A Fragile Water Truce

Yevgeny Pakhomov

The possible escalation of the conflict for control of the water resources of the Indus between India and Pakistan has the potential to cause the first nuclear war in the history of mankind. The rivalry over fresh water will increase all over the world.

An attack on an Indian battalion by the militants of Lashkar-e-Taiba – one of the most active terrorist organizations in South Asia, based in Pakistan near Lahore – took place on 18 September 2016. The military unit was located near the town of Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, a territory disputed over many decades of conflict between irreconcilable neighbors – India and Pakistan. The attack killed 19 Indian soldiers and officers. Officials in New Delhi then said that the gunmen came from Pakistan and accused Islamabad of supporting terrorism, threatening retaliation. On 29 September, Indian special forces conducted an operation in the Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, destroying seven militant hideouts and killing more than three dozen extremists.

Although Islamabad denied the information about the Indian commandos at the time, stating that there was a simple exchange of fire, mortar and artillery ‘duels’ between the militaries of the two countries have taken place regularly since then, and there have been dozens of casualties on both sides, both military and civilian. Observers are even starting to say that ‘the war across the control line’ has already begun. United Nations University experts went even further, putting forward the hypothesis that further worsening of relations between India and Pakistan in the long term can lead to nothing short of nuclear war. They also named one of the probable causes of the escalating conflict: the struggle for control over the water resources of the Indus. “The basin of the Indus River is a water ‘time bomb’ that could explode at any time, exacerbating water scarcity in the region and causing irreparable changes to the climate,” said Dr. Vladimir Smakhtin, director of the UNU Institute for Water, Environment and Health in Hamilton, Canada.

According to him, the problem of access to fresh water on the Indian subcontinent is already at a critical point today. To a certain extent, it relates to climate change, which has already caused a steady runoff decline in the Indus tributary. An additional factor worsening the problem is increased water consumption in neighboring China and Afghanistan.

According to UN forecasts, the Indus and other rivers of South Asia will suffer from further climate change. In the future, the lack of water could cause internal destabilization in the region, especially in Pakistan, where water consumption is particularly high, while the political system looks extremely shaky.

There is another important reason that points to water as one of the main reasons for the festering conflict in the Indian subcontinent: an unprecedented statement from New Delhi indicating that India might revise or even pull out of the agreement regulating water relations between the two countries that has been in force for the past 60 years.

The cause for such concern were the words of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi soon after the September attack on Uri, who said that “blood and water cannot flow at the same time”. It seems that the nightmare of all Pakistani leaders is coming true: New Delhi is damming three tributaries of the Indus in its territory that flow to Pakistan, and the ‘first Muslim country of South Asia’ will enter the era of droughts.

Such fears are not unfounded, to put it mildly, as they have a long history. The problem of Hindustan is that the local rivers are mostly of glacial origin with their sources in the Himalayas. Pakistan is located in the Indus Valley (so it is sometimes referred to as the Country of the Indus, in contrast to India, the Country of the Ganges). The dispute over the water of the Indus has been going on since 1947, when British India split into independent India and Pakistan.

The Indus Waters Treaty regulating river water distribution in the area was signed in 1960, under the mediation of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. According to the document, Islamabad gained control over the Indus, as well as two large tributaries – the Chenab and the Jhelum – flowing from the mountains on the Indian territory. India was allowed to use the water for irrigation of the surrounding fields and the needs of local residents. Accordingly, New Delhi was given full control over the other three tributaries of the Indus – the Beas, the Ravi, and the Sutlej.

For all these years, New Delhi believed the agreed contractual rights to the water flowing into Pakistan had not been fully implemented. Islamabad, by contrast, tends to believe that the Indians already take too much from the ‘Pakistani’ rivers. Nevertheless, until now, the sides have tried to comply with the treaty. Despite three Indo-Pakistani wars and a dozen military scuffles, water continued to flow. Modi was the first Indian leader who started to openly threaten to limit the flow of the rivers into Pakistan. Unsurprisingly, Islamabad has already said that such actions of their ‘partners’ would be regarded as “a declaration of war”.

No choice but to negotiate

Fortunately, the likelihood that New Delhi will go beyond threats this time does not seem to be very high and the reasons for that are quite prosaic.First of all, should the water supply of the rivers be stopped, India would have to address the question “Where would the water go?” “We do not have the infrastructure to store this water. We have not built dams in J&K where we can store water. And being a mountainous state, unlike Tamil Nadu or Karnataka, you cannot move water to another state. So, you cannot stop the water technically,” said Ahmad Romshoo, an employee of the Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Kashmir, in his interview with Asian Age.

Not surprisingly, the Indian prime minister’s recent statements on this issue have become more realistic. Now, he is no longer talking about cutting off the flow of the rivers, but merely about reducing to zero (including as a result of poor irrigation) the wasted outflow of water from the Indian rivers into the territory of their neighbor: “Now every drop of this water will be stopped, and I will give that to farmers of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir and Indian farmers. I am committed to this.” At the same time, the prime minister set up a special government task force, which aims to ensure that “each drop of water” that flows out of Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi reaches the residents of India.

Secondly, should it withdraw from the Indus Waters Treaty, which does not formally provide for such a possibility, New Delhi will inevitably have to suffer a serious blow to its reputation in the eyes of the world, since many still believe that strong evidence of Pakistani involvement in the Uri incident has not been presented.

To a certain extent, that is the reason why New Delhi’s attempts to pressure Islamabad politically have not been particularly successful. In particular, the unprecedented statement by the Indian side that, in response to Pakistan’s support for Kashmiri separatists, the Indian side might lend its support to separatists in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, remains on paper. Previously, India had consistently stressed respect for the territorial integrity of its neighbors and demanded the same from them, and in this sense, such a step by Modi is unprecedented in Indian political history. According to experts, support for Baluchistan nationalism will generate additional tension in the already-strained relations between the two countries, strengthening the position of Pakistan’s hawks. As a consequence, we may see open support for anti-Indian forces in Kashmir, which Islamabad will unapologetically provide. “Do not forget that the Baluchis also live in Iran and Afghanistan, so Kabul and Tehran are not likely to be ecstatic over Indian assistance to Baluchistan nationalists,” stated Indian political analyst Arun Shourie to BRICS Business Magazine.

Now, the expert adds, New Delhi is arguing for Islamabad’s international isolation, trying to turn it into a pariah state. To this end, India has basically sabotaged the summit of the South Asian Regional Cooperation Association (SAARC), which had been planned in Islamabad at the beginning of November. Narendra Modi’s refusal to participate, supported by the heads of Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Bhutan, forced Pakistani authorities to announce the postponement of the meeting “for an indefinite period of time”.


A nuclear war on the Indian subcontinent would have dire consequences. By various estimates, India and Pakistan possess approximately 130 to 140 nuclear warheads and delivery systems: multi-role fighter, ballistic, and cruise missiles. According to a joint study conducted in 2007 by a group of American experts from Rutgers University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of California, if the two countries were to use about a hundred nuclear warheads with the nominal power of ‘one Hiroshima’ (this is much less than half the total arsenal of the two countries), the atomic blasts, burns and acute radiation would immediately kill more than 21 million people, and the number of victims would keep growing.

As pointed out by Indian expert on defense Abheet Singh Sethi, in the event of such a conflict, neighboring countries – Afghanistan, Iran, the countries in Central Asia, and China – will also be seriously affected. What’s more, if India were to bomb Lahore or Karachi, for example, and should the winds turn eastward, that could spell big problems for most of India herself, especially the northwestern part. According to estimates by experts from the global movement International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), a nuclear conflict on the Indian subcontinent would threaten the life of more than two billion people around the world because of the negative impact nuclear explosions would have on the climate, which could lead to ‘nuclear winter’.

In contrast, India’s push for recognition of Pakistan as a country exporting terrorism has not met with much success. In particular, Western countries, led by the United States, which have traditionally been allies of Islamabad in South Asia, spoke out against it. “We believe that Pakistan can directly contribute to regional stability by acting against militants on its soil who seek to attack its neighbors,” said John Kirby, a spokesman for the US State Department, in late November. At the same time, he quite transparently hinted that the US administration will not go for any kind of worsening of relations with Islamabad.

In turn, the BRICS Summit in Goa held in mid-October has demonstrated that the isolationist policies of New Delhi against Islamabad are unlikely to find support among its leading partners in this block. Despite an India-sponsored BRICS joint statement about readiness to build a united front against terrorism, the Pakistan-based terrorist groups that commit attacks in the Indian part of Kashmir were not mentioned in the final declaration. Beijing, which is the main economic partner of Islamabad in the region, does not see the benefits of playing on the Indian side. For instance, the People’s Republic is investing billions of yuan in the construction of a transport corridor through Pakistan that will provide it with an outlet to the Persian Gulf. Russia also has its interests in relations with Pakistan, which offer different value to Moscow. That is why it seems that, today, New Delhi and Islamabad have no choice but to try to resolve their differences by returning to the negotiating table – as they have done numerous times over the 50-year history of relations between the two countries. Otherwise, in the long term, the increase of tensions is inevitable, and the darkest fears of UN experts regarding the nuclear conflict over water may actually become a reality sooner rather than later.

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