Pakistan, when it comes to the Indus, but at the same time the Indus originates in Tibet so China is the upper riparian vis-a-vis India, when it comes to the Indus. So there are certainly things that China could do and what I think is particularly troubling is that China has the ability, it has the capacity to build dams very quickly. Now there have been some more hard-line, anti-China hawks in India that claim that China planning to build dams as tall as the Eiffel Tower and all of these things. That might be a exaggerated, but the bottom line here is that China would not need much time to build the right kind of water infrastructure where you could really generate plenty of storage and keep water from flowing into India. India, by contrast, doesn’t have that type of capacity, doesn’t have that type of technical expertise. It would need several years, maybe even a decade, to build dams that would be sufficient enough to keep water from flowing in significant quantities in Pakistan, whereas in China, you wouldn’t need that much time would be necessary it could act much more quickly and much more decisively

Stepping back even further and sort of looking forward over the next 10 to 20 years, on the role of climate change and what its effect might be on the Indus Water Treaty, we’re seeing a lot of things like snow melt and glacial melt changing in Tibet and more water coming now, but potentially less water in the future as things like glacial lake outflows occur where a large amount of water is suddenly introduced into a river system. Do you think the potential water flows is something that is a sort of existential threat moving for the Kashmir region and for India-Pakistani relationships?

Oh absolutely. Climate change is a huge factor whenever you’re looking at water issue in India and Pakistan. I really do think you need to talk about existential threats, not in the near-term, not in the mid-term, but you know, in the many decades ahead. Let’s face it, the rate of glacial melt in the western Himalayas is the fastest anywhere in the world and Pakistan and India, other countries, they depend on the water that comes from there. So if it all melts away what does that leave you with? Not very much at all. You know, both India and Pakistan, you already having manifestations of climate change, whether you’re talking about very intense weather patterns such as extended drought, very high temperatures that have already had an impact on water security. And you know, there’s part of Pakistan particularly in the southern regions of the country, Sindh province, where the Indus River has really slowed to a trickle and in some parts of the region you have nothing there. And that’s today. So imagine what could happen decades from now when there has been even more glacial melts, when the effects of climate change have been able to play out even more. You could really have a devastating state of affairs in terms of water security, certainly for Pakistan, but for India as well and I would argue that the climate change vulnerability of both India and Pakistan will really raise the stakes when it comes to water tensions in these two countries. I think that both countries will be more inclined to dig in further, I think India more willing to build more dams, to do all it can to keep water as it can, and I think in Pakistan you’ll have even more mistrust and concern about what India could be doing. I think you could have Lashkar-e-Taiba essentially say “Well look, we’re going to become a water starved country in the next few years. We need to do everything we can to prevent India from starving us out completely right now,” and call for more attacks. But I think bottom line here is that climate change is a huge issue, both India and Pakistan are very vulnerable to it, and it plays a really big part, it’s a really big driver, a huge driver in the rising levels of water insecurity in India and Pakistan which could well or which will ensure that water tensions between these two countries will stay in place for the foreseeable future.

Well thank you, Michael. You’ve certainly given us some things to think about regarding India-Pakistani relations in the Kashmir region and the role water plays in that area. We at Circle of Blue, moving forward, will pay attention to the Kashmir region as one of our H2O Hotspots. You can look forward to further installments of this series on our website coming soon.