Two days before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague was about to proceed with the hearing of “objected” hydro-power projects on tributaries, India issued a notice to Pakistan seeking amendments to the decades old and only pact that compels historic rivals to regulate shared-water volumes in the region. Reportedly, the Indian pitch to the amendment refers specifically to the clause of the Dispute Settlement Mechanism, in which it intends to bring hierarchy to the options of resort. Technically, the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan provides a layered mechanism for dispute resolution through arbitration. The process involves the appointment of a neutral expert or a court of arbitration if the countries are unable to resolve a dispute through bilateral negotiations. The decision of the neutral expert or the Court of Arbitration is final and binding on both parties.
The timely development is in response to the on-going dispute between signatories, which flared in 2015 when Islamabad objected to Delhi’s hydropower projects, namely Kishanganga on the Jhelum River and Ratle on the Chenab River, as a clear violation of the treaty by aiming to disrupt and divert Indus flows. To examine the objection, both sides initially agreed on neutral experts, but later Pakistan withdrew its consensus and sought legal arbitration on the matter. The World Bank, also the broker of the treaty, failed to bring parties to the table and finally approved parallel processes: independent experts and arbitration court proceedings. It is to be noted that no party can bring about changes to the treaty unilaterally. This leaves a possibility for both parties to find common ground, iron out differences, and come to an agreement through negotiations and mutual consensus.
As India seeks modification of the IWT, Pakistan must consider it an opportunity and reciprocate the treaty’s reopening, if so, with reimagination and reinterpretation in the light of much-needed technical and operational norms and consideration of ecological viability. A successful and fresh dialogue on IWT would be a step in the right direction and a win-win situation for both countries, providing an equitable use of the river system, regional stability, and increased chances for socio-economic development. It must be perceived as an opportunity to address an outdated structure that enables the exploitation of resources and provides insufficient collaborative measures between the parties. The assumption at the time of signing has significantly deluded contemporary realities given the dynamics of water both in quantitative and qualitative terms, a subsequent outcome of the climate induced and ecological threat to the Indus Basin River system. IWT, with its 1960 provisions, inherently remains deficient in managing water relations in a region where billions are subject to vulnerable climate change consequences, territorial disputes abound, and hydro-politicization appears unavoidable.
Nevertheless, the Indus Water Treaty has well-regulated the distribution and use of the Indus River and its five tributaries that flow from India to Pakistan while surviving multiple occasions of confrontation between the signatories. Additionally, the treaty established mechanisms for resolving disputes and provided for regular meetings between India and Pakistan to address any issues related to the treaty. The treaty has been largely successful in promoting cooperation between the two countries over the Indus River system, despite occasional tensions and disagreements. However, the recent move by India seeking modification has once again brought the treaty under the spotlight. IWT, which has been generally successful, certainly faces challenges other than the dispute resolution mechanism, which needs to be incorporated and addressed by the signatories. Emerging dynamics such as climate change, depleting resources, and geopolitics must be factored into the treaty to ensure its survival, relevance, and sustainability. These challenges have to be confronted by both countries as a whole, not just from the point of view of their water needs and water sharing obligations. As the world grapples with an uncertain future, India and Pakistan have an opportunity to re-establish their commitment to the IWT as a success story and enhance its application so that the treaty may be better adapted to current and future needs.
The IWT has survived tensions, conflicts, and wars between parties with a fair amount of distrust and reciprocal accusations of noncompliance with the treaty’s spirit and essence. Yet it is widely regarded as a successful example of international water management. However, the risks, both short- and long-term, associated with emerging climatic patterns provoke the need to accommodate those new realities of the Indus Basin within the existing structure and norms. New Delhi’s notification to “modify” the IWT is largely in response to the ongoing legal battle over dams’ construction. In light of this, the two countries should use this as a chance to redirect and renegotiate a meaningful dialogue over the much-needed amendments to the IWT in order to address the current and future water needs of the region apart from dispute settlement clauses.
Climate change presents a major loophole that needs to be addressed in the pact in order to strengthen its functionality. Specifically, changes in precipitation patterns and glacial melting could impact the availability of water in these rivers and thus the implementation of the treaty. The potential to disrupt and alter the agreed allocation of the water resources in the Indus River and its tributaries will certainly affect the smooth distribution of water as outlined in the treaty. Thus, it is important for both nations to consider the impacts of climate change and work together to adapt and mitigate the effects on the Indus River and the treaty. This may include measures to adjust the treaty, such as joint monitoring and management of water resources and cooperation on infrastructure development, to ensure sustainable water management and equitable distribution of water resources in the face of a changing climate. While it has been successful in preventing major water wars between India and Pakistan by establishing shared water resource management, the IWT continues to play a critical role with notable challenges. As climate change increasingly affects the region, it is essential that India and Pakistan ensure a resilient and responsive Indus River Treaty. These challenges need to be addressed in the spirit of the treaty, which subsequently provides the rights and responsibilities of both countries to ensure a sustainable treaty and a peaceful region.