Earlier this year in March, McCaffrey was named the 2017 Stockholm Water Prize Laureate for his trailblazing work and contribution to the field of international water law. He received the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, the Patron of Stockholm Water Prize at a Royal Award Ceremony on August 30. The ceremony was conducted during World Water Week 2017, organised by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) being held in Sweden’s capital from August 27 to September 1.
Sitting in the Stockholm City Conference Centre a day ahead of receiving the prize, McCaffrey talked of how managing transboundary freshwater sources could become a solution instead of a problem for India and Pakistan. “Both India and Pakistan have found that cooperation produces more benefits and stability than conflict does,” he said.
India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) in 1960. In McCaffrey’s opinion, it is remarkable that the Indus Waters Treaty system, and the permanent Indus commission that it set up, has continued to function between periods of conflict. “Since 1960 there have been some 12 instances of armed conflict between India and Pakistan. Yet members of the Commission continue to meet. Why? Because water is vital. It’s the only avenue there is for the two countries to relate to each other with respect to these shared water resources,” said the academic who has also worked as legal counsel to governments in transboundary disputes pertaining to the Ganga, Mekong and Nile rivers. McCaffrey is accredited with articulating the human right to water, which was recognised in 2010 by the UN General Assembly.
As one who believes in dialogue as the only way out of a conflict, McCaffrey is in favour of commissions like the one formed under the IWT. “We find that cooperation through these commissions produces more benefits than no cooperation. I am sure India and Pakistan believe the same thing. Unfortunately, India and Pakistan are not so close, but if they keep meeting, at least there is some stability in the knowledge that the two countries know where they are with respect to the six streams of water that are divided between the two countries.” While saying that he is no political scientist, McCaffrey is of the opinion that such commissions help countries to communicate on a constant basis, which he sees as a starting point on the path to mutual cooperation. “There may have been some problems, but the IWT Commission is still in force and is still observed; in case of a problem they follow the procedures in the Treaty.”
McCaffrey recognises the water rivalry between the two neighbours. He quotes what he said in his remarks at the World Water Week that the root of the word “rival” comes from the Latin words for river and someone who shares a river with someone else. “This rivalry is not unique to India and Pakistan. But India and Pakistan have other issues that just exacerbate the issue.”
He feels that the water boundaries of the two countries are mapped out in such a way that it leaves the two countries in a world ripe for conflict. He adds that India and Pakistan’s conflict over water is one of the most difficult ones. “It is not because of the water per se, but because of the underlying relationship between the two countries that has historical explanations,” he says, adding that the water relations between countries are dependent largely upon their general political relations. “If they have good relations, they can work anything out. If they don’t, the tiniest problem becomes huge. Development of water resources being what it is, things tend to become cast in concrete, literally. You build dams, and it’s not easy to reverse a dam.”
For achieving a mutually beneficial result, McCaffrey is convinced that it would take a lot of goodwill and trust on both sides. “That is something that may be lacking to some extent in the case of India and Pakistan. It may be, then, that the only option is third party dispute resolution, where you have to live with the third party’s decision. However, the good thing is that third parties do realise the importance of achieving a balanced solution because if you don’t, the likelihood of acceptance is diminished. Because if [you do not have a balanced solution], the party that believes they got the better deal will trumpet that, and the other one will be disgruntled.”
He cites, as examples, the two famous cases of dispute between India and Pakistan that have gone to third parties – the Baglihar and Kishanganga dams. The case of the Kishanganga dam has been in the news more recently, as India is constructing two hydropower projects on the Chenab river. Pakistan had objected to the construction of the Ratle and Kishanganga hydropower schemes, saying that building them would adversely impact flow of the Chenab and Neelum rivers. Under the IWT, both countries had begun negotiations under the World Bank (WB), which has continued to broker the water treaty between India and Pakistan, two nuclear-armed neighbours with a track record of an easily combustible relationship.
While the WB paused its latest arbitration on the Kishanganga dam in late 2016, it recently allowed India to build the two dams, albeit with certain restrictions in light of the IWT.
In both the cases of Baglihar and Kishanganga, India contacted McCaffrey to advise them. “I end up advising one country or the other; that’s just how the system works. It’s unfortunate that these dispute resolution procedures are always, in any treaty, set up this way that there is an adversarial meeting instead of one that takes advantage of knowledge and different techniques of dispute resolution to achieve a result that is mutually beneficial,” he said.
McCaffrey feels strongly that in this era where the world is faced with the most pressing challenge of climate change, it is time both India and Pakistan show flexibility. “The unpredictability of the water supply is worrisome. The Indus originates in the Himalayas. The glaciers are going to melt which means too much water; you will get rain instead of snow. Does Pakistan have the storage capacity to handle that much water? Do India’s dams that are built under the IWT have the capacity to release that much water?” He mentions the very real threat of dams getting overtopped, in the event of historic, unprecedented flows of water.
McCafferey expresses his tenacious hope for a peaceful and pragmatic solution to Pakistan and India’s water disputes. “What I would hope for between the two countries is coordinated action and planning, so that the development of the water courses produces the most benefits for both – that’s the ideal. I would hope that the leaders of both countries could support this ideal.”