Children of the monsoons
By Khalid Hussain
ISLAMABAD: “We want to retain the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). It is India that wants to circumvent the provisions,” alleges Syed Jamat Ali Shah, Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioner, talking to The News from his office in Lahore. “We have no option but to go for neutral arbitration,” he adds referring to the disputed Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project in the Indian-administered Kashmir.
This development and Pakistan’s earlier wishes to bring water on to the agenda for future talks with New Delhi add another geopolitical angle to the contention.
Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir handed over a brief paper on the Kishenganga dispute to his Indian counterpart during the secretary level talks at New Delhi in February.
The two countries have been discussing the agenda issues, seeking resumption of their stalled peace process. Some in India, like the respected analyst Siddharth Varadarjan, saw this as a “carrier of concord with Pakistan” but others, like India’s former Federal Secretary for Water and Power Ramaswamy R. Iyer hold a different perspective closer to the established view there.
Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao insisted it was “important to abide by the provisions of the treaty”.
India has reportedly refused to include water on the agenda for the ‘composite dialogue’ alongside terrorism and Balochistan, whenever it may formally take place (although some observers contend that the beginning of formal talks at the secretary level means that the fifth round of Composite Dialogue has started for all intents and purposes).
While the foreign secretary talks in New Delhi and later discussions in the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) in Lahore were inconclusive, Pakistan’s formal notification to India seeking neutral arbitration to resolve the dispute indicates that water will continue to top the bilateral agendas for some time.
Following the last round of foreign secretary level talks in New Delhi, Jamat Ali Shah was quoted in the media saying, “Pakistan must look beyond the Indus Waters Treaty.”
Elaborating to The News, he added, “Pakistan has a principled stance on the issue of river water sharing with India. We want to work within the ambit of the treaty. But we want transparency, as the Indian track record is not good. India is in breach of the treaty. They do not listen to our objections. This is a breach of the treaty.”
The Kishanganga Hydropower Project on the Ganga River — called Neelum upon entering Pakistan — in Kashmir is disputed because Pakistan holds that diversion of the waters is not allowed under the IWT. Pakistan is also constructing the 1.6 billion dollars 969 megawatt Neelum-Jehlum Hydropower Project downstream that is expected to face a 27 per cent water deficit if the Indian project gets completed.
Pakistan has reportedly awarded the contract for the Neelum-Jhelum project to a Chinese firm. Work on this project is underway on a hectic schedule. Pakistan cites the right of “prior appropriation” under the IWT as the reason behind this high-altitude development race. Not everyone is convinced.
India’s Federal Minister of Power Jairam Ramesh has termed the Kishenganga project as “an issue with geostrategic and foreign policy implications”. He added, “Even I am not competent to speak about it”.
Dr Robert G. Wirsing, a member of the faculty of the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii and an expert on South Asian affairs, recently said in a lecture in Islamabad that the Treaty had inherent weaknesses.
“The solution to water disputes is heavily tied with the fate of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.
Besides such sensitive issues, there are overarching ecological concerns that impel both countries to work in a spirit of harmony to stave off future threats. This is the fourth dimension to the water contentions between India and Pakistan. Jeopardising the IWT cannot help either of the traditional rivals.
According to the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, Himalayan glaciers — a major source of water for India and Pakistan — are melting at an alarming pace due to global warming.
The International Centre for Mountain Area Development (ICIMOD) has produced similar findings after extensive research.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has also sounded serious warnings over the air-borne chemical clouds over the Himalayan glaciers and Kashmir.
“Pakistan needs to prioritise water and power development,” says Dr. Manzoor Ahmad Malik, Director of the Pakistan Council for Research in Water Resources (PCRWR).
“The cost of hydroelectric generation is only Rs. 1.03 per unit,” notes PCRWR Chairman Dr. Muhammad Alam Tahir, stressing the need to develop indigenous renewable energy resources.
“India has generated 8,296 MW electricity working within the 1.2 MAF limits imposed for the water India can store on the Chenab River under the IWT,” Adviser to the Centre for Research on Security Studies and Research Fellow with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) Arshad H. Abbasi points out.
“We have no limit on how much water to store on the Chenab, yet all we are able to generate is only 13 MW!”
“The more urgent problem is watershed management in the catchment areas of the Indus River System.
“We must ensure the natural ecosystems are not disturbed,” says seasoned development expert Syed Ayub Qutub, urging cooperation “for we are all the children of the monsoons”.
Dr Shahid Ahmad of the Pakistan Agriculural Research Council wants urgent action to “manage the shared underground water resources in the Indus Basin sustainably.” He is also for joint watershed management in the upper catchment areas of the western rivers. The IWT does not provide for any of this.
However, the issue is not simply one of resource consumption. Nearly, 1.25 billion people in India and Pakistan are directly and indirectly affected by these mysterious happenings around the IWT, notes Dr Mubashir Hasan urging all to respect the treaty. Most independent experts in Pakistan agree.
They include Shamsul Mulk, a known expert on water resources, who hopes in the coming years when both Pakistan and India are faced with greater pressures, India’s conduct will not negate the spirit of understanding reached in signing the treaty.
“The important thing about water treaties is the conduct of the upper riparian, which determines the treaty’s success and failure,” he notes.
In Pakistan, this is likely to continue being seen as the prevalent bottomline, our own weaknesses and lack of monitoring notwithstanding. It is clear, however, that water will continue to top the bilateral agendas for some time.
NOTE: This concludes a four-part series of reports under Aman ki Asha’s ‘Water is Life’ campaign initiated to discuss and debate the ‘water issue’ between India and Pakistan in an open, non-emotional manner.