Boiling point

Friction over shared – and shrinking – water resources is escalating in south Asia, where India and Pakistan are at loggerheads over river rights. Joydeep Gupta reports.

If Pakistani householders look carefully at their electricity bills, they will find they have been charged an extra amount for NJP – the Neelum Jhelum Project. It has been going on for years and is an attempt by the Pakistani government to raise money for a hydroelectric project on the Neelum River, a tributary of the Jhelum in Kashmir.

But while Pakistan – unable to get loans for the project from international agencies due to the ongoing terrorism problem – is still raising money, India is diverting the water upstream, meaning there will not be enough of it in the Neelum for Pakistan to build the project it wanted.

India is within its legal rights to do this. Under the 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT), it is allowed to build run-of-the-river projects as long as it delivers all the water to Pakistan at the end of it. And that is exactly what India is doing; channeling the water for its own hydroelectricity project, before releasing it directly into the Jhelum further downstream. Pakistan is so incensed that, in late April, it announced it would approach the World Bank, which is the arbitrator under the IWT, in an effort to stop the Indian project.

Water is rapidly overtaking the territorial dispute over Kashmir to become the biggest bone of contention between India and Pakistan. And the rhetoric in Pakistan is getting uglier by the day. One of the first questions this Indian reporter faced in Islamabad in late March was: “Why is India stealing our water?” The question came from a Pakistani journalist at the start of a workshop on precisely this topic, which brought together journalists from India and Pakistan as well as water experts. After two days of discussion, the Pakistani journalist said: “Now I know India is not stealing our water and that it is sticking to the treaty. But does it not realise we need more water? How can we survive without it?”

Much of the reportage in the Pakistani media is not so nuanced, and charges of water theft by India – the upper riparian country – are bandied about regularly. There is no doubt that India has built and is continuing to build hydroelectric projects in the upper reaches of the rivers that flow into Pakistan. But it has been scrupulous in sticking to the IWT, which says India can build run-of-the-river projects on the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab rivers, as long as the quantity of water that flows into Pakistan through these waterways is not reduced. The treaty also allows India to store 3.6 million acre feet (MAF) of this water, before the rivers flow into Pakistan.

Whenever Pakistani government officials are asked about the water dispute, they agree that India is sticking to the IWT. But that is not the way it is reported in much of the Pakistani media, and even one of Pakistan’s Islamic fundamentalist groups recently said its ire against India was partly a result of it “stealing our water”.

This perception has grown due to “lack of transparency and lack of timely data from India”, said Danial Hashmi, senior engineer at Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). “That leads to lack of trust. We have to keep asking them for water flow data that should be coming to us automatically, and without delay.”

The origins of the water dispute lie back in the nineteenth century, when Britain ruled the subcontinent and British engineers started to build what became the world’s largest canal irrigation system in the Indus river basin. That became a huge issue when Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947, splitting the river basin and its canals. As it was located upstream, India had control of the rivers and there were repeated disputes over water flow until the World Bank mediated the IWT, giving the three eastern rivers – Ravi, Beas and Sutlej – to India and the other three to Pakistan.

India’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sharat Sabharwal, has repeatedly said: “The IWT has served both countries well and has been operational even in times of war. It assigned to Pakistan 80% of the water in the Indus system of rivers.”

John Briscoe, a water expert who has worked in the subcontinent for 35 years, was the World Bank adviser involved in choosing the neutral expert to adjudicate between India and Pakistan on the Baglihar dam in the Indian part of Kashmir. (Read John Briscoe’s article for chinadialogue here: “Bankrolling change”). Briscoe says that the IWT could be a “stable basis for cooperation if India and Pakistan had normal trustful relations. [Then] there would be a mutually-verified monitoring process which would assure that there is no change in the [water] flows going into Pakistan.”

Since both countries agree that India is sticking to its part of the IWT, why is less and less water available to farmers in Pakistan? Daanish Mustafa, an academic in the geography department at King’s College, London, said it was partly because the planners had not foreseen how there would be less water flowing down these rivers due to changes in the Himalayan environment.

Deforestation in the catchment area of the Indus basin means more and more silt is flowing down these rivers, choking the channels and reducing water flow. Another key issue is the dependence of these rivers on the Himalayan glaciers. While it has now been established that these glaciers are in no danger of disappearing in the next few decades, there is no doubt that they are receding due to global warming. A detailed satellite-based study by the Indian Space Research Organisation came to the conclusion this March that Himalayan glaciers have shrunk by 16% in the last 50 years.

In the entire Himalayan ranges, glacier melt is responsible for less than 10% of the annual flows in these rivers. But that is not the case in the Indus basin. As the westernmost of the river basins formed by the Himalayas, it gets much less of the monsoon rain than the eastern Himalayas and is consequently far more dependent on the glaciers.

So Pakistan is asking India for water in an environment where the total water flow is shrinking all the time. This had not been foreseen when the IWT was signed 50 years ago, but today it threatens to become the major flashpoint between the two nuclear-armed neighbours in south Asia, despite conciliatory messages from parts of the Pakistani establishment. “This is a problem that can be solved only through cooperation and not confrontation,” Pakistan’s environment minister Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi pointed out at the March workshop, which was organised by the voluntary organisation LEAD Pakistan and sponsored by the British government.

India is the upper riparian country in the Indus basin, but the rivers do not start in India. They start in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Unless China is brought to the discussion on how to control deforestation in the basin’s catchment area and how best the dwindling water supplies can be shared in a situation where glaciers are retreating due to global warming, the water-related tension between India and Pakistan can only get worse. Eminent Pakistani lawyer Tariq Hassan recently said: “Water is the most strategic issue facing the subcontinent. If there is a war here in the future, it will be over water.”

Independent experts like Briscoe say that, while India is sticking to the IWT, it needs to be more generous because of the “great vulnerability and legitimate concern of Pakistan” over water scarcity, which has already ensured that the Indus, the mother river of the subcontinent since pre-history, no longer even flows to the Arabian Sea but instead trickles to its death in the sands of Sindh.

Joydeep Gupta is a director of the Earth Journalism Network at Internews and secretary of the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.

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Also in this series:
John Briscoe praises Chinese finance abroad
Peter Bosshard urges smart infrastructure
BG Verghese speaks on third pole rivers
Graeme Kelleher defends dam building