Trouble in the water

Sat Jul 13 2013

Khaled Ahmed

Trouble in the water
Trouble in the water

On March 15, 2013, Pakistan’s adviser to the prime minister on water and agriculture said that India had assumed an aggressive posture and that “some believe it intends to use water as a weapon”. He was referring to the Kishanganga hydropower project built by India. The Kishanganga is a tributary of the Jhelum, whose water belongs to Pakistan under the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, which, however, allows India to generate run-of-the-river electricity from rivers and tributaries given to Pakistan. India has diverted the Kishanganga for its power-producing dam so that it joins the Jhelum in India-administered Kashmir instead of in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

For the last two years, Ethiopia has been damming the Blue Nile, 90 per cent of whose water is given to Egypt under a 1923 waters treaty. Ethiopia and its partner upriver states say the dam will only produce electricity but no one in downriver Egypt believes it. Ethiopia is dry and famine-stricken and needs water; that could be one reason for the lower-riparian alarm. The Egyptian government is trying to cope with the angry, warlike reaction against Ethiopia in the country, an emotional trigger that could unite a divided Egypt.

On June 30, 2013, in the southern Sindh province of Pakistan, a group of Sindhi nationalists called the Jeay Sindh Mahaz (Riaz group) protested against “acute shortage of irrigation water in the province”. They closed down the markets and blocked the national highway linking Sindh with the rest of the country. Leader Riaz Chandio said, “Sindh had been deprived of its share of water for the past 66 years. Despite an inter-provincial accord over water, Punjab always stole Sindh’s water, causing severe financial losses to growers and rendering barren thousands of acres of fertile land.”

Indian scholar Brahma Chellaney in his classic study Water: Asia’s New Battleground (2011) writes: “The Supreme Court has repeatedly had to intervene in unending water wrangles between states — between the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, Punjab and Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, to cite some ongoing disputes. Settlement of the dispute between Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh states over the sharing of the waters of River Krishna was the subject of two separate tribunals that delivered their decisions in 1973 and 2010, yet this wrangle is far from over.”

In Pakistan, the unbuilt Kalabagh Dam was supposed to save the country from water scarcity and the resultant famine, but it is hanging fire because three out of the four provinces have passed resolutions against it in their elected assemblies. No amount of expert studies, internally and externally commissioned, has budged the three-province consensus against Punjab, which wants the dam built. More dangerously, regional sub-nationalisms are now attached to this consensus against the largest province, containing over 60 per cent of the population. In upper-riparian Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), the alarm is about the encroaching water reservoir of the Kalabagh Dam — somewhat like Nepal’s complaint about Indian down-river dams. Lower riparian Sindh is convinced that Kalabagh will store water for Punjab and deprive it of the little it still has, and Balochistan is opposed to it for sheer inter-provincial solidarity against Punjab.

The lower riparian party has a tendency to be alarmist about rivers. But there are other factors to consider. If you are a lower riparian but strong, like Pakistan vis-à-vis landlocked Afghanistan or India vis-à-vis landlocked Nepal, then this alarm is no longer a factor. But if you are powerful and also upper riparian, it goes in your favour not to have a water-sharing treaty with the weaker lower riparian. That’s why, when things go wrong between India and Pakistan, some Indians think it was wrong on the part of Nehru to sign the Indus Waters Treaty with Pakistan. Strangely, in Pakistan too, Sindh and south Punjab frequently condemn Ayub Khan for losing two rivers, the Ravi and the Sutlej, to India under the treaty.

Pakistan has been losing its cases against India’s “theft” of its waters at the World Bank forum of arbitration. An arbiter decided that India’s Baglihar Dam was fine under the 1960 treaty, but the two countries requested the World Bank to be allowed to announce the decision themselves. Of course, both claimed victory. On the Kishanganga project, Pakistan lost again at the court of arbitration at The Hague this year, but it came home declaring victory.

Chellaney complains about China and criticises Indian leaders for surrendering the Tibetan Plateau to China, which now controls almost all the big rivers of Asia, including the two South Asian giants, the Indus and Brahmaputra: “When, in the 1954 Panchsheel (Five Principles) Treaty with Beijing, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru implicitly accepted China’s annexation of Tibet without securing or even seeking Beijing’s recognition of the then-existing Indo-Tibetan border, he did not even think that his action would have an impact on India’s water interests in the future.”

An alarmist Pakistan, despite a treaty favourable to it, has taken it out on its Indus commissioner, Jamaat Ali Shah, who was so good that he stayed in the post from 1993 to 2010, while India changed four commissioners.

The Jamaat-ud-Dawa newspaper, Jarrar (March 5, 2010), reported that the people of Pakistan thought Jamaat Ali Shah was bodily a Pakistani but his tongue spoke the language of Hindus. He had not stopped making the strange statement that India had not stolen Pakistan’s water. Jamaat Ali Shah was getting his salary from Pakistan but was working for India.

Nawa-i-Waqt (June 3, 2010) reported that Jamaat Ali Shah defended India’s stealing of river waters through 62 dams. Retired ambassadors and army officers said that India was stealing 14 million acre feet of water from Pakistan and that India’s water aggression could lead to an Indo-Pak war that would soon turn into a nuclear world war.

Commissioner Shah stated in reply that Pakistan was getting its share of waters under the Indus treaty and that building a dam was the right of India. He said the scarcity of water in Pakistani rivers stemmed from the lack of rain, not because India had stolen water. After that, Shah was made “officer on special duty” by

The prime minister.

The Daily Jang (January 5, 2012) reported that Jamaat Ali Shah had facilitated the building of India’s illegal Nimoo-Bazgo dam so that Leh could get electricity, which meant that Indian soldiers at Siachen would get the benefit of more comfort through the use of electricity. Dawn (April 16, 2011) reported: “Intelligence agencies seized the record of at least two federal ministries to investigate an alleged institutional lapse of not raising objections over Indian aggression on the country’s water rights.”

Shah was reported to have escaped to Canada to seek asylum, but he denied that he had escaped; he had simply gone there to meet his daughter. After that, Pakistan, for some reason, decided not to take the Nimoo-Bazgo case to court. And no one bothered to ask why.

The alarmist lower riparian mind can hardly be blamed. But what this mind triggers within India and within Pakistan — and between them — is not right. There is the third offending party, nature, which is to blame, but which can be faced by the two parties fighting together rather than each other. They have to normalise their relations through free trade and territorial connectivity, and make themselves interdependent for prosperity. Only a friendly Indo-Pak equation can resolve the water crisis. More and more people in Pakistan, including the business community, realise this, led by their newly elected prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.

The writer is a consulting editor with ‘Newsweek Pakistan’ Courtesy Indian Express

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