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India-Pakistan Standoff: Water Conflict Looms, Airstrikes Escalate Tensions

New Delhi, India

India’s Minister for Water Resources has again questioned continuation of the longstanding Indus Water Treaty (IWT) with Pakistan, as tensions between the countries escalated dramatically this week.

Speaking to a public meeting in Phagwara February 25, Nitin Gadkari asked “what is the point” of continuing the Indus Waters Treaty if its “spirit of mutual love, harmony and cordial relations” is not being honored by the treaty partners.

Simmering tensions in disputed regions of Kashmir were amplified dramatically by a car-bomb February 14 in Pulwama in Indian administered Kashmir that killed 40 Indian soldiers. India’s government has accused Pakistan of involvement in the attack, a charge rejected by the government of Pakistan.

Gadkari had already said February 21 that the Indian government would restrict flows of excess river water to Pakistan in retaliation, saying that Pakistan should stop sponsoring terrorists, supporting terror outfits and sending terrorists into India, otherwise it would have to reel under shortage of water.

Under the Indus Water Treaty signed between India and Pakistan in 1960, all the waters of three eastern rivers, the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas were allocated to India for exclusive use.

The waters of western rivers -- Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab, were allocated to Pakistan except for specified domestic, non-consumptive and agricultural use permitted to India.

Tensions escalated further February 26 when India launched air strikes targeting a training camp of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) group in Balakot, Pakistan. Pakistan said its jets had forced back the Indian planes and denied there were any casualties.

Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan quickly vowed to retaliate against India for the airstrikes. "India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing," Khan's office said in a statement.

At an election rally a few hours after the airstrikes, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not refer to the attack directly, but spoke about protecting India. "I want to assure my countrymen that the country is in safe hands," he said.

Water Threats Follow Apparent Thaw In Relations

The Indus Treaty agreement mandates commissioners of India and Pakistan to inspect sites and works on both sides of the Indus in "blocks" of five years. According to reportage in Dawn, there have been 118 visits since signing of the Treaty in 1960 but the first visit of the current five-year block has been kept pending by India since 2015. The block ends in March 2020.

After a lengthy suspension of inspections, Pakistan inspectors were invited to India last month with a view to assuring Pakistan that the Indian hydroelectric dams on the Chenab river do not divert water flows otherwise destined for Pakistan. (OOSKAnews)

Of particular interest to Pakistan officials were the designs of the Pakal Dul and Lower Kalnai hydro projects. Pakistan has claimed that these projects have been designed in violation of the IWT and that India could use these reservoirs to create artificial water shortage or flooding in Pakistan.