Prime minister Narendra Modi has again talked of making greater use of the waters of the Indus river system—this time, in poll-bound Punjab. Earlier this year, after the Uri attack, the PM had hinted at this, saying “blood and water can’t flow together”. While it has been argued that harvesting the water could have manifold benefits—and there is no denying this—the matter needs careful consideration of all possible consequences. The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) allows India to use 20% of the waters of the three western rivers of the system—Chenab, Jhelum and Indus—but most of this share is allowed to flow into Pakistan. Given these waters irrigate just 8 lakh acres in India, as against the 13.2 lakh acres allowed under the IWT, there is no doubt that harvesting and channelling more Indus water than is done at present will give a significant boost to agriculture in the basin, particularly in Punjab. At the same time, such harnessing of the waters would cause severe distress to Pakistan, given Indus is the only major river running through the country—65% of its agricultural land is part of the Indus basin. With very poor irrigation infrastructure and limited ground water, any fall in the volume of Indus water the country gets from India could spell disaster as its economy is chiefly agrarian. Thus, it is also a powerful strategic tool to keep a belligerent neighbour in check. Besides, India draws just 12% of the 20,000 MW hydropower potential from the western rivers that it is allowed under treaty, through strictly run-of-the-river project. So, any move to harness Indus waters also means greater generation of power that can greatly benefit power deficient states like Jammu & Kashmir.
However, all this needs to be measured against existing and future challenges. Using the 20% share means India has to develop storage capacity of up to 3.8 million acre feet. Even though the government has announced fast-tracking of three dam projects in J&K—Sawalkot, Pakal Dul and Bursar—the fact is that just one (Bursar) has some developed storage capacity at the moment; the other two are still in the planning stage, and operationalising them, at the fastest possible pace, will take a few years. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Uttarakhand and Kashmir floods, there is considerable rethink in policy circles about creating storage capacity in mountain-states, where the upper reaches of these rivers are. With the origins of the Indus system and the Bramhaputra lying in China, India should also refrain from setting a precedent for similar action by China. The government must bear in mind all this before it moves on Indus waters.