Pakistan Observer

Avoiding water wars

News & Views

Mohammad Jamil

Saturday, February 26, 2011 - The US Senate report released the other day warned that the Indus Water Treaty may fail to avert water wars between India and Pakistan, acknowledging that dams India is building in occupied Kashmir will limit supply of water to Pakistan at crucial moments. “This report highlights how water security is vital in achieving our foreign policy and national security goals and provides recommendations to foster regional cooperation and long-term stability,” said Senator John Kerry, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, while releasing the report. India is constructing 33 dams that are at various stages of completions, and cumulative effect of storing water would limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season, the report added. Currently, the most controversial dam project is the proposed 330-megawatt dam on the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Indus. The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee should have come out with the solution to the problem instead of giving an impression that Indus Water Treaty has become redundant. In fact, it is the responsibility of the international community to urge India to honour its commitment under the treaty. And this is the only way to avoid war.

With the climate change and as a consequence shrinking water availability across the Middle East, Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, violent conflict between states is increasingly likely. This matter was on the agenda of annul World Water Week forum in Stockholm held in 2006, but it could not answer the question raised in the meeting whether we are heading for an era of “hydrological warfare” in which rivers, lakes and aquifers become national security assets to be fought over, or controlled through proxy armies and client states? Or can water act as a force for peace and cooperation? It has been estimated by the experts that by 2025, more than two billion people are expected to live in countries that find it difficult or impossible to mobilize the water resources needed to meet the needs of agriculture, industry and households. Population growth, urbanization and the rapid development of manufacturing industries are relentlessly increasing demand for finite water resources. Symptoms of the resulting water stress are increasingly visible. In northern China, rivers now run dry in their lower reaches for much of the year. In parts of Pakistan and India, groundwater levels are falling so rapidly that from 10 percent to 20 percent of agricultural production is under threat.

In the past, there have been wars between the countries over religions, usurpation of territories and control of resources including oil, but in view of acute shortages of water in Africa, Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, the future wars could be fought over water.

In addition to Kashmir dispute, the Indus River Basin has been an area of conflict between India and Pakistan for about four decades. Spanning 1,800 miles, the river and its tributaries together make up one of the largest irrigation canals in the world. Dams and canals built in order to provide hydropower and irrigation have dried up stretches of the Indus River. The division of the river basin water has created friction among the countries of South Asia, and among their states and provinces. Accusations of overdrawing of share of water made by each province have resulted in the lack of water supplies to coastal regions of Pakistan. India and Bangladesh have also dispute over Ganges River water and India is resorting to water theft there as well. Nepal and Bangladesh are also victims of India’s water thievery. India had dispute with Bangladesh over Farrakha Barrage, with Nepal over Mahakali River and with Pakistan over 1960 Indus Water Treaty.

India is busy building dams on all rivers flowing into Pakistan from occupied Kashmir to regain control of water of western rivers in violation of Indus Water Treaty. This is being done under well thought-out strategy to render Pakistan’s link-canal system redundant, destroy agriculture of Pakistan which is its mainstay, and turn Pakistan into a desert. India has plans to construct 62 dams/hydro-electric units on Rivers Chenab and Jhelum; thus enabling it to render these rivers dry by 2014. Using its clout in Afghanistan, India has succeeded in convincing Karzai regime to build a dam on River Kabul and set up Kama Hydroelectric Project using 0.5MAF of Pakistan water. It has offered technical assistance for the proposed project, which will have serious repercussions on the water flow in River Indus. Pakistan, indeed, needs large reservoirs to meet the growing food requirements of ever-increasing population. Today, agricultural sector contributes 24 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); two-third of population living in rural areas depends on it; absorbs more than 50 per cent of the labour force and provides the base for 75 per cent of exports in the form of raw materials and value-added products.

There is realization in all the provinces that water shortages can lead to food shortages and also rifts between the provinces. But the issue had been politicized for the last thirty years and genuine efforts were not made by the governments and leaders to resolve the contradictions by showing sense of accommodation and understanding of one another’s problems. However, consensus has been reached on Bhasha Dam, though belatedly; and now every effort should be made to expedite construction of this project. One does not have to be an agricultural scientist to know that water is indispensable to agriculture. It is a critical input into agriculture of a country especially when it is situated in an arid or semi-arid zone. Loss of storage capacity due to sedimentation in Tarbela and Mangla Dams is causing serious drop even for existing agricultural production. Food shortages and energy shortfall has already blighted Pakistan with the result that industry in all the provinces has also been adversely impacted. The present government and opposition parties seem to be too preoccupied with their power-sharing or power-grabbing plans, and do not have time to effectively pursue the matter with India or take up the matter of India’s violations of IWT with International Court of Justice.

Pakistan is facing acute shortage of water due to India’s river water diversion plan, which has adversely impacted the farmers and made it difficult for them to keep their body and soul together. Last year, Pakistan Muttahida Kisan Mahaz (MKM) has criticised the government’s silence over Chenab River water ‘piracy’ by India. The Mahaz president said: “Under the Indus Water Basin Treaty, India is required to release 16,000 cusec Chenab water to Pakistan whereas water flow at Head Marala has been reduced to only 5,000 cusec as a result of construction of Baglihar Dam Occupied Kashmir. Drastic fall in Chenab water flow had resulted in closure of Marala Ravi Link, Upper Chenab and BRB canals which met 75 per cent canal water requirement of Punjab”. The closure of three canals had created an acute shortage of water for Rabi crop, and wheat production had shown a decline last year in Punjab. According to the treaty, India could not use Chenab water, as it could affect the quantity or flow of the river. And it goes without saying that by making the reservoir, the flow of water will definitely be affected. Let the US Foreign Relations Committee hold another session to address the concerns of riparian states like Pakistan.

—The writer is Lahore-based senior journalist.

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