India’s water nationalism could open flood gates to international disputes

Published on 18 June 2020

Jeremy Allouche

Professorial Fellow

There has been a lot of debate lately about protectionism, populism, authoritarianism and nationalism. These debates have mostly focused on  trade wars and democracy but have neglected natural resources – an issue of key interest to the Indian government. However, as with protectionism, ‘water nationalism’ appears to be on the rise again, at least in India.

Defined on the one hand as attempts to homogenise the state space and on the other to downplay other forms of identities, water nationalism was a prominent feature of the early post-colonial hydropolitics era (1948-67) in India. Its current return, however, comes at a time of resurgent Hindu nationalism suggesting that this period of water nationalism could open the flood gates to greater domestic and transboundary disputes.

More than just an international conflict

Whilst there have been many flashpoints to illustrate this revival of water nationalism, three in particular stand out. In August 2019, after seven decades of autonomy, the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu nationalist government revoked the special status the state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. Two weeks later, Pakistan accused India of waging ‘fifth-generation warfare’, by failing to inform it about the release of water from a dam that could cause flooding across the border in neighbouring Pakistan. India, however, rejected the claim saying that it had informed Pakistan of the release under the terms of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) – a treaty mediated by the World Bank in 1960 that split the Indus River and its tributaries between Pakistan and India.

This was not the first time India’s sincerity to upholding the conditions of the IWT had been called into question. Earlier that year, a suicide bomb attack carried out by a Pakistan-based military group in Kashmir created the perfect storm. Enraged at the death of 40 Indian paramilitary police, the government of India responded with the veiled threat of withholding water from Pakistan. More recently, however, Modi has been more explicit in his messaging. At a campaign rally in Haryana he emotionally declared ‘Tell me, should the water, which belongs to you, be allowed to flow into Pakistan. Shouldn’t you be getting that water. How is it possible that the same (river) water turns Pakistan green, but lets Haryana’s fields go dry. Our water has been flowing into Pakistan for 70 years … I will not allow even a drop of water, which is your due, to flow into Pakistan’.

Such political acts of aggression and emotive rhetoric highlight two important points: firstly, the Kashmir conflict and its water dimension is more than an international conflict. Secondly, these performative confrontations are not just about water or territoriality, they demonstrate the tensions between nation making and state building. The binaries of what is inside and outside are more complex than the projected nation-state ideal. The self and the other is not just across the border but also operate within the national space leading to a policy and practice of differentiation. In effect, such political moves by Modi’s Hindu nationalist government reveal how water control becomes linked to a religious/ethnic form of nationalism. Indeed, the stronger control by the Indian central government in terms of water infrastructure in Kashmir provides an entry point for a broader form of violence and exclusion around identity building, as shown in the repressive measures taken following this constitutional change around article 370.

A broader strategy as part of a revival of early post-colonial hydropolitics era?

Linked to this nationalist drive for identity building is the government of India’s renewed interest in a mega-hydraulic infrastructure project conceived over 100 years ago by a British engineer. The National River Linking Project (NRLP), which is one of the biggest inter-basin water transfer projects in the world, seeks to link 60 rivers, including 14 Himalayan and 16 Peninsular rivers, by constructing 3000 small and large dams and 12,000 kms long canal network at the cost of US$120 billion. On the one hand, the proclaimed aim of the project is to mitigate floods and droughts and equalize water distribution by transferring water from ‘surplus’ to ‘deficit’ basins, generate 34,000 MW of energy, and bring 35 million hectares under cultivation. On the other, the aim is much more about state building and nation making in India with the appropriation of water used as a mechanism to achieve this aim.

Fundamentally, such moves by the Indian government show a return to the early post-colonial hydropolitics era before the signing of the IWT. However, like current events, this period was not just an international dispute between the governments of India and Pakistan but reveals deeper struggles within these states. In the initial years of the conflict, it is clear that the East Punjab government was driving the hydropolitical vision of the Indian state. Then in 1955 the Interstate Conference on the Development and Utilisation of the Waters of the Rivers Ravi, Beas and Sutlej changed the hydropolitical dynamics with the central government taking back control and shifting its support to the states of Haryana and Rajasthan. Nationalist engineers, to use David Gilmartin’s terminology, were now in a mission to ‘modernise’, centralise and homogenise the national territory at the expense of local politicians and bureaucrats.

In short, water nationalism has and continues to produce deep internal fissures, hierarchies and unevenness both within as well as across national and state territories. Where water disputes cross boundaries and become international affairs, they provide the ideal stage for far-right nationalistic agendas to be played out. As recent confrontations have shown, water nationalism in India could lead to far wider-reaching disputes.


Dr. Jeremy Allouche is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, and author of a recently published article in Political Geography called ‘State building, nation making and post-colonial hydropolitics in India and Israel: Visible and hidden forms of violence at multiple scales’.


About this opinion


Related content