WASHINGTON: The US administration has initiated the process for peacefully resolving the current water dispute between India and Pakistan without waiting for an invitation to do so, official sources told Dawn.
The latest dispute concerns two hydroelectric power plants — Kishanganga and Ratle — that India is building on the Indus rivers system. Pakistan believes that the projects violate the design parameters of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), which provides specific criteria for such plants.
Earlier this week, US Secretary of State John Kerry called Finance Minister Ishaq Dar and discussed with him different options for an amicable settlement of the dispute. After the call, US Ambassador to Pakistan David Hale also met Mr Dar in Islamabad at the finance ministry for further talks.
The initiative stems from the fear the US administration shares with the World Bank that the dispute, if dragged, may harm the treaty that has effectively resolved water disputes between India and Pakistan for more than half a century.
The IWT is a water-distribution agreement between India and Pakistan, brokered by the World Bank and signed in Karachi on Sept 19, 1960. It recognises the bank as the main arbitrator and suggests appointing neutral experts and a court of arbitration for resolving disputes.
Pakistan has asked the World Bank to appoint chairman of the court of arbitration while India has demanded appointment of a neutral expert.
World Bank President Jim Yong Kim wrote to the finance ministers of India and Pakistan, informing them that he has ‘paused’ the requested arbitration and asked them to decide by the end of January how they wanted to settle the dispute.
On Dec 23, Finance Minister Dar told the bank that Pakistan was not withdrawing its request and since the process had already been “inordinately delayed,” the bank should appoint chairman of the court of arbitration as soon as possible.
Two days later, Dr Kim called Mr Dar for further talks, followed by Secretary Kerry who called the finance minister during the Christmas holidays.
It is unusual for a US official to do so, particularly because the Obama administration completes its final tenure on Jan 20.
Usually, the outgoing administration leaves such issues for the incoming administration to tackle.
“But seriousness of this dispute, particularly the fear that it may harm the treaty, forced Mr. Kerry to make this call,” an official source told Dawn.
Diplomatic observers in Washington say that since the United States has facilitated the Indus Waters Treaty, it feels obliged to take a proactive role in this matter.
The treaty requires appointment of chairman of the court of arbitration and its three members within 60 days after a disputing party asks for arbitration.
If the two countries fail to appoint umpires, the two parties prepare a draw of lots and request a “person” mentioned in the treaty to select the umpire.
While the chairman can be selected by either the secretary general of the United Nations or president of the World Bank, technical members can be selected from a draw of lots by president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or rector of the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.
The legal umpire can be selected from a draw of lots by either chief justice of the United States or lord chief justice of England.
Pakistan took its case to the World Bank in Sept 2016, urging the bank to prevent India from making illegal constructions on Neelum and Chenab rivers.
The differences on the designs of the two plants were discussed but could not be resolved in the 108th, 109th, 110th, 111th and 112th meetings of the Permanent Commission for Indus Waters, comprising one commissioner from each country, which is responsible for the implementation of the treaty.
Secretary-level talks followed but they also failed.
On Aug 19, Pakistan formally requested the government of India to refer the dispute to the court of arbitration, as provided in Article IX of the treaty.
The Indian media reported in September that New Delhi had decided to suspend water talks until “Pakistan-sponsored terror” in India ends.
And last month, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also threatened to choke the flow of water into Pakistan if it does not stop terrorists. This caused Islamabad to fear that India was determined to complete the two plants and was buying time to do so by dragging the talks.
Pakistan wants a court of arbitration, instead of a neutral expert, because only the court can take a decision that’s legally binding.
An expert can only give a technical opinion, giving India more time to complete the projects.