The talk of ‘impending water wars’ has been around for over two decades now. Back in 1995, the World Bank’s former Vice-President Ismail Serageldin claimed that ‘the wars of the next century will be about water. A war over water, however, did not break out, despite minor conflicts over it. For Pakistan and India, it was resolved through the signing of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in 1960; for Jordan and Israel, through the Israel-Jordan Peace Treaty; for the US and Canada, through the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909; and just like that, all around the world, water conflicts were dealt through with a treaty or agreement.
The Prime Minister of India Narinder Modi even stated that ‘Blood and water cannot flow together’ when talking about the IWT and Pakistan, and yet at the end of the same meeting, it was a common consensus that the IWT will be respected and upheld. The Treaty clearly states that neither India nor Pakistan can unilaterally revoke the Treaty.
But barely anyone talks about hydro-hegemony, especially in a country like Pakistan, which is surrounded on east and west by an actualized hydro-hegemon and a potential hydro-hegemon. A hydro-hegemon is a river basin sharing state which asserts its power over the other riparian states, including upstream ones. When it comes to the east, India is a hydro-hegemon as there are around 20 river basins/draining areas, both large and small, in India.
These river basins either originate in India and flow through it, and are shared with China, Nepal, and Bhutan in the North, Pakistan (Indus and the five tributaries) in the West, and Bangladesh in the East. All these neighbors, except for Bhutan, have had issues with India over water, despite existing treaties and agreements. India on the other hand states that it is only protecting the water rights of over one billion of its citizens.
While normal water sharing issues continue to exist and arise, it becomes worse when India’s plans of controlling the flows of the waters come in the shape of the ‘National River Linking Project’ which intends to link all the rivers in India in order to mitigate the damage caused due to flooding and other natural calamities.
While the hegemony over the water was a natural element due to India’s geographical location, these plans strengthen its hydro-hegemony further, garnering severe criticisms from Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Pakistan’s West is another country with the potential of becoming a hydro-hegemon.
Neighbors in watercourses
These are shared with Pakistan in the east; Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in the North; and Iran in the south-west. However, there is only one water arrangement treaty that exists, the Helmand River Treaty of 1973 with Iran. This treaty has caused severe skepticism amongst the government and citizens of Afghanistan as they believe it has proven to be disadvantageous for Afghanistan.
Pakistan may have four neighbors, but the majority of its transboundary shared watercourses/river come from two of these neighbors. Rivers Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi and Sutlej, which sustain the north, east and south-east of Pakistan, pass through or originate in India.
Meanwhile, Rivers Kabul, Kurram, Gomal, and a few others, originate and flow through Afghanistan, sustaining the former areas of FATA, and contributing vast amounts to Indus as they all eventually fall into it. While there is a need for a water-sharing agreement with Afghanistan, and the government has tried over the past two decades to get there, the agreement with India exists and yet the issues remain.
International laws to tackle shared watercourses
Therefore, international law, over the course of the last century, has come up with various rules and laws to mitigate tensions between the countries with shared watercourses. These include the Helsinki Rules (1966), Stockholm Declaration (1972), Seoul Rules on International Groundwaters (1986), UNECE Water Convention (1992), and the Berlin Rules on Water Resources (2004), amongst the many, but the most important development came in 1997, the United Nations Convention on the Law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (known as the UN Watercourses Convention).
This convention consolidated all the principles of water law from various instruments of law, including International Court of Justice cases, and gave a framework to all nations on how to go about the shared watercourses. While it is non-binding on non-signatory states, and only came into force in 2014 with thirty-five ratifications, this convention is the model to adopt for neighbors of hydro-hegemons to secure their water rights and put pressure on the rest to follow suit.
Bilateralism in international law keeps hegemony alive and therefore, hegemonic states prefer keeping the power in their own hands through several bilateral treaties rather than following international law mechanisms which protect all states. While it would be difficult to convince such hegemonic states, once these principles of cooperation, equitable use, benefit sharing, and not harming neighbours are implemented across the water sharing states, it would not only be beneficial for the states on the receiving end but also the hydro-hegemon state.
Even the hegemon State will then be utilizing the waters under the protection of international law for its own citizens and with an atmosphere of cooperation and peace around the basin. As mentioned, India only has cordial relations with Bhutan when it comes to water, the rest of her neighbors have had multiple disputes and grievances with her over hegemonic use of water resources which further translates into other disputes with India. Afghanistan, therefore, should also learn from this and follow the rules of international law to further improve relations with its neighbors.
Pakistan, however, needs to take the lead in this region and implement not just international water law but also climate change and environment law, which will further protect its resources against future issues. With initiatives like the Billion Tree Tsunami, further compliance will project Pakistan as a leader in environmental protection in the region, which is a desperate need of the hour as well.
The writer is a Researcher at RSIL and ISSRA. He is an advocate for the high court and can be reached at Farazyousafzai@hotmail.com. The views in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.