New Delhi: Even as the governments of India and Pakistan continue to use diplomatic channels to resolve all issues of conflict, the issue of availability and equal distribution of water is threatening to undermine all efforts to reduce tensions between the two countries.
The two nuclear-powered states have locked horns over Himalayan water resources for long, as both India and Pakistan are agrarian economies and suffer due to depleting water resources, which in turn leads to food and energy shortages.
The hostile neighbours have held several rounds of composite dialogue in the past with an aim to resolve the water dispute. However, it still tops the agenda whenever the top brass of India and Pakistan start any exercise to improve bilateral ties.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs recently collected credible evidence, which suggests how the distribution of water from rivers flowing to Pakistan from Jammu and Kashmir has become a bilateral flashpoint these days.
The MEA document also shows how various elements in Pakistan are using this issue to push hatred towards India by propagating that New Delhi is deliberately depriving Islamabad of its share of water guaranteed under the international Indus Water Treaty and destroying its agrarian economy.
Pakistan’s double speak
As the two nations get ready to hold the latest round of talks by the end of March to expedite the resolution of the water dispute, the MEA document further reveals that the political fraternity in Pakistan is highly divided on the issue and holds divergent views on the subject.
However, the Pakistani government attempts to challenge India at the international level on the issue of water distribution.
The MEA document, citing Indus Water Commissioner Sayyed Jamaat Ali Shah, says that the Pakistani official has admitted in his own country that all hydel projects built by India are in conformity with the Indus Water Treaty and implemented after obtaining necessary permissions.
Shah also agreed that the drought in Pakistan was not triggered by construction of dams by India, while stressing that the constant decline in the water level in the rivers was due to change in climatic conditions.
However, on a different occasion, Shah said that Islamabad was not bound to inform India about construction of dams and New Delhi also had no right to oppose any initiative for a third party mediation on the Indian Kishan-Ganga project.
Shah, while hinting at the proposed Pakistan-China joint venture in construction of dams, said that Islamabad wanted third party mediation since the Indo-Pak Commission had failed to resolve the issue.
Shah, while replying to a question, stated that the two sides wanted to resolve all water issues through negotiation in accordance with mechanism agreed upon in the Indus Water Basin Treaty.
As a guest speaker in a Radio Pakistan programme, Shah explained that the reduction in water towards Pakistan in recent days was due to hydro-metrology. He also held intensive irrigation regimes and poor drainage practices responsible for causing water-logging and soil salinity throughout Pakistan’s countryside.
He was responding to a report by the Planning and Development Division, which claimed that between 1997 and 2005, overall water availability decreased from 1,299 to 1,101m3 (cubic metres) per capita; another study puts that figure closer to 1,000m3.
The change in the weather has made the vast expanses of rich agricultural land in Pakistan too wet or salty to yield any meaningful harvest.
The admissions of top Pakistani officials are contrary to often repeated claims that India is responsible for the plight of farmers and poor harvest in the country.
The row over water distribution has echoed in Pakistan’s National Assembly from time to time.
Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Water and Electricity, Raja Pervez Ashraf recently informed the National Assembly that India is within its rights under the Indus Water Treaty to build dams on the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers.
In addition, he said that India possesses the right to make 13 lakh acres of land cultivatable and to store 2.85 MAF of water. He further said that the Baglihar Dam will not adversely impact Pakistan. He also said that when the water commission officials could not resolve the dispute, it was settled with the help of neutral and global water experts. He said after the Mangla and Tarbela dams, study for 31 small dams in provinces is now complete and tenders for 12 dams are also over.
MQM`s Ayyub Sheikh alleged that India was blocking Pakistani waters and was also persuading Afghanistan to build a dam in Kabul. On his turn, Abdul Sattar said that the Saraiki belt was facing acute water shortage and demanded that water be released from Punjab’s share to the Saraiki belt via Taunsa Pinjad. He warned that the Saraiki belt can turn into a barren patch of land if water is not released soon.
Terrorists capitalising on water dispute
Another interesting aspect of the MEA report is that it showcases how banned militant outfit chiefs are trying to capitalise on this row and garner maximum public sympathy for their anti-India campaign.
The MEA quoted a report published in The Dawn, which said Jamat-ud-Dawah (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed mobilized farmers from Punjab in Lahore on March 7 alleging that India was diverting waters to strangulate Pakistan.
However, in his venomous speech, Saeed mostly talked about how Muslims were being ill-treated in Kashmir, Ayodhya, Afghanistan etc. The JuD chief even went to the extent of accusing India of conspiring to create an inter-provincial war in Pakistan.
Central JuD leader Maulana Amir Hamza also endorsed Saeed’s opinion and said that India was instigating sectarian violence in Pakistan, but that Sindhis, Balochs, Pathans, Punjabis and Kashmiris were united and willing to make sacrifices against India. He said they rejected the Sindh Water Treaty, a statement which was met with loud shouts of support against India and the Sindh Treaty.
The Indus Water Treaty (1960)
Under the Indus Water Treaty (1960) - sponsored by the UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and Canada - India and Pakistan were given control of three rivers each, originating from Jammu and Kashmir.
The World Bank-mediated agreement made a gentle attempt to let both adversaries share the available water resources by allotting the eastern rivers (Ravi, Sutlej and Beas) to India and the western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Sindh) to Pakistan.
However, India’s recent announcement to build water reservoirs on Kashmiri rivers has become a major bone of contention between the two nations.
India`s construction of a 450-megawatt Baglihar hydel project on the Chenab River, which flows from Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan, has ignited a fresh war of words.
The 470-feet high, 317-meter wide dam, with a storage capacity of 15 billion cusecs of water, has significantly reduced water flow to agriculture-dependent Pakistan, as claimed by Pakistani officials.
Also, the age-old water dispute between Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan has further complicated the issue. In a bid to resolve the issue, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) recently released 5,000 cusecs of more water to Sindh and 2,000 cusecs more water to Punjab. As a result of the new deal, Punjab’s share of water has now gone up to 57,000 cusecs, while Sindh’s has gone up to 40,000. In addition, IRSA has allowed Punjab to take an additional 2,000 cusecs from Thal.
Pakistan blames India, saying it is withholding millions of cubic feet of water upstream on Chenab in Kashmir and storing it in the massive Baglihar Dam in order to produce hydro-electricity. Pakistan has termed the construction of Baglihar Dam a breach of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty designed to administer water use in the region.
However, as the situation stands, Pakistan is weighing its options of filing simultaneous complaints with the World Bank and seeking mediation by the International Court of Arbitration against India for violating the Treaty, citing unauthorised use of Chenab river.
India, on its part, has been reiterating its stand that any decline in flow of water towards Pakistan is “purely due to the climatic effect which impacts the entire region”, while denying any theft on its part.
After several consultations, composite dialogue, coupled with widespread protests both in India and Pakistan, the row over the distribution of water still remains unresolved. While India has invited Pakistan for crucial talks over controversial projects including Baglihar and Kishenganga, the situation also warrants the two sides to be vigilant in not allowing the non-state actors to succeed in their nefarious designs shielding themselves under bureaucratic war of words.
Compiled by Ritesh K Srivastava