Kashmir and the Indus Dilemma: A Rivalry over Water?

Kashmir has been a source of tension between India and Pakistan since the 1947 partition, after Hindu Maharaja Hari Singh, ruler of the Muslim majority state, chose to become part of India. His decision led to an Indo-Pakistani war in 1948 and to the division of the province after the 1949 ceasefire. The division satisfied neither party and, as a result, Kashmir infamously became one of the world’s protracted conflicts.

Image courtesy of Waqas Usman, © 2002, some rights reserved.

The Kashmir dispute is usally analysed through the lens of conflicting ideologies, the underlying belief being that India and Pakistan both consider the region as an inherent part of their identity. Religion is regarded as the main bone of contention; both states argue that they ought to control Kashmir because of its Muslim / Hindu population. Yet, is the root of the dispute as simple as it looks?

The answer, evidently, is no. As in most conflicts there are a plurality of underlying causes to the violence that has been ongoing for nearly seventy years. In Kashmir, one of these causes regards the ownership of land, as within it lay the water resources which both nations dramatically rely on. Therefore, it is not the territory itself, but the water reservoir that it contains, which has been a source of discord between India and Pakistan.

In 1960, the Indus Water Treaty was brokered by the World Bank to avoid future disputes between India and Pakistan over the river basin. The negotiated settlement divided the Indus Rivers between the two riparians, the aim being to ensure peaceful relations and cooperation over the shared resource. India was allocated the ownership of the three eastern rivers, – the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi – while Pakistan was assigned ownership of the three western ones, – the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab. Interestingly, 75% of the water was allocated to Pakistan, while India received the remaining 25%. Even if the unequal repartition of the water can be explained by Pakistan’s almost complete reliance on the Indus basin for its water supply, this division generated controversies on both sides.

Neither country finds predilection in the settlement. For Pakistan, the water flowing from Kashmir not only ensures the prosperity of its main agricultural region but also depends on it for its survival. India being the upper riparian, and therefore controlling the downflow of the water, Pakistan fears that its neighbor might try to dry it out by stopping the water from entering its border. It is unlikely that such action would ever be done, but the fear of the potential destruction that would result from it renders relations tense between the riparians. For India, the division of the water has not been equitably done, and therefore the treaty ought to be amended.

This controversy has deep implications, deriving from the critical water situation which both nations are currently facing: India is on the verge of facing water stress – annual water availability below 1,700 m3 per capita per year while Pakistan is even worse off, since it is about to become water scarce with annual water availability below 1,000 m3 per capita per year. As a result, India and Pakistan are facing an interpenetration of a scarcity dilemma with a security dilemma. The water shortage that the riparians are facing at the inter-state level directly impacts their intra-state relations, at the heart of which lies Kashmir and the Indus basin. This in turn means that the situation in Kashmir cannot be solved until the Indus Water Treaty is revised, as ongoing water tensions between India and Pakistan point to an institutional failure of the settlement, despite its success in avoiding open violence between them since its implementation. Can anything be done?

A recent publication by Sundeep Waslekar, The Final Settlement (2005) gives an interesting and challenging insight of the water contentions. The author asserts that rivers hold the key to the peace settlement in Kashmir.  He proposes a settlement to resolve the ongoing dispute, developing what he calls ‘the Chenab Formula of conflict resolution’. According to him, division of the province should change. Pakistan should be given the Kashmir Valley and part of Jammu, which would then allow it to control the flow of the entire Chenab River. Sundeep Waslekar claims that such a settlement would ensure sustainable peace over the Indus water, as Pakistan would then control part of the water flowing within its territory and would not feel as vulnerable with regards to India. He adds that the countries’ mutual mistrust makes a lasting peace in Kashmir unfeasible and that tensions will inevitably result in direct violence.

Such a view is oversimplified, as the nuclear deterrence between the riparian has managed to constrain them, inducing caution in their policies. Therefore, although talks about potential water-related war or terrorist attack are recurrent, realpolitik and the balance of power between India and Pakistan make it highly unlikely that either party will resort to open violence. Yet, despite a simplistic analysis of the relation between water and violence, Sundeep Waslekar nevertheless highlights the security implications of the water rivalry between India and Pakistan. Importantly, he stresses that as long as Pakistan feels vulnerable due to its dependence on the shared resource, the riparians will never be able to avoid disputes. Therefore, the Kashmir conflict is intertwined with strategic and geopolitical concerns; it relates to the Pakistan perception of dependency on the river basin and on upstream/downstream configurations.

Needless to say, the meta-causes of the Kashmir dispute are not solely linked to water resources. Saying so would be incredibly reductionist. Nevertheless, although water might not be the only root of tensions between the riparians, it is a contributing factor to conflict and must be taken into account. It limits the success of future settlement attempts in the province and, in turn, jeopardizes the stability of the region as a whole. Addressing it is therefore key to reaching a settlement that will finally bring a durable peace to Kashmir.