Even before the new government assumes office, a great deal is already being said on bilateral relations going forward between Pakistan and India, and how normalising relations and liberalising trade with India holds the key to Pakistan’s economic revival. We have, by now, heard about the phone calls from Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi, and even the formation of a likely commission with the help of India to unearth real events at Kargil.

While there is no debating the fact that maintaining cordial relations with India and meaningfully partnering our neighbour (in fact, all regional neighbours) is something we should have done a long time back and that in optimising the collective potential of our two countries lies the ticket to realising the economic dreams of our two nations, however, what one does need to be careful about is that the love affair this time around should be based on fair reciprocity and a win-win for people on both sides.

Time and again, the advantage has gone to the Indian side, sometimes due to our negotiators being undone by the proverbial ‘finer print’, and at others, because the mix of sectorial selection on which cooperation took place, simply played to the Indian advantage.

As and when the new Prime Minister will endeavour to rekindle the stalled process, he will need to be conscious of the past failures and, more importantly, be aware of the sensitive areas that need to be avoided, or rather ‘not avoided’. One such issue is that of ‘water’. The existing scarcity of water and an alarming pace at which its availability continues to shrink in recent years has put Pakistan at a great disadvantage where the Pakistanis believe that India continues to play games on this vital issue of concern to Pakistan by blaming environmental developments for the reduction of water flows in the Indus Basin, whereas, the reality points to new water diversions created by India through the construction of dams on the rivers in Pakistan’s share.

Pakistan’s stance, to a great extent, has been vindicated by the recent verdict (Part I) of the Court of Arbitration (COA) on the Kishenganga dispute raised by us on whether or not the project violates the Indus Waters Treaty (IWA). The COA has ruled that India must maintain a minimum rate of flow below its Kishenganga Dam and that it will determine this quantum in its final award to be announced by the year-end.

Ironically, India once again is refusing to accept this genuine concern of Pakistan neither in letter nor in spirit. Instead of addressing the concern on this issue, like all other pending ones, this one is also being pushed towards confusion by citing an earlier observation by an agreed upon Neutral Expert (NE), where India claims it did compromise on its Salal Project vis-à-vis the NE ruling on the Baglihar dispute. And now, since the COA ruling on Kishenganga is contrary to the gist of that given by the NE on Baglihar, it is neither correct nor implement able.

I am no expert, but going by the John Briscoe (Senior Advisor, World Bank) report on the matter: at the heart of this disagreement is the definition of the storage capacity the Indian authorities could use to change the flow of water into Pakistan. India chooses to focus on the storage above the level of the spillways, which can be opened or closed to pass a flood. However, the installation of lower, submerged gates installed for flushing sediments (allowed by the NE in the Baglihar case, but disallowed in the ICA Kishenganga case), creates a much larger volume (about five times the amount, in case of the Baglihar Dam), which could be used to manipulate flows.

Further, India takes issue with the contention (most importantly, made by the US Committee of Foreign Relations 2011 report of water conflicts) that the Indian dams could be used to withhold flows from Pakistan for as many as 40 days. To get an estimate for this figure, start with the 900 MW Baglihar Dam, where total storage is 400 Mm3 of which manipulable storage (above the submerged gates) is about 220 Mm3.

India currently plans to install a total of 7,000 MW of capacity on the Chenab, with about 3,000 MW either in operation or under construction. In the absence of details on the other plants, it is reasonable to assume that the manipulable storage per MW is the same as for Baglihar. This would mean a total manipulable storage of 1,700 Mm3 for all planned projects. The average run-off of the Chenab is 33,000 Mm3/year, or about 90 Mm3 per day. Low flows are about 20 percent of average flows and thus about 18 Mm3 per day.

It is thus estimated that for all planned projects, the total manipulable storage created by India on the Chenab would be able to hold about 20 days of average flow and 100 days of low flow. For projects either existing or already under construction (about 3,000 MW), the manipulable storage would as it is be able to hold about eight days of average flow and 40 days of low flow. It is this grave threat that makes this issue an existential one for a reasonably nervous Pakistan.

There is no rocket science involved in determining that liberalising trade relations and enhancing sustainable economic linkages with India is in our long-term economic and security interests, but the real challenge lies in harnessing this potential without compromising on the issues that endanger the very existence of Pakistan. Perhaps, a good way forward will be to learn from India itself, which finds itself in a similar quandary with China.

The new Chinese Prime Minister, Mr Li Keqiang’s first overseas trip is to India, where New Delhi plans to put all issues on the table in a frank and honest manner. The idea being to make Beijing understand that while it is in the interest of both India and China to not put a spoke in the mutually-driven economic wheel, the wagon cannot cover much distance unless the sovereignty of each other is respected. Why should the yardstick be any different in case of Pakistan?

 The writer is an entrepreneur and economic analyst.