Water Security and the Long Standing Kashmir Dispute

Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

India and Pakistan’s concerns over  water security is hardening their long-standing dispute in Kashmir.  These two countries have fought wars and skirmishes over the disputed Kashmir region since their independence from Great Britain in 1947. With rising temperatures around the globe, and quickly declining surface water levels in South Asia due to wide-spread irrigation, the rivers of Kashmir that provide water and energy to both India and Pakistan are likely  to remain major issues of contention.

Tens of thousands of people in India and Pakistan are dependent on the water from the Kashmiri rivers. For Pakistan, Kashmir’s rivers are vital for drinking water and agriculture. For India, the Himalayan glacial water that flows through the Kashmiri rivers is a source of energy, on top of its regular usage as drinking water and for irrigation. In short, continuous flow of the Kashmiri water, and secure access to these rivers are vital for the survival of millions of people in both of these countries.

“No army, with bombs and shellfire could devastate a land as thoroughly as Pakistan could be devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the sources of water that keep the fields and the people of Pakistan alive. India has never threatened such a drastic step… but the power is there nonetheless” — wrote one analyst explaining the importance of the rivers that India and Pakistan share.

1960s Water Treaty and India’s Future Plans for More Hydro-Power

To ensure regional stability and water security, India and Pakistan signed a water treaty in 1960 known as the Indus Water Treaty (“IWT”). This World Bank brokered agreement asserted Pakistani control over Jhelum, Chenab and Indus rivers, and Indian control over Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers. India was given special provisions within the treaty for hydroelectric development upstream, as all these rivers flow through India first and then through Pakistan.

No army, with bombs and shellfire could devastate a land as thoroughly as Pakistan could be devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the sources of water that keep the fields and the people of Pakistan alive. India has never threatened such a drastic step… but the power is there nonetheless.

The IWT has been effective since 1962 and the treaty has functioned generally well. Over the last decade, India with its burgeoning economy and a billion plus population, has quietly started working towards increasing the number of its hydro-power facilities in the Kashmiri rivers. Some reports suggest that India has plans for building more than 150 hydro facilities — a staggering number which is bound to raise some serious alarms in Pakistan.

Construction of several new hydro-power facilities have already been  completed by India, and some more to start soon. As the country has severe trust issues with Pakistan, the latter fears of losing its fair share of the Kashmiri water for irrigation due to diversion by India upstream.

With its ability to dictate the course of these vital rivers, the Kashmiri rivers may well emerge as one of India’s future foreign policy leverages against Pakistan, and a weapon of choice if/when the relationship goes south.

The long history of hostility between India and Pakistan complicates any possible resolution towards any dispute — let that be over either water or land. Conflict resolution gets particularly tricky for these two rivals when the control over Kashmir has been known by both the parties as a zero sum game for way too long.

Is a Peaceful Settlement Possible?

By the late 1980s things began to get more complicated for India with rising popular discontent within the Indian administered Kashmir region. Pro independence guerrillas, allegedly with help from Pakistan started attacks in the valley. To neutralize these militants, India started heavy militarization of Kashmir.

India’s militarization succeeded in containing the territorial dispute to a manageable level, but at the same time perpetuated serious political uncertainties,  as higher number of Kashmiris started to join various resistance groups and militant organizations.

This decades long unrest left more than 50,000 people dead in Kashmir, as Kashmir continued to be a thorn in Indo-Pak relationship for decades. Kashmir braced a new wave of protests after the death of Hijbul Mujahidin leader Burhan Wani in 2016. These protests have vexed the Indian authorities with the possibility of more protests to follow.

India accuses Pakistan for inciting violence in Kashmir, an accusation which Islamabad denies. Pakistan obviously needs Kashmir for water. India needs Kashmir for not only its water and other natural resources, but also as a land buffer from the mainland Pakistan.

Kashmir being a Muslim majority region is as much of a head-ache, as much it is an ego-booster for India’s claim towards a diverse but yet secular democracy.

The long history of hostility between India and Pakistan complicates any possible resolution towards any dispute — let that be over either water or land. Conflict resolution gets particularly tricky for these two rivals when the control over Kashmir has been known by both the parties as a zero sum game for way too long.


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About Masum Billah 22 Articles

Masum Billah is a Staff Writer for The GeoStrategists. A Graduate from the Department of International Relations at the University of Dhaka, Masum Billah is a human rights activist. He writes columns on human rights, foreign policy, and terrorism.

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