Kashmir: A Water War in the Making?

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Kashmir: A Water War in the Making?

Pakistan and India are locked in a bitter water conflict centered on the explosive Kashmir issue.

Kashmir: A Water War in the Making?

Laborers walk on a bridge near the 450-megawatt hydropower project located at Baglihar Dam on the Chenab river (October 10, 2008).

Credit: REUTERS/Amit Gupta

In Cameron Stracher’s 2011 novel The Water Wars, Vera and her brother Will struggle to survive in a country that has collapsed from an environmental cataclysm. The authorities hoard water, dam rivers, and even exploit clouds as glaciers vanish and polar ice caps melt. In their bid to find their lost friend, both the characters risk the ire of armed groups and gluttonous corporations and ultimately learn the truth about the water scarcity.

In a slightly different way, such a story has been playing out in Kashmir since 1947, when the erstwhile British India was divided into Pakistan and India. With the division, Kashmir became a bone of contention — as did the six major rivers flowing down to Pakistan (the three western rivers) and India (the three eastern rivers). Both countries agreed to sign a World Bank-brokered treaty in 1960, the Indus Water Treaty or IWT. The treaty could not, however, take into consideration all the river-relevant changes that the future was to produce.

Today Pakistan and India are locked in a bitter water conflict. Though diplomatic exertions have prevented a major escalation, both countries are entangled in legal battles as more dams and power projects come up in Kashmir. In Kashmir itself, politicians and civil society groups of all hues have been demanding a review of IWT, which has been labeled “detrimental” to the region’s economy.

Pakistan and India are dangerously energy-starved and nowhere close to an agreement on disputed Kashmir. The intertwining impact of climate change and population pressures offer a forecast on their water conflict that is anything but encouraging. Predictions that the next major war will be over water are common. But is such a scenario realistic? Could both countries amicably end their water disputes?

The Indus Water Treaty

Between 1905 and 1908, a Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin, became the first European to discover the mouth of the river Indus (or the Lion River) in Tibet’s Sangi-Kabab area. Four decades later, the British divided the Indian subcontinent. The land division occurred without considering the irrigated boundaries.

On April 1, 1948 India — taking advantage of its control over the headworks — cut off the supply of water in every canal that crossed into Pakistan. India briefly restored the flow at a price. In July 1951, Pakistan accused India of cutting water supplies to its Wagha and Bhaun villages.

Both sides traded accusations until David Lilienthal, who had won preeminence in the United States as head of the seven-state Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) made a trip to India and Pakistan. Lilienthal described the dispute as “a Punjab powder keg” in his articles about the trip. He observed: “No army, with bombs and shellfire could devastate a land as thoroughly as Pakistan could be devastated by the simple expedient of India’s permanently shutting off the sources of water that keep the fields and the people of Pakistan alive. India has never threatened such a drastic step… but the power is there nonetheless.”

The interlocutor proposed that the whole Indus system be developed as a unit while a corporation — with representation from both sides and the World Bank — worked out an operating scheme for storing and distributing water.

A month later, the World Bank offered its “good offices” in mediating between Pakistan and India. But as negotiations continued, it became clear that Lilienthal’s idea of involving “brothers” on a common project had ignored the endless hostility between both sides. The waters would have to be split instead.

The World Bank in 1954 proposed that Pakistan be given the waters of the three western rivers and India the Indus’ three eastern tributaries. Hiccups continued until both sides agreed to sign a water-sharing agreement in 1960. The vice president of the World Bank, William A.B Iliff, would later remember using “cajolery” to press both sides.

Water allocation and disputes

The treaty allocates entire rivers and tributaries, instead of water volume, and has remained relatively intact for over 50 years. However, the IWT’s long-term effectiveness is uncertain in light of Pakistan-India tensions over Kashmir. There is doubt whether IWT can address India’s mounting use of the waters for hydroelectricity and Pakistan’s growing need of the same waters for agriculture.

Pakistan-based Arshad H Abbasi, a trans-boundary water expert, tells me there are some serious emerging violations of IWT “as India plan to construct 155 hydropower projects in Kashmir” and that “India isn’t sharing any information pertaining to the detail design, structural drawings, and design calculations of the upcoming projects.”

India began building major hydropower projects in Kashmir in 1970s and now has 33 projects at various stages of completion on the rivers in Kashmir. Currently, the most controversial dam project is the proposed 330 megawatt dam on the Kishanganga River (also called Neelum in Pakistan-administered Kashmir), a tributary of the Indus. Its construction began in 2007 and is almost complete. The waters are to be diverted through a 24 kilometer tunnel for power production and the rest of the water flow is supposed to join the Wullar Lake and ultimately run through Jhelum to Muzaffarabad (in Pakistan-administered Kashmir) — dodging the 213 km long Neelum, on which Pakistan is also building its own Neelum-Jhelum Hydro-Electric Project (NJHEP). Pakistan has also objections regarding the 850 MW Rattle hydropower project on Chenab river, which Islamabad says involves faulty designs.

Earlier in 2013, the International Court of Arbitration decided that “India shall release a minimum flow of 9 cumecs [cubic meters per second] into the river below the KHEP [Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant] at all times.” The judgment also dictated that “[a]t any time at which the daily average flow in the river immediately upstream of the KHEP is less than 9 cumecs, India shall release 100 percent of the daily average flow.”

While media and officials on both sides hailed their respective countries for winning this case, late South African water expert John Briscoe observed that India “has won the battle, but … lost a far more important war.”

The rush to meet energy demand through hydropower is occurring in both countries amid shortages of adequate access to energy. The number of dams under construction and their management are a source of significant bilateral tension. Briscoe argued that if India builds all its planned projects on the Indus, New Delhi will be capable of holding up about a month’s worth of river flow during Pakistan’s critical dry season, “enough to wreck an entire planting season,” as the New York Times put it after interviewing Briscoe.

“The treaty worked well in the past, mostly because the Indians weren’t building anything,” Briscoe told the Times. “This is a completely different ballgame. Now there’s a whole battery of these hydro projects.”

Mistrust threatens IWT’s stability. Any perceived decrease in the flow of waters augments this mistrust, no matter whether caused by India’s activities or climate change. The Economist argues that the Indian bureaucrats fuel these fears with “obsessive secrecy” about water data.

Climate Change

Climate change threatens Kashmir, already worn-out by the armed conflict between over half a million Indian soldiers and about a dozen rebel groups fighting for independence or merger of the territory with Pakistan.

“Climate change indicators are quite loud and clear in the region and have impacted the snow and glacier resources in the upper Indus,” glaciologist Shakil Ahmad Romshoo tells me.

The Indus supports about 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture. Scientists say a number of glaciers in the area are rapidly receding due to climate change. The large-scale human intervention in the form of unorganized pilgrimages and mindless tourism too is upping the temperatures, resulting in the fast melting of glaciers.

“The stream flows emanating from the region has significantly decreased.  It is pertinent to mention here that the IWT [Indus Water Treaty] did not have any clause on climate change impacts on stream flows,” Romshoo says.

The Indian Rivers Inter-link project in India and mismanagement of existing water supplies augments the pressure on both countries.

A glaciologist quoted by the Economist calls the dams “water bombs” on the Indus, as they are in an earthquake prone zone. In fact, a top water expert (preferring anonymity) who worked with the World Bank on a report about Indian dams argues that about 15 large Indian dams in the Himalayas are “dodgy dams” and shouldn’t have been commissioned at all.

“In its survey, two of these [dams] were found adequate but not earthquake-proof. [The] other 13 should have never been built. It found a lot of corruption in [the] Indian dam building system. The bank didn’t publish the survey though,” the expert told me recently in an interview in the U.K.

The increase in global temperatures and the significant number of dams thus calls for a review of the IWT.

Water politics within Kashmir

Kashmir can produce 20,000 MW of electricity but currently production is a mere 2556 MW. Power shortages are normal. One reason is that most of the electricity is generated by India’s National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), but it shares a mere 12 percent of the energy with the region as a royalty. It trades the rest to other Indian provinces. At peak hours, NHPC sells the same power to the Kashmir government at inflated rates. Recently a senior pro-India leader equated NHPC to the East India Company, accusing it of “sucking all electricity” generated on “our waters.”

Others argue that IWT itself is the problem calling it “discriminatory” toward the disputed region. The argument is that India signed IWT without consulting then-Prime Minister of Kashmir Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad.

While successive governments inside India-administered Kashmir have sought to amend IWT and increase NHPC royalties, New Delhi continues to block concessions. It also refuses to offer counter-guarantees to the foreign companies willing to invest in Kashmir’s power projects.

Besides the Kashmir dispute, the new battle cry of the non-state actors — water — is threatening to add a new dimension to the long-standing conflict. Some Pakistani officials continue to blame India for water shortages in the country while India continues to dismiss such accusations. Articles and think tanks analyses frequently appearing in the Indian media suggest that India “should leverage this natural advantage” while rebel groups vow to fight India’s “water terrorism.” In fact a U.S. Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee report from 2011 also warns that unless Pakistan and India are able to resolve their water disputes amicably, a future war between them cannot be ruled out.

Recently, when the Royal Institute of International Affairs, better known as Chatham House, launched a survey of the attitudes toward water in South Asia, it found the challenges “exacerbating” trans-boundary water concerns in the region.

“There is a scope of updating it (IWT),” Gareth Price, senior research fellow at Chatham House, tells me in his London office.

“Ten years ago if you would talk about India-Pakistan tension one would end up saying water is one good thing in their relationship. But in last ten years, it suddenly shifted. Because there are more people, there is potentially less rain or more climate change related things … more flooding or there is more encroachment,” he says.

The way out

Pakistan’s agricultural economy is effectively a bet on the Indus waters. Imagine the sixth most populous country, with nuclear weapons and one of the largest standing armies in the world, torn apart by lack of water and changing climate. Such a scenario could have dangerous ramifications on all of South Asia. As Anatol Lieven warned in his book Pakistan – A Hard Country, “those Indians who would be tempted to rejoice in Pakistan’s fall should therefore consider that it would almost certainly drag India down with it.”

The IWT was signed in 1960. The populations of both Pakistan and India are no longer same, and populations will only increase more by the middle of 21st century, making review of the treaty vital. The IWT also didn’t take into account the impact of climate change. Its amendment also becomes important as people in disputed Kashmir are seeking a greater say in the affairs involving their land’s resources.

Pakistan and India must consult each other on all major projects on the Indus river system that might have cause a hostile environmental impact across borders. Both nations must improve domestic water management and encourage less water-intensive crops. Improved infrastructure could help plug power distribution losses while both countries need to increase rainwater-harvesting projects wherever possible as well.

Meanwhile, Kashmir must radically limit human intervention in the eco-fragile zones. Both Pakistan and India should also examine the environmental degradation in the entire basin. Currently there is no mechanism in the IWT to fund ecological preservation.

Pakistan and India could jointly build dams and share benefits. This could lower their tensions over water sharing. But ideally reliance on hydroelectricity could be avoided by adopting solar energy instead.

Even outside of Kashmir, disputes linked to water often snowball into major controversies or become a costly legal affair in courts of arbitration. Solving the Kashmir dispute could tone down both sides’ water rhetoric and ultimately lead to a win-win situation over the usage of shared waters.

Mohammad Umar Baba, who writes under the byline Baba Umar, is a Kashmiri journalist. The piece is an excerpt of a research paper written during the author’s Chevening South Asia Journalism Programme (SAJP) fellowship in 2016.