Water weapon cuts both ways

China factor in Indus card

By K.P. Nayar
  • Published 24.09.16

Sept. 23: China is quietly signalling India that any abrogation of the Indus Waters Treaty to punish its all-weather friend Pakistan will have consequences for this country as well.

Beijing's view is that once the treaty is abrogated, it will be under no obligation to allow water from the Indus or Sutlej rivers to flow into India.

Indus, the largest of the six rivers covered by the 1960 treaty, originates in China, which has eight per cent of the Indus river basin of 1.12 million square kilometres that runs through India and Pakistan as well. The fountainhead of this river basin lies in China.

If China decides to divert water from the Indus river in the absence of any international treaty governing the management of this precious resource, India will be deprived of 36 per cent of the river's entire flow.

Add to that Pakistan's share of 63 per cent entitlement and the nightmare consequence of abrogating the treaty would be a devastated wasteland in the sub-continent spread far and wide across 3,200 kilometres covered by the river's flow from the Tibetan plateau to Karachi where the Indus discharges its water into the Arabian Sea.

Any Chinese action to pay back India for punishing Pakistan by using water as a weapon has the further potential to dry up 27 of this river's tributaries, many of which sustain India's agrarian and commercial life line.

Countless canals from which cities and towns draw water for daily use would dry up, causing urban and semi-urban distress.

The Sutlej originates in Tibet in what Indians know as Rakshas Tal, a huge lake which the Chinese call La'áng Cuò. It enters India through the border post of Shipki La and flows into Himachal Pradesh, also eventually emptying itself into the Arabian Sea off Karachi city.

If China decides to shut off water from Tibet that feeds the Sutlej river, huge swathes of north India would be plunged into darkness and deprived of power: water from this river flows into the Bhakra dam, the Karcham Wangtoo hydro-electric project and the Nathpa Jhakri dam which together generate at least 3,600 megawatts of electricity which lights up large parts of Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi.

Since China is not a party to the Indus Water Treaty - of which the World Bank is the guardian in a manner of speaking - Beijing has not initiated any formal diplomatic moves in response to the ongoing debate in India, including comments by the external affairs ministry raising question marks about the treaty's continued implementation.

No demarches, no note verbale, no formal discussions backed up by any aide memoire.

Instead a subtle message is being transmitted through Indian visitors to China who have access to decision-makers there, comments at think-tanks which are sworn to confidentiality, cocktail conversations by Chinese diplomats in capitals like New Delhi and Washington in addition to the UN in New York during the ongoing General Assembly season.

Such a modus operandi, now practised by both India and China, has become commonplace since relations with China nosedived in the second year of Narendra Modi's prime ministership. Both sides now invoke third parties to convey messages to each other in the absence of mutual trust between official interlocutors.

This writer was at two separate events recently where a top-level Indian official, at one programme, and a high-level Chinese official, at another, conveyed messages to each other through third parties.

Sworn to secrecy, the participants, including this writer, are handicapped from discussing in public details of these important interactions.

This is a far cry from the 1990s when a Chinese ambassador would drop by and have a frank, unrecorded talk with the joint secretary in the external affairs ministry in charge of China, in this instance Shiv Shankar Menon, whose feel for China as someone who grew up there is legendary.

A Chinese water war against India to dissuade New Delhi from denying water to Pakistan with devastating consequences will not be easy, however for India, Pakistan or China.

Stopping water supplies to Pakistan after any abrogation of the Indus Water Treaty would flood extensive areas of Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab.

Similarly, China faces a huge risk of inundation of large areas of Tibet if it stops the Indus river or the Sutlej from flowing into India.

But the Chinese have long experience of diverting rivers bigger than either of the China-origin ones covered by the Indus Water Treaty.

These risks may have prevented all concerned in the last 59 years from scrapping the treaty whatever may have been the temptation to do so.

India runs the risk of alienating the World Bank if it abrogates the treaty. It is not well known that the US, the UK, Canada, (then) West Germany, Australia and New Zealand underwrote the facilitation of the treaty by contributing $1 billion (at 1959 rates) and virtually bribed Pakistan by giving it $315 million to enter into negotiations with India.