ISPR Tag Line

India's Water War against Pakistan

Ahmed Quraishi

India resorted to using water as a weapon of war against Pakistan in the very first few months after our independence. Choking Pakistani water was one of the first weapons used by India against a weak, newly-born Pakistani state. It is part of a long list of 'firsts' that India introduced into its relationship with Pakistan. Some of these 'firsts' include the use of non-state actors [started in 1950 by India through lawless Afghan regions to stoke separatism in western Pakistani provinces] and nuclear weapons [1974 nuclear detonations]. In another first, India launched an unprovoked invasion across international borders in 1965 & 71 to seize territory. It was later followed by the occupation of Siachen during 1984. These days, India is busy introducing nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers in Pakistani seas.

In short India has left no stone unturned to transform a simple international dispute with a neighbour over Kashmir into a multifaceted conflict and a running blood feud.

The Indian water war tops this list of 'firsts' against Pakistan. Most analysts are not aware of what Indian officials did at the highest levels of government more than half a century ago to ensure that a new Pakistani state dies of thirst. The details of this early Indian water warfare show the pettiness and insecurity of the early Indian leadership vis-a-vis a country that posed no strategic threat at any level. It also discredits the theories of many diplomats and experts today who contend that Pakistan exaggerates Indian theft of Pakistani waters. And since this is a technical issue, it is easy for India to feign innocence and get away with one of the worst examples of how a large country can cause so much misery across a region in pursuit of its hegemonic and aggressive intentions against a smaller neighbour.

Before expanding on how India started a water war with Pakistan, it is important to quickly recall the root cause of this Indian aggression against Pakistan.

Two things have always been at the core of India's policy on Pakistan. The first is the need to wane Pakistan off of Kashmir. And the second is to reclaim Pakistani territory as part of a mythical Greater India.

In August 1947, when both Pakistan and India gained independence from British occupation, India took control of the bulk of the infrastructural, educational, and agricultural developments that the British administration left behind. Very little of this infrastructure came into Pakistani control. This included the irrigation system.

Agriculture in Pakistan was concentrated in Sindh and Punjab provinces. By early 1948, merely four months after Pakistan's independence, India "choked" the water that irrigated two Pakistani provinces by closing the canals that originated in the Indian Punjab state. This 'choking' of water was aimed at bringing the Pakistani state to its knees. The Indian water closure continued through May 1948. The Pakistani foreign minister negotiated with the Indian Prime Minister Nehru to reopen the flow of the canal system.

Nehru grudgingly agreed to this but with the condition that the reopening of the canal system to irrigate Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Punjab would continue only for four months, following which Pakistan will have to find alternative sources for water. That, of course, was near impossibility for a new state. Nehru and the Indian leadership knew this.

There hardly could be a better example of the early Indian loathing and animosity toward Pakistan. The elite in New Delhi was eager to see a nascent Pakistan collapse. This Indian animosity and pettiness toward Pakistan is at the core of the tensions in South Asia. Indian officials today attribute the tensions to Pakistani mischief but that is not correct.

In May 1948, Nehru and India reopened the water flow only after senior Pakistani officials flew to New Delhi to sign the Inter-Dominion Agreement on the Canal Water Dispute.

Much more details of what happened can be found in a book released this year by the Oxford University Press Pakistan, authored by a former senior Asian Development Bank official, Saiyid Ali Naqvi. The book was reviewed on Aug 1 by Pakistani journalist Khaled Ahmed for Newsweek Pakistan. ['Is India Stealing Pakistan's Water?']

While Ahmed chose to regurgitate the usual line that Pakistan exaggerates Indian water warfare, the details he quotes from Naqvi's book serve to strengthen Pakistan's arguments.

On the Inter-Dominion Agreement, Ahmed writes, "Through this agreement, India made clear its intent to use all of the water of the rivers in question; the agreement merely allowed Pakistan time to find alternative sources to replace the lost water.To make matters worse for Pakistan, its West Punjab government was notified by India's East Punjab government that this agreement would be discontinued on Sept. 4, 1948. Pakistan's foreign minister appealed to the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to continue water supplies to West Punjab and to the Sindh irrigation systems until the two governments could reach a final agreement. Nehru responded that supplies would be continued temporarily, and with no commitment for the future."

Then came the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, brokered by the World Bank, that granted India the right of fair use of Kashmiri rivers flowing into Pakistan.

But far from a policy of fair use, India is dotting the Kashmiri landscape with large and small dams that exceed its need and requirement. This massive dam buildup ignores the fact that it is happening on a disputed territory that remains on the UN Security Council agenda awaiting resolution. The Indian dam buildup is like creating a large valve that can be turned off any time to punish Pakistan, or to thirst it to death or surrender.

What makes things more dangerous is the fact that Kashmiri resistance groups fighting Indian occupation resent this Indian control over Kashmiri waters. The possibility exists that some faction of armed Kashmiri resistance [freedom fighters] might attack or destroy Indian dams. Since India may not be able to identify or arrest the Kashmiri fighters, New Delhi can make Pakistan an easy scapegoat and ignite a war. A major Indian water project in occupied Kashmir, the Wullar Barrage Project was attacked twice by Kashmiri resistance fighters. On Aug. 27, 2012, a group of Kashmiris attacked the project site, threatened the Indian contractors, and damaged the construction work on the site. The Indian Express newspaper quoted eyewitnesses saying the attackers were 'Kashmiri-speaking.' This was the second attack on this mega project. In January 2012, Kashmiri fighters raided the Indian dam site and got away with important design documents.

The Indians are going far too ahead in manipulating the water sources of the region and are also involved in releasing water during floods in Pakistan. How far shall this war on water go, only time will decide but India is playing a dirty game, and may face consequences in the times to come.

(Courtesy Hilal Magazine)


The writer contributes regularly for print and electronic media. He is also a senior research fellow at Pakistan Federal Reorganisation Programme.

[email protected]