On the Role of Water in the India-Pakistan Conflict

09.10.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

23213123The armed conflict that has recently broken out between India and Pakistan (the most serious one after the Kargil crisis of 1999) has attracted attention to a relatively new element whose definition contains the word “water.”

In this respect, it is important to recall that the phrase “water is the source of life” is the key meme in not only a variety of world religions, but also in science, and above all, real, everyday, life.

In the last 10-15 years, the topic of the shortage of fresh water in some regions of the world has been shifting from the sphere of academic discussions to the media. This fact obviously proves that it is regularly updated by the current policy.

The above-mentioned meme directly reflects the circumstances in the most densely populated regions of the world, for example, in South-East Asia and on the Indian Subcontinent. In late September 2016, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, clearly announced the well-known “we will cut off water” (slightly modified) slogan.

If the head of one of the leading global powers has to resort to threats to use such “weapons”, (which are hardly less destructive than the nuclear one), this means that he is through with “something”. And this is intolerable.

The said “something” concerns the night attack of a terrorist group on September 18, 2016 at Indian military barracks in the city of Uri located close to the so-called “cease-fire line”, which is the quasi-border that separates India and Pakistan. During the fight, 19 Indian soldiers and 4 terrorist infiltrators finding their way into India from Pakistan were killed.

This attack provoked the next serious India-Pakistan armed conflict, which has already involved the use of artillery. Indian special forces in helicopters reported on the “surgical operation on the cross-border region”.

Pakistan responded by blocking access to all Indian media and warned about the possible use of nuclear weapons (in response to a large-scale attack by India).

The parties’ attitude towards the efficiency of various episodes of this conflict is fundamentally different, as always happens in any war.

The entire act of terrorism in Uri was nothing else but revenge on the Indian military officers who suppressed riots a month ago in some cities located in the Kashmir Valley, which is one of the three administrative units of the Indian Jammu and Kashmir State.

The Kasmir Valley is peculiar in that, out of all the other administrative units of the Republic of India, it has over 97% of its local citizens practicing Islam. In some way, they feel sympathy for the people from the Pakistani part of the once united principality of Kashmir.

The Kashmir Valley has various protest movements actively pursuing diverse goals. Mass demonstrations are usually severely suppressed by the gendarmerie forces (which are often supported by the army) that report to the central government. As a result of the repression of the riots in August 2016, about one hundred people were killed, and more than a thousand wounded.

Thus, it is clear why the Indian Prime Minister is “sick and tired” of terrorist attacks in Uri. The matter is that India still remembers the attack at the air base close to the city of Pathankot in the neighbouring state of Punjab that was carried out by terrorists in early January 2016. This was the second largest attack, after the well-known terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008.

Even at that time in early 2016, India was already questioning the necessity of maintaining any relations with the official Pakistani authorities, who were unable (or unwilling) to exercise effective control on the Islamists resting on the country’s territory.

What are we really talking about when India’s leadership has resorted to open threats to cut off water supply to the neighbouring country as a countermeasure?

India and Pakistan are the parties to the Indus Waters Treaty Bilateral Agreement that was signed in 1960 with the mediation of the World Bank. Several tributaries forming a basin of one of the largest rivers of Hindustan were included under the “Indus Waters”, and these played a vital role in the functioning of both countries, especially Pakistan.

Experts have no common vision of the possible consequences of these threats, and the entire Indian government is unlikely to come up with a substantial formulation. Either this Treaty may be unilaterally terminated, or India may begin manipulation Pakistani water supplies.

There seems to be one indisputable thing. Alongside with the termination of the 1960 Treaty, any significant (artificial) reduction of water supplies to Pakistan from the Indus river basin would certainly lead to a full-scale war between the two nuclear states. There is a certain probability of the ‘big brothers’– the USA and China, taking part in the conflict.

Therefore, N. Modi’s statement that “blood and water can’t flow together” will hardly have any significant practical consequences. In general, such public narrative is unlikely to be classified by future historians of N. Modi’s rule as his success in foreign policy. However, at least China has already voiced threats on the possibility of cutting the Tibetan tributaries of the Brahmaputra – another no less important river of the Indian Subcontinent.

This act of “water blackmail” against a regional opponent is unique for China. Nothing similar has been detected in its complex relations with its southern neighbours, for example.

By controlling the intensity of the water supply from the Mekong, which is quite literally “the river of life” for Indo-Chinese countries, with the help of dams constructed in Tibet, China’s leadership demonstrates its recent desire in respecting their interests. This brings China significant political benefits.

However, the world seems to “lose its reason”. It is now possible for someone to decide to restrict airflow to the country of his or her enemy, for example, with the help of thousands of wind turbines installed at the border. At the same time, the turbines will simultaneously be generating a great deal of electricity, which is environmentally friendly.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”