Kashmir’s Raging Rivers

Jonathan Mingle in Slate:

Kashmir Sixty years ago, David Lilienthal published an article in Collier's Weekly that would prove uncannily prescient. Lilienthal, former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, had just returned from a visit to India and Pakistan and described two fledgling nations on the verge of another war over Kashmir. He made an unlikely suggestion to defuse tensions: The rivals should agree to manage jointly the Indus River and its main tributaries, some of which flowed through the contested region. Water, he claimed, was a hidden driver of South Asia's most dangerous territorial dispute and might also be the key to resolving it. While Lilienthal's vision was never fully realized, his article helped sow the seeds of the Indus Waters Treaty, now widely hailed as one of the most successful international water-sharing agreements.

Lilienthal recognized a truth that remains little discussed but as relevant as ever: The struggle for Kashmir was motivated in large part by Pakistan's desperation to control the rivers that flowed through the region. “The starting point should be … to set to rest Pakistan's fears of deprivation and a return to desert,” he wrote. The treaty would defuse these tensions at a critical point in the young nations' relations, by clearly spelling out how much water each was entitled to use from the rivers that crossed the western border. India and Pakistan signed the IWT in 1960, after protracted negotiations facilitated by the World Bank. Before the partition of British India in 1947, each province had jurisdiction to build dams and other infrastructure for electricity and irrigation on the portions of the rivers that flowed through their land; after partition, a series of patchwork agreements left several key issues, such as whether and how much Pakistan should pay India for water and canal maintenance costs, unresolved. The IWT gave “unrestricted use” of the basin's three western rivers (the Indus, the Jhelum, and the Chenab) to Pakistan and the three eastern rivers (the Ravi, the Beas, and the Sutlej) to India. Today, the treaty governs the use of roughly 55 trillion gallons of water per year, which sustains more than 210 million people in the basin.

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