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Are India and Pakistan on the brink of a water war?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said earlier this week that his nation may speed the construction of new hydropower plants along three rivers that flow into Pakistan – a move that would certainly be harmful for Pakistan.

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    Kashmiri boatmen extract sand from the Jhelum river in Srinagar, Sept. 26, 2016. The Indus Water Treaty regulates water flow of the Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus rivers.
    Danish Ismail/Reuters
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Rising tensions between India and Pakistan could spike into a “water war” if India fails to follow through on a treaty that regulates a river that flows between the two countries, a Pakistani official said Tuesday.

The divisions between the two nations have again mounted despite attempts to create pace. Many had hoped that 2016 would be a year of unity after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi late last year, but old tensions have dashed some of those hopes.

The strain between the two nations spiked again earlier this month after 17 Indian soldiers died in the disputed Kashmir region. India alleges that Pakistan is responsible, and Mr. Modi is weighing retaliation through manipulating water flow on three rivers that connect the two countries to favor India.

Such a move could be seen as abridging the decades-old Indus Water Treaty, which has successfully regulated valuable water resources between the two nations for more than 50 years, by giving Pakistan exclusive control over the Indus River’s westward tributaries and relegating three others to India.

"It's highly irresponsible on part of India to even consider revocation of the Indus Water Treaty," Sartaj Aziz, foreign policy adviser to Mr. Sharif, said Tuesday.

Modi is considering a push that would accelerate the construction of two hydropower plants, which could "maximize" the amount of the shared resource India would use.

Mr. Aziz called the plan a breach of the treaty and "an act of war or a hostile act against Pakistan."

"Threats of a water war are part of a military, economic and diplomatic campaign to build pressure on Pakistan," he added.

The 1960 treaty is renowned as one of the world’s greatest feats in water diplomacy and has prevailed through three wars. Some fear that extreme moves on the part of India to disregard the treaty’s provisions could have international backlash against the nation. 

"Scrapping the treaty would rather act against our own interests and international standing as it would cause anxiety among our other neighbours like Bangladesh and Nepal with which we have water-sharing treaties, apart from earning us a bad image in the global community," Uttam Sinha, a research fellow at New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, told Quartz.

The World Bank, which negotiated the treaty, can do little to intervene other than call in neutral experts or appoint an arbitrator should India follow through with its threats – especially if Indian officials use provisions within the treaty to put pressure on Pakistan

Still, some say India doesn't have the infrastructure at the moment to carry out the plan, and can't pose an immediate problem to Pakistan's water supply.

"It has to raise its dam structures and that will take time," Ashok Swain, who teaches in the department of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden, told Quartz. "There is also another angle to it. India, even if it wants to, cannot take the water out of Kashmir Valley. So, the water of the three rivers (Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab) will remain in their basin and India cannot divert that to other areas due to geographical reasons. India can stop the supply for some time, but cannot divert it."

Information from Reuters was used in this report.

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