Zahid Malik

Monday, March 15, 2010 – Comments

At the very outset I wish I am wrong but the most serious problem that Pakistan could be facing in the next five to ten years would be extreme water scarcity not only due to global warming caused by changes in the weather systems but due to our own failures and, if I may say, follies and criminal negligence as well.

There is a realization the world over that future wars would be on depleting water resources and this, I fear, is particularly true in the case of Pakistan. We have miserably failed to build water reservoirs and protect our water rights on three rivers – Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, on which Pakistan has priority rights under the Indus Water Treaty.

It is the apathy on the part of our leadership that they politicized the construction of Kalabagh Dam, downstream Tarbela, and indulged in unforgivable delay in building other major reservoirs including Diamer-Bhasha. Construction of such dams involves billions of dollars and will take about a decade to complete and even if we start the construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam right now, which again is being politicised, it would be too late. People in canal irrigated areas, like southern Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan do not realize the horrible scenario when there will be no water for crops and maybe for drinking purposes as well.

We will never know the worth of water till the well is dry and that is the case in Pakistan as our neighbour is usurping our water rights and we are fighting among ourselves on petty issues relating to internal distribution of water.

The world over water is a single substantial issue that mars bilateral relations among subcontinental countries. The issues of cross-border water distribution, utilization, management and mega irrigation hydro-electric power projects affecting the upper and lower riparian countries are gradually taking center-stage in defining interstate relations as water scarcity increases and both drought and floods make life, too, often miserable.

In December 2007 UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon while speaking at the first Asia-Pacific water summit said a struggle by nations to secure sources of clean water would be “potent fuel” for war and that water crisis in Asia was especially troubling.

Indus Water Basin Treaty was signed in 1960 after lengthy interventions of World Bank. Pakistan had accepted the Treaty at the stake of its very survival and assurances from India that it will not interfere with rivers over which Pakistan was given the right. However India never honoured its promises.

In this scenario, I think that while Jammu and Kashmir is the core issue, the discord on waters of Jhelum and Chenab, over Baglihar and several other projects being constructed by India upstream, Jhelum, Chenab and Indus have the potential to provoke a war between the two countries. If peace was desired in the area then water and Kashmir will have to be taken as inextricably interlinked issues and resolved as such.

From the record, I can say with authority that Indian behaviour had been in violation of the international norms, arguing India utilized its share of the eastern rivers but after eighties it started tampering with Pakistani rivers.

Pakistan has been opposing the setting up of the Kishanganga Hydropower Project on Kishnaganga (known as Neelum in Azad Kashmir) as it involves diversion of water from Neelum to another tributary of Jhelum, called Bunar Mandhumati near Bandipur in Baramula District which is not allowed under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Consequently Jhelum will face a 27 per cent water deficit when the project gets completed.

Kashmir is a place where water may not be the worst of the problems, yet it’s a growing factor in what is already a conflict situation. Baglihar and Kishanganga with plans to construct 62 dams/hydro-electric units on Rivers Chenab and Jhelum and diversion of water from these storages through tunnels to Indian rivers would enable New Delhi to render these rivers dry in the next five years. It is because of our survival resting on rivers that Kashmir has been referred to as Pakistan’s jugular vein. That all this is part of the overall water strangulation strategy of India is also borne out by the fact that India, taking advantage of its influence over Afghanistan, has succeeded in convincing Karzai regime to build a dam on River Kabul and set up Kama Hydroelectric Project using 0.5 MAF of Pakistan water with serious repercussions on the water flow of River Indus.

According to the Indus Water Treaty, the projects commissioned first would be accorded top priority. Due to criminal negligence, our leadership failed to start any major project in Azad Kashmir and as such it is likely that the Neelam-Jhelum project would be of no benefit as the Kishanganga project would leave very little water for use. Currently, India’s State-owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) has set 2016 as its deadline for completion of the project, while Pakistan plans to complete its project in 2017, if everything goes well. According to reports by Indian media the NHPC has been directed to expedite its project and commission it before Pakistan had a chance to complete the Neelam-Jhelum project.

Apart from Kishanganga, India has initiated four other mega projects on the Chenab and Jhelum Rivers in Occupied Kashmir that can result in major water shortage in Pakistan in due course of time. India has also planned three dams on River Indus which will have devastating impact on Pakistan’s Northern Areas. These are Nimoo Bazgo, Dumkhar, and Chutak. Work on Nimoo Bazgo hydropower project, 70 km from Leh is already underway while Chutak is under construction on River Suru. In case any of these dams collapses or large quantity of water is deliberately released, it will not only endanger our proposed Bhasha Dam but also submerge Skardu city and airport. In that case strategic KKH between Besham and Jaglot would also be washed away.

Stopping water by India is the policy of desertification of Pakistan creating invisible aggression and concomitant serious consequences for the agriculture of the country. It is a hostile and destructive attack on our sovereign rights over waters of three rivers and we must take this battle to the international arbitrators. Pakistan has to assert its right over the eastern rivers and must do everything for strict implementation of the Treaty.

I am of the considered view that in the given and future scenario, water is as much a nuclear flashpoint as is Kashmir. We must make the world realize seriously that if it is interested in peace in this region, it must act urgently to help both the countries restart negotiations and resolve the contentious issue of water on an urgent basis.

I say this because in the coming years, Pakistan would be in a very difficult situation. According to a recent United Nations report, Pakistan’s water supply has dropped from about 5,000 cubic meters per person in the 1950s to 1,420 cubic meters in 2009- perilously close to the threshold at which water shortage becomes an impediment to economic development and a serious hazard to human health.

As a nation, we have the tendency that we wake up when the water passes over our head. Last year there were less than normal monsoon rains and this year the winter rains were much delayed and below normal. So some attention is being paid by the leadership at least through statements. However, unfortunately, we have short memory and forget or overlook this problem when there are normal rains and near normal water is available in our storages.

In the face of worsening water shortages and ensuing serious crisis, I would caution the political leadership to pay its full attention and make the water issue its single top most priority whether it is dispute with India or building of storages at all the identified sites and allocate at least half of the PSDP under this head. That would also create tens of thousands of jobs for the skilled and unskilled workforce. Let us delay some non-essential projects for a few years for the sake of the country and future of the coming generations. If we just manage our present sources of water efficiently, I am confident that the vast barren lands could be brought under cultivation boosting our agricultural production and generating 25,000 MW of electricity through hydel means thus saving billions of dollars of foreign exchange being spent on import of furnace oil. That amount could then be diverted to other sectors for socio-economic development of the country.

The question is will we wake up now or left to cry when the water had already passed over our head. I pray the leadership would listen and act timely and decisively.

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