Leveraging Water As a Strategic Asset
Colonel Satish Singh Lalotra
The roots of civilization – cultural landscape of India can be located historically in terms of an inalienable and harmonious existence with nature over time and space. Our ancient scriptures such as Vedas and Puranas make several reverential references to nature as an inclusive embodiment of existence. Water or the “Water element” finds cited in the Vedas, Upnishads and other ancient literatures abundantly. In the vedas, water occupies highest place amongst the 5 basic elements of nature. In all the 4 vedas, water is seen as a form of God to be worshipped considering its life giving properties. Rig-veda contains several Shlokas in praise of water.
Besides water is seen as a protector of earth, and environment, nectar, honey generating prosperity, cleanser of sins and so on. So much so that almost all major world civilizations to include ,Indus valley , Chinese, Mesopotamian and Egyptian grew and developed alongside rivers like Indus, Yangtze, Tigris/Euphrates and Nile respectively .
But the changing dynamics of human relations and the world power play across the globe has put water as an asset on top of all strategic weapons available to mankind to leverage its position in a highly surcharged atmosphere in recent times.
Water as an asset having strategic implications was reinvented in a new avatar during the height of 2 WW, when England used the same ubiquitous element in “Operation Chastise” on 16-17 May 1943 to its most devastating form by way of bursting the 3 dams of “Mohne, Edersee, and Sorpe flooding the entire Ruhr valley considered to be the nerve center of German war machine and industrial hub.
By using the ‘Bouncing bombs” developed by the Nobel prize winner British Physicist “Barnes Wallis”and carried in the bomb bay of the famous RAF Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron,England was able to demonstrate to the world the potential of water in its most deadliest form that swept away almost 60% of German war machinery and set back Germany in its war efforts by almost 1 year.
Coming closer home /India, water as a weapon or a strategic asset has never been given the pride of place as it should have been bestowed with even after 73 years of independence.
Not that founding fathers of this country did not realize the water, importance, but I suppose water as a weapon never crossed the thinking radars of our national leaders who were simply content with reaping the dividends of this natural resource by way of harnessing it for peaceful purposes via the “Modern temples” of progress (Nehru, words).
The first mistake was done way back in Sep 1960, when the IVVT(Indus water treaty) was signed between the Indian PM, Nehru and his Pakistani counterpart Ayub Khan. The unequal terms and conditions imposed on India via this treaty have been quite galling and has affected the farmers of this country to no end.
While India got nearly 33 MAF (Million acre feet) of water at 16%, Pakistan at the same time got 84. However India could use the western rivers ( Indus, Chenab and Jhelum) for limited irrigation purposes ,Wer generation, navigation ,floating of property fish culture etc .
It lays down detailed regulations for India in building projects over the western rivers. Pakistan has control of 84% of water as stated above and could irrigate 80% of its cultivable lands in the Indus water basin.
This IWT treaty has left the union territory of J&K with a very meager source of water for its irrigation purposes and adversely effected its economy. Unlike the IVVT India has done quite well in so far as Farraka barrage construction in 1975 to divert water from the Ganges to the Brahmputra – Hoogly river system is concerned.
The Farraka barrage diverts water from one of the most populated basins of the world, the Ganga- Brahmputra- Meghna basin. There are 54 trans- boundary rivers between India and Bangladesh.
Given the river’s long route, through several countries any source of tension between India &Bangladesh threatens food and water security for millions of people who rely on Ganges and its tributaries.
Given its geographical position, India has a strategic advantage over Bangladesh .Bangladesh’s 94% surface water supply originates outside its borders making it thereby extremely vulnerable to upstream decisions particularly Chinese and Indian dam constructions and allied operations.
India relies on its military and economic might to act unilaterally in water sharing scenarios especially with the creation of Farrakabarrage. For the benefit of the readers of this article, the Farraka barrage agreement is closely interlinked with the GWT (Ganges Water Treaty) and has impinged upon the latters efficacy as such.
The origins of GWT can be traced back to before Bangladesh was created in 1971. In 1951, when Bangladesh was still geographically East Pakistan, the state of Pakistan raised concern over India, potential plans to create a barrage at Farraka.
The GWT allows India to withdraw up to 40,000 cusecs of water flow at Farraka between Olst January and 31st May every year. If the flow of water falls down below 70,000 cusecs it should be divided equally between both the countries.
Ultimately India has the upper hand in this agreement. Given that the upper Ganges flows almost entirely through India, if flow is reduced at Farraka there is little in the agreement that ensures India will not extract water further upstream.
The existence of GWT does not necessarily equate meaningful cooperation between the two nations. At The same time given the high dependency on the Ganges water and Bangladesh position as a lower riparian, the agreement seems to favor India’s hydro interests.
Furthermore the GWT lacks a strong method for dispute resolution. A joint committee with equal number of member representatives from both countries is tasked with examining disputes, but is only required to meet if the water flow falls below 50,000 cusecs.
The GWT also only allows only India to withdraw a maximum of 40,000 of water. The very fact that Bangladesh is a deltaic floodplain country, it is prone to high flooding phenomenon frequently.
Given the treaty, restrictions if the water flow was to reach 2 lakh cusecs at Farraka the river would breach its banks, but the treaty would not allow India to withdraw more water for flood alleviation. In so far as “Teesta water sharing agreement.’ between the two countries is concerned, cooperation between the two riparians have been fraught with difficulties.
The livelihood of approximately 2.1 million people dependent upon Teesta water basin will be at a stake. The Teesta water agreement has stalled due to the Bengal CM’s intransigence stating that the agreement would affect the agriculture of North Bengal. India has not been able to leverage its advantage in this matter with Bangladesh.
The biggest hurdle which India has faced till date in leveraging water as an asset of strategy is with regards to rivers flowing from the Tibetan plateau viz.. Sutlej, Indus, Brahmputra, Ganges etc. As the recent clashes in Eastern Ladakh have proved China does have the potential to mischief monger its position in blocking /diverting waters of Galwan etc thereby adversely affecting the economy of lower riparian state like India /Ladakh.
India will have to be on the lookout constantly to see signs of weaponisation of river waters by PLA/People’s liberation army of China.
Control over these rivers gives China a vice like grip over India and its economy. I personally feel that China could exploit Indian rivers of Ganges-Brahmputra- Sutlej basin in 3 ways.
Firstly China could blockade or divert the waters of these rivers .China’s large scale infra projects like “South -North water diversion programme and “West – East power transfer project already threatens to do so as told above. In addition to the above to meet its energy and irrigation needs China has planned to build 120 gigawatts of new power generation plants.
Even in POK/Gilgit Baltisthan China has financed 5 dams that will form the North Indus river cascade, effectively making a dent in India, flow of water /lower riparian state as also the flow of silt so very important for agriculture purposes.
As if this is not enough China in the east is also undertaking blasting process to build 5 more dams on the Brahmputra river and it is feared that this blasting process could be used to divert the river at the” U-BEND” before it enters Arunachal Pradesh. China has already blocked Xiabuqua river one of the tributaries of Brahmputra for the “Lalho projecr.
Second option which China could put to use against us can be in the form of sabotaging Trans -Boundary Rivers by polluting them, rendering them as a result unfit for human use.
The Siang river in Arunachal, which joins the Lohit and Dibang rivers downstream to form the Brahmputra turned muddy and black in 2017, raising concerns about China, upstream activities.
This act of China adversely affected the rice production in Siang valley considered to be the rice bowl of the state. The third option which China could roll out to badger us can be in the area of sharing the hydrological data of these river systems in real time to help us manage floods and flow of water down stream.
After the 73 days standoff at Doklam China in fact withheld crucial hydrological data from us for the Sutlej &Brahmputrariversthus causing floods in Assam and elsewhere. Similarly in 2004, a lake called as Parechu on the Parechu river in Tibet which is a tributary of Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh started to threaten floods in India.
While China shared the hydrological data of Parechulake ,it didn’t allow a batch of Indian scientists and geologists to the general area for deeper studies speculating thereby that maybe China deliberately created a “Liquid Bomb” in the form of lake Parechu for India, discomfort.
With such a formidable array of Chinese plans unleashed against India using water as a strategic asset, what are the options for India in such as scenario? India at best can formulate a common institutional set up for better trans border sharing of river waters. Such an alignment with the neighbouring countries can collectively impose economic sanctions for any upstream violations.
Well water as a strategic asset has been quite extensively used by the ISIS in the recent past when they captured Tabqa, Mosul etc damming the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers thereby starving thousands of refugees who refused to surrender to this militant organization.
As a youngster in the army way back in September 1988 , I was posted as an Aide-De-Camp to the General officer at Ferozpur and first hand witness to the water fury unleashed by the Bhakra and Pong dams during the most devastating floods Punjab ever saw.
The catchment areas of these two dams in upper Himachal had torrential rains forcing the BBMB (Bhakra Beas management board) to open the sluice gates of these two dams flooding thereby the Indian Punjab as well as the Pakistani Punjab.
Pakistan later on carried a virulent campaign and wanted to take India to the international court of Justice for compensation and taking on revenge. The final casualty of all this was the MD of BBMB Maj Gen BN Kumar who was shot dead by the Punjab militants in broad day light in Chandigarh for failing to take care of the river water system in the state. Suffice it to say that water can be a good servant but a bad master if not handled properly.
Need of the hour is for India to revisit its water strategy and put in place a comprehensive plan to take on its adversaries by means thought unconventional as did by the British in 2 WW during crisis.