India’s Water Weapon
Tensions between India and Pakistan remain high following military clashes along the “line of control” separating the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir. An attack on Indian forces by a Pakistani-based terrorist group triggered Indian retaliation, sparking international concern over a potential nuclear escalation. Both countries have significant nuclear arsenals. A nuclear conflict would be catastrophic regionally and globally. Just the threat of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan suppresses foreign investment and economic activity. Any war, or threat of war, resonates in the global energy market as well, given India’s position as the world’s third-largest consumer of oil, behind the US and China. In recognition of the threat that military confrontation poses to economic growth, India is developing nonmilitary means of punishing Pakistan’s continued support for terror groups hostile to India, including “weaponization” of water resources along both the Pakistan-India border and Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. India’s goal is to reduce the risks of nuclear conflict.
India and Pakistan have fought four major conflicts since independence in 1948. The last, in 1999, was the first time both sides possessed viable nuclear arsenals. The existence of nuclear weapons has impacted their strategic calculations, especially in light of Pakistan’s willingness to provide bases, training and material support to Islamist terrorist groups opposed to India’s occupation of Kashmir.
In 2001, Pakistan-based terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament, prompting a major mobilization of the Indian military as it prepared for a fifth war. In the days it took India to mobilize, however, two things occurred that proved detrimental to Indian objectives. First, international pressure built up on India to allow diplomacy to take its course, and second, Pakistan was able to match India’s military preparations, including increasing the readiness status of its tactical nuclear forces, which would have been used to blunt any major Indian military offensive.
India’s military strategy at the time was based on a philosophy of defense-oriented nonaggression and nonprovocation, with the Indian army absorbing and then halting a Pakistani attack. The slow pace of mobilization in 2001 forced India to revamp its military doctrine, drawing upon the historical lessons of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and India’s own 1971 conflict with Pakistan. This new doctrine, known as the Cold Start, called for the Indian army to be capable of a series of limited offensive strikes into Pakistan within 48 hours of being ordered to do so, thereby achieving surprise against Pakistan and limiting outside diplomatic pressure. Any Indian offensive conducted under Cold Start would have limited goals in terms of the distance of advance and duration of operations, in line with punitive attacks in response to Pakistani-supported terrorist strikes.
The recent attack by Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM), a Pakistani-based terror group supported by the Pakistani intelligence services, killed more than 40 Indian paramilitary soldiers, and it represented the very kind of triggering incident that Cold Start was envisioned to respond to. Pakistan has made it clear that any Indian military offensive threatening either Islamabad or Lahore, which lie, respectively, 268 miles and 15 miles from the border with India, would be met with nuclear weapons. That in turn would trigger the implementation of India’s doctrine of massive retaliation, unleashing its nuclear arsenal against Pakistani population, military, and economic centers.
Indian military strategists believed that any offensive that stopped short of cutting the north-south national highway connecting Islamabad with Lahore would be absorbed by Pakistan without resorting to nuclear weapons. The problem with this thinking is that India does not know for sure that this would be the case. Any military offensive under Cold Start is thus a gamble. It would be deemed risky not only by Indian military and political leaders but also by international investors. The Cold Start doctrine has become a double-edged sword. The mere fact that India would consider implementing it serves as a deterrent to Pakistan’s support of terror groups hostile to India, but it simultaneously acts as a deterrent to international investment in India and its economic expansion.
India’s rapid economic growth is central to global oil and energy demand. It has been Asia’s second-largest consumer of energy since 2008, and in 2015 it overtook Japan as the world’s third-largest consumer of oil. The slowing of China’s economy, and India’s continued projected growth, has India on track to surpass China as the world’s second-largest consumer of oil after the US. But that driving role in future energy demand depends upon India sustaining its economic engine. A war with Pakistan — or even the threat of war — with the risk that it could go nuclear, is such a serious threat to the Indian economy that Delhi is developing other, less-cataclysmic ways to deal with Pakistan.
Water Instead of War
The Indus River is Pakistan’s lifeblood. It sustains Pakistani industry, provides the main source of potable water, and supports agriculture in Punjab province, Pakistan’s breadbasket. While the vast majority of its 1,976 mile length runs through Pakistan, its headwaters lie in Indian-controlled territory, and a major feeder river, the Kabul, enters from Afghanistan. Both India and Pakistan understand the importance of water. In 1960, after nine years of negotiations sponsored by the World Bank, they signed the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) governing the usage rights for six rivers that feed into the Indus, with India controlling the three eastern rivers (the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej) and Pakistan the three western rivers (the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum).
In the aftermath of the recent terror attack by JeM, India announced that it would stop the flow of water from the three eastern rivers into Pakistan. This is a limited threat because India already uses 95% of the water originating from these rivers, and any effort to divert the final 5% would require civil engineering projects taking years. While India claims it has every right to fully exploit the water resources allocated to it under the IWT, Pakistan has objected, declaring that such measures cannot be undertaken without consultation, and has promised to take the issue to international arbitration if India follows through.
Of more concern to Pakistan are statements by India’s minister of water resources, Nitin Gadkari, about the feasibility of “technical ways” to halt the flow of water from western rivers allocated to Pakistan by the IWT. India has already undertaken two dam construction projects on the Jhelum and Ratle rivers — both allocated to Pakistan. These projects exploit a provision of the IWT that allows India to use waters from the three Pakistani-assigned rivers in a “nonconsumptive way,” meaning that India can use the water so long as it does not impede its flow into Pakistan. Islamabad contends that these projects do, in fact, impede the flow of water and, perhaps more importantly, make critical hydropower plants being constructed by Pakistan on both the Jhelum and Chenab rivers unviable.
Another issue of concern when it comes to water resource allocation involves Indian development projects in Afghanistan to exploit the potential of the Kabul River, an important tributary of the Indus. Although the headwaters of the Kabul originate in the Chitral region of Pakistan, the river runs mainly through Afghanistan. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan face severe water stress, and the Kabul River is central to their energy production and agricultural interests. The World Bank has tried unsuccessfully since 2006 to foster a dialogue between the two nations to create a water-allocation treaty similar to the IWT.
India has embarked on joint projects with the Afghan government to construct 12 dams along the Kabul, which, when complete, threaten to change the entire ecology of the river in Pakistan. According to Pakistani officials, the Indian-supported dams would result in severe water shortages in Pakistan, leading to crop failure, droughts, socioeconomic complications and mass human migration. Already, the completion of just two of these dams has cut the water flowing from the Kabul River into Pakistan by 50%.
Through these water resources in Kashmir and Afghanistan, India holds growing leverage on the social, economic and political stability of Pakistan. While the international community would not tolerate India’s use of water as a weapon to destabilize Pakistan, and India would not want to cope with the regional humanitarian disaster such a policy could induce, India still can put pressure on Pakistan. Its ability to tighten water resource allocation is seen by India as a viable alternative to the more destabilizing strategic posture represented by the Cold Start military doctrine. As India and Pakistan struggle to come to grips with the problem of Pakistani-based terror groups, and India seeks to maintain an atmosphere conducive to continued international investment and rapid economic growth, India can be expected to rely more and more on water as a means of influencing Pakistani behavior.