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After six decades, a water treaty between India and Pakistan is in trouble

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

There's a water treaty that has survived three wars between neighbors India and Pakistan, but decades after it was signed, that treaty is in trouble. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the Pakistani city of Lahore.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Abuzar Madhu sits by the Ravi River as it crosses Lahore. He reads a poem to his beloved.

ABUZAR MADHU: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Madhu is an environmental activist, and his beloved is the Ravi, a river that springs from the Himalayas of northern India and crosses into Pakistan. Ships used to sail the Ravi, saints lived by the banks, part of a South Asian tradition of river worship, a tradition Madhu embraces.

MADHU: Ravi, our river, is a living entity. She's a mother. She is also a god.

HADID: But the river flowing past Madhu is not the Ravi of history. It's now a narrow, dirty ribbon of water.

MADHU: The black water is just flowing.

HADID: Activists say it's a treaty killing the Ravi, the Indus Water Treaty. It divides six rivers that traverse India and Pakistan. And India uses the Ravi for agriculture, so just a trickle makes its way to Pakistan now. Pakistani environmental lawyer Rafay Alam says to understand this treaty, you have to know South Asia's brutal history.

RAFAY ALAM: The treaty was in some ways the unfinished business of partition.

HADID: Partition is shorthand here for the events of 75 years ago, when the British divided South Asia into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. That triggered brutal sectarian violence, and millions fled across that new border - Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India.

ALAM: Partition started the conversation on how that water was going to be divided.

HADID: He says the Indus River Treaty is unique.

ALAM: Compared to all the other water agreements in the world because it divides water rather than shares it.

HADID: Environmentalists say the treaty's a disaster because each side can use the rivers they're allocated the way they like, with dams and canals to siphon off water, so the rivers don't flow naturally anymore. But the treaty also prevented conflict over water and it's held despite constant tensions between Pakistan and India. Shekhar Gupta is the editor-in-chief of the Indian newspaper ThePrint. This is a recording of Gupta discussing the treaty in a news show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEKHAR GUPTA: In fact, the treaty has been honored by both sides, even during the wars.

HADID: But over the past few years, mistrust has eroded the treaty. It began when India started building hydroelectric schemes on rivers allocated to Pakistan. The treaty allows India to do that as long as it doesn't store the water. But Pakistan fears India will use those schemes to interrupt the flow of river water into Pakistan, and India has played on those fears.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: Like in 2016, when militants killed 18 Indian soldiers, India accused Pakistan of dispatching those terrorists. And newsreaders began breathlessly suggesting India would tear up the water treaty.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWSCASTER: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: They cited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as saying blood and water couldn't flow together. At that time, India planned to build a hydroelectric plant on one river that's meant to flow into Pakistan, and it was about to finish building a separate hydroelectric scheme on another.

I'm standing on the banks of that river as it flows into Pakistan. It's called the Jhelum. It's rushing. It's wild. It also looks very gentle. And Pakistan says this river has less water in it than it's meant to because of that Indian hydroelectric plant.

So Pakistan appealed to the World Bank. It acts as a third party to the treaty. And it asked the bank to hold court to see whether India's hydroelectric schemes contravene the treaty. This frustrated India because Pakistan has done this again and again. After a back-and-forth, the World Bank said, let's try mediation. This is Gupta again, the editor-in-chief of ThePrint.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUPTA: But once again, both countries kept fighting, fighting, fighting. And as they kept fighting, fighting, fighting, at one point, the World Bank said, all right.

HADID: The bank gave up - to please Pakistan, it resumed the court process - to please India, it allowed an expert to look at the dam. The bank tells NPR it allowed both processes at once because years of stalemate was a risk to the treaty's survival. But there are problems. First, India boycotted the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HADID: Then...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: India has informed Pakistan of its intention to amend the Indus Water Treaty.

HADID: On January 25, India informed Pakistan that it wanted to modify the treaty. Indian media suggested it was to make the two countries negotiate directly without the World Bank. But Pakistan wants a third party. It's the weaker country. It's on the brink of default. It's mired in political chaos. Meanwhile, India is the world's fifth-largest economy. Daniel Haines is an expert on South Asian water politics.

DANIEL HAINES: From a Pakistani point of view, it might look as though India at this moment is trying to use its growing strength to take out third parties from the dispute resolution process, which Pakistan has traditionally seen as a guard against the potentially greater power of its upstream neighbor.

HADID: India has given Pakistan 90 days to respond to its notice, and it has, but neither Indian nor Pakistani officials offered any more detail. So it's not clear what happens next. The concern is...

HAINES: It could contribute to an overall deterioration of relations, which could be dangerous.

HADID: Meanwhile, there's a far more existential threat at play, and it's one the treaty doesn't even deal with. Those six rivers divided between India and Pakistan are fed by glaciers in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush.

ALAM: And those glaciers are under severe threat of climate change.

HADID: That's Rafay Alam, the environmental lawyer. Those glaciers are melting - around a third of them are expected to disappear at 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of warming. But the U.N.'s latest climate change report says warming is expected to exceed 5 degrees by the end of the century.

ALAM: And that means no water in the rivers. Actually, what will happen is first you'll have lots of flooding, and then there won't be any water. That doesn't really threaten the treaty as much as it threatens the region.

HADID: A region where nearly 2 billion people rely in some way on those rivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE HONKING)

HADID: Back at the Ravi, Madhu, that environmental activist, takes us to see a river shrine on the Indus. He tells me he wishes the Indus Water Treaty would unravel.

MADHU: It's not a treaty. It's the death of river and people of river.

HADID: He wants a new treaty written by the rivers themselves. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Lahore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.