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Environmental Cooperation Marred by India-Pakistan Tensions

Since the Uri army base attack on 18 September 2016, in which 17 Indian soldiers were killed (called the “deadliest attack on the security forces in Kashmir in two decades”), relations between India and Pakistan have been at an all-time low. While India has provided ample evidence to establish the origin of the attack as Pakistan, the latter continues to be in denial. India has been on a diplomatic and political offensive ever since – attempting to isolate Pakistan globally, carrying out surgical strikes against “launch pads” for terrorists across the Line of Control (LoC) and re-examining some of the existing bilateral treaties, one of them being the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).

In a totally different but connected case, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) has been forced to keep on hold a big project meant to reduce the risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) in northern Pakistan, which also includes disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan – mainly due to objections raised by India.

The Indus Waters Treaty at a Crossroads

First, take the case of the IWT – this treaty has survived three wars (including the Kargil conflict in 1999). Although Pakistan has cried foul time and again over India’s dam constructions on the western rivers and their tributaries (allotted to Pakistan under the treaty), the two countries have never fought over the treaty. India can legally use the waters for certain consumptive purposes (such as 20 percent of the River Indus for irrigation, power generation and transport purposes). At the same time, there have been times when certain sections of the Pakistan Army have used the nuclear bomb rhetoric to warn India against any moves of obstructing the flow of rivers to Pakistan. This anti-India rhetoric has been embraced by terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba that allegedly has been responsible for many terrorist attacks in India, including the one in Mumbai in 2008.

Knowing very well that the waters of the Indus system constitute the lifeline of Pakistan, India felt, quite rightly, that this could be the most potent bargaining chip that it could use against the former. After all, one of the reasons why Pakistan is so paranoid about India’s activities on these rivers is because the country’s agricultural economy would collapse if they do not flow into its territory. In fact, if India chooses to revoke the treaty and divert the waters according to its requirements, Pakistan could be left without potable water in no time. Moreover, control over Kashmir is equivalent to control over the River Indus – this explains a part of the dilemma confronted by Pakistan as far as its demand for Kashmir is concerned. Being an existential issue, one would think it is the best tactic to bring Pakistan to the table and pressurize it to act upon cross-border terrorism originating in its territory.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi upped the ante by stating that “blood and water cannot flow together”, Pakistan’s worst fears were being played on. This is why Pakistan’s foreign policy adviser Sartaz Aziz said in the National Assembly that any move on India’s part to revoke the treaty would be treated as “an act of war or a hostile act against Pakistan.” Pakistan’s Ambassador to the UN, Maleeha Lodhi, while speaking in the Open Debate of the UN Security Council on “Water, Peace and Security”, also took up the IWT to stress that “Pakistan denounces any such practice, real or threatened, as we believe it to be inconsistent with the precepts of international humanitarian law,” clearly taking another step towards internationalizing the issue, as it has done in the case of Kashmir too.

Pakistan also approached the World Bank as well as the International Court of Justice, demanding an early appointment of the judges to the Court of Arbitration to settle the disputes over two Indian projects on the rivers Chenab and Neelum. In response to Pakistan’s grievances with respect to the technical aspects of the proposed projects, the World Bank has now decided to set up a Court of Arbitration. It also acceded to India’s demand of appointing a neutral expert. While India has taken strong exception to this decision, as according to the Indian side, “the treaty states that while a Neutral Expert is examining the row, there can be no other mechanism for settlement of disputes”, the two parallel mechanisms are set to be implemented. Since both processes require cooperation from both countries, it remains to be seen how the disputes will be settled. To make matters worse, Pakistan might choose to over-exploit the rivers allotted to it as a pre-emptive measure, putting itself at further risk of environmental degradation and water crisis in the long term.

While one can be almost sure that India has no plans to unilaterally cancel the treaty due to numerous legal, economic and political reasons, what the Prime Minister mainly wants to address is the question of the possibility of exploiting the rivers “to the maximum” to meet domestic requirements. After all, India does not want to open a Pandora’s Box by setting any standards for the upper riparian country, which a country like China is already following by building dams on the River Brahmaputra and its tributaries – and this without signing any treaty with the lower riparian countries, India and Bangladesh. Also, one must not forget that the Indus originates in the Tibetan Plateau in China, and being the upper riparian, it also has a stake despite not being a party to the IWT. One wonders how a treaty could be reached and sustained for so long without making one major party accountable, which has a history of violating transboundary river water sharing norms.

Although in 1960 it might have been the right decision to reserve 80.52 percent of the aggregate water flows in the Indus system for Pakistan, in 2016, the situation has drastically changed with increasing demand for water on the Indian side (in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh). The Indian establishment has two sides to look at while taking any decision as far as a review of the IWT is concerned. On the one hand, there is a strong domestic constituency that believes that the treaty is highly biased against India and is responsible for a huge amount of economic losses in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has in turn exacerbated anti-India sentiments and violence in the Kashmir valley. Ahead of local/state assembly elections in the Indian state of Punjab, water has emerged as one of the biggest electoral issues, so much so that Prime Minister Modi in his latest public rally raised this issue; “The water on which India has its right is flowing into Pakistan. I am committed to stop that water and bring it to our farmers in Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India.”

At the same time, the government is under increasing pressure to take a tough stand against Pakistan after the failure of its repeated overtures towards it, taking into consideration two cross-border terrorist attacks on military installations in 2016 (the other being Pathankot Air Force Station) and continuous ceasefire violations. Interestingly, there is yet another angle to this story wherein the constitutionality of the treaty itself has been challenged by some, who claim that it is unconstitutional since it was signed by the then Pakistan President Ayub Khan and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru rather than the Indian President. Therefore, the Government of India is under pressure from several quarters to revise or at least revisit the treaty but this, in the end, may not result in any concrete steps to do so.

Geopolitical Tensions Hijack Climate Diplomacy

Whilst the IWT could become a victim of geopolitical tensions, there is another story that unfolded in Songdo, South Korea, where the 14th meeting of the GCF board was held from 12-14 October 2016. At the meeting, the Indian representative raised strong objections to a GLOF risk reduction project in northern Pakistan, even while ten other mitigation and adaptation projects in developing countries worth US$ 745 million were approved. A project to be undertaken by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was blocked by the Indian representative, citing technical reasons – that the “project’s success was predicated on there being no glacial outbursts during the five-year tenure of the project, which was unlikely considering the frequency of glacial bursts in the region.” Since all the developing country projects were being handled at the board meeting as a package agreement, India’s move to block Pakistan’s project would have put others in jeopardy.

India’s behaviour came as a shock to other representatives, who understandably concluded that this was on account of the ongoing tensions between the two countries. India, being one of the three board members representing the Asia-Pacific region, had a crucial role in advancing developing country interests. In the end, India was isolated with the project being granted conditional approval, but it managed to effectively put the project on hold until an independent feasibility assessment is conducted and the report of this assessment satisfies the board.

The fact remains that a large segment of the project lies in the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan region. It might be under the administrative control of Pakistan on the map, but India’s official map still lays claim to this portion as, from an Indian perspective, it was occupied by Pakistani forces in 1947-48. What irks India even more is the presence of China in this region due to the illegal ceding of Shaksgam Valley by Pakistan to China in a 1963 border agreement between the two countries, rendering the Kashmir dispute trilateral rather than bilateral. Therefore, there are three different players with stakes in the Gilgit-Baltistan region and it was impossible for India to fathom a project that leaves India out, especially since Pakistan’s proposal did not mention India at all.

It was impetuous on India’s part to block the project, especially since it is looked upon as a responsible power in issues of global governance. After taking a series of right steps, such as ratifying the Paris Agreement and signing the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, India does not want to find itself branded a naysayer again only due to geopolitical reasons. The best way forward would have been to let the issue pass despite valid objections based on sovereignty and technical feasibility. After all, at the GCF board meeting, India is representing not only itself but a larger group. At the same time, barring the technical standards followed by GCF projects at the national or regional levels, it is surprising that a project aimed at reducing the risk of GLOF could be concentrated in just Pakistan and not take into account the fact that this is a common phenomenon in the entire Himalayan region. India, being a constant victim of GLOF, cannot be completely left out of the equation and provoking it by not mentioning it at all, is rather unbecoming.

This scenario presents a classic case of a clear divide between the normative and empirical aspects of environmental security research. Normatively, it perhaps makes sense to regard environmental and climate diplomacy as a means for overcoming political hurdles and mutual mistrust; and as a tool of conflict resolution or transformation and achieving peace and stability at the regional and/or international level. After all, environmental issues are seen as complex problems that require multi-layered and transboundary solutions, wherein cooperation is a necessity. However, one must realize that unless there is political and territorial stability (particularly in terms of bilateral relations), environmental and climatic initiatives are a non-starter or bound to fail, or at best could have only short-term success. The underlying argument remains – mutual trust is a prerequisite for long-term success of climate and environmental diplomacy.


This article is written as a part of the adelphi-MARG project Climate Diplomacy, supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.

Dhanasree Jayaram is Project Associate, Manipal Advanced Research Group (MARG), Manipal University, Karnataka, India

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.