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6 November 2008

India-Pakistan: Troubled water

Chenab River
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Chenab River

India and Pakistan lock horns over Himalayan water resources as the two agrarian nations are hit hard by food and energy shortages, Naveed Ahmad reports for ISN Security Watch.

By Naveed Ahmad in Islamabad for ISN

Pakistan and India may have entered the fifth round of composite talks to resolve old disputes in a bid to improve ties, but the two sides still remain bitterly engaged in conflicts over resources - water, for the time being, topping the agenda.

For the two nuclear-armed neighbors who have fought three wars since independence in 1947, rivers flowing to Pakistan from the Indian-administered part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir have emerged as a recent bilateral flashpoint.

At a time of global financial crisis and food scarcity, and when its own rivers are drying up, India has announced ambitious plans to build water reservoirs on Kashmiri rivers allotted to Pakistan by a 1960 World Bank-mediated agreement known as the Indus Water Treaty. In accordance with the Treaty - sponsored by the UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Canada - India and Pakistan were given control of three rivers each, originating from Jammu and Kashmir.

The Treaty made a simple and straightforward attempt to let both adversaries share the available water resources by allotting the eastern rivers (Ravi, Sutlej and Beas) to India and the western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Sindh) to Pakistan.

However, nothing between India and Pakistan is straightforward or simple.

India's construction of a 450-megawatt Baglihar hydel project on the Chenab River, which flows from Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan, has ignited a fresh war of words. Flanked by tight security, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Jammu and Kashmir on 7 October to launch the start of the controversial project.

The 470-feet high, 317-meter wide dam, with a storage capacity of 15 billion cusecs of water, has significantly reduced water flow to agriculture-dependent Pakistan, according to Pakistani officials.

At present, Pakistan is weighing its options of filing simultaneous complaints with the World Bank and the International Court of Arbitration against India for violating the Treaty, citing unauthorized use of the Chenab River. Speaking to reporters after unsuccessful negotiations over the issue, Pakistani Water Commissioner Jamat Ali Shah said, "India is neither willing to compensate Pakistan's massive water losses nor consider bringing any change to the physical structure of the dam."

According to India's NDTV.com, when Pakistan took its complaint about the Baglihar hydel project to the World Bank in 2005, an expert from the organization appointed to the case gave India the green light, with some minor modifications to the project. The Baglihar hydel is expected to boost the power sector of Jammu and Kashmir, which suffers from severe electricity shortages.

"Being a lower riparian, Pakistan is hit hard by the water shortage with enormous loss in energy sector and agriculture-related businesses, in addition to imminent food inflation," Irfan Shahzad, a development expert and columnist for Pakistan's daily Dawn newspaper, told ISN Security Watch.

During the launch of the project in Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian prime minister said Pakistan's concerns had been addressed adequately, despite claims to the contrary by new Pakistani President Asif Zardari, who brought up the case before the UN General Assembly in New York recently.

"Pakistan would be paying a very high price for India's move to block Pakistan's water supply from the Chenab River," Zardari said, warning India "not to trade important regional objectives for short-term domestic goals."

To fill the newly constructed dam, Pakistani officials say India has consistently obstructed the Chenab's flow into their country. The Indus River System Authority, Pakistan's water distribution body, claims to have received only 19,351 cusecs on 9 October and 10,739 cusecs on 11 October from the Chenab River when it should be receiving a minimum of 55,000 cusecs.

Pakistan's top negotiator on water issues, Jamaat Ali Shah, told ISN Security Watch that Islamabad was seeking compensation for the loss of over 0.2 MAF (million acre feet) of water last month from the Ravi, Sutlej and Chenab rivers.

Shah's Indian counterpart, G Aranganathan, rejects Pakistan's assertion, instead blaming what he called "faulty" water gauges.

Punjab's irrigation secretary, Babar Hassan Bharwana, told ISN Security Watch from Lahore that there is expected to be a total loss of 321,000 MAF of water, bringing some 405 canals and 1,125 distributaries to dead levels and affecting 13 million acres of agricultural land on which rice, wheat, sugarcane and fodder crops are grown.

Pakistan is also receiving a major hit on the energy front as hydropower meets most of its household and industrial energy needs, officials say. Since early October, the biggest power generation center on the Tarbela Dam has been working at one-tenth of its capacity, allegedly owing to the reduced water flow from the Chenab River.

"We are forced to the disrupt electricity supply for 10 to 12 hours daily to manage the growing power shortage in the country," Water and Power Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf told ISN Security Watch.

The decision to allow India to proceed with the project "will most likely influence any future interpretation of the Indus Water Treaty," Pakistan's Dawn newspaper quoted Salman MA Salman, a lead counsel of the World Bank, as saying.

Water warfare

Like most of the disputes between India and Pakistan, the row over water resources is rooted in history.

On 1 April 1948, less than a year after the partition of the subcontinent and the creation of the separate states of India and Pakistan, Delhi stopped the flow of water from the canals on its side, denying water to some 5.5 percent of the sown area and almost 8 percent of the cultivated area. On 4 May 1948, India agreed to the Inter-Dominion Agreement with Pakistan, which allowed for the continuation of water supplies for irrigation purposes until the Pakistani side managed to develop alternative water resources.

Some time after this, then-Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited American expert David Lilenthal to survey the situation, but his observations, which bolstered Pakistan's arguments, failed to earn recognition from Delhi. Later, the World Bank sponsored several rounds of talks in Washington from 1952 to 1960, eventually resulting in the signing of the Indus Water Treaty.

The alarm bells again rang in 1984 when India announced plans to build the barrage on the Jhelum River at the mouth of Wullar Lake, the largest fresh water lake, near the town of Sopore in the disputed Kashmir Valley. India calls it the Tulbul Navigation Project, while Pakistan refers to it as the Wullar Barrage. Owing to Pakistani protests, India has stopped construction work on the project.

Then, in 1992, Pakistan first learned of plans for another controversial water reservoir, the Baglihar Dam on the Chenab River, which was also allotted to Pakistani by the 1960 treaty.

While the accord gave India full rights to use water from the eastern rivers by building dams and barrages, it allowed limited irrigation use of water from the western river earmarked for Pakistan. The Treaty barred India from interfering "with the water of these rivers except for domestic use and non-consumptive use, limited agriculture use and limited utilization for generation of hydro-electric power." The treaty also barred India from storing any water or constructing any storage works on the western rivers that would result in a reduced flow of water to Pakistan.

The water dispute has been on the agenda of the composite dialogue, but no progress has been made. While talks have yet to yield results, Pakistan is accusing India of attempting to use water as a geostrategic tool, former Pakistani foreign secretary Tanvir Ahmad Khan told ISN Security Watch.

A failed treaty

Neither country is satisfied with the Indus Water Treaty, and both are desperate for more water. Pakistani officials criticize it privately for being biased toward India and experts seek its renegotiation.

Indian scholar and writer PR Chari believes that "[n]egotiating an Indus Water Treaty 2 would be a huge Confidence Building Measure (CBM) as it would engage both countries in a regional economic integration process."

Dr Robert G Wirsing, a member of the faculty of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii and an expert on South Asian affairs, said in a lecture in Islamabad that the Treaty had inherent weaknesses. "The solution to water disputes is heavily tied with the fate of Jammu and Kashmir," he said.

Throughout the checkered history of Pakistan-India relations, the only accord that has withstood wars, near wars and terror attacks is the Indus Water Treaty, Senator Mushahid Hussain, chairman of the Pakistani Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pointed out, emphasizing the Treaty's significance.

"India's intransigence on Chenab is being seen as a threat to Pakistan's lifeline, and if India does not relent, the letter and spirit of the peace process plus the bonhomie with the new government in Islamabad would be undermined," he told ISN Security Watch.

Still, with the ongoing composite dialogue, greater awareness exists between the two sides – both keen to keep relations normal and avoid another war. Certainly, there are more doves in both countries than there were a decade ago, and hopefully, this revived water resource conflict can be resolved without either side drying up.


Naveed Ahmad is ISN Security Watch's senior correspondent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides reporting for Pakistani TV channel, Geo News and Germany's DW-TV, he also strings for newspaper in the US and Middle East.

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