Understanding the Water Wars of Indo-Pak Sub-Continent



It is generally said that water nurtures life. In South Asia, however, there are fears that in future there could be a war on water, taking away scores of lives. In a region beset with the war against terrorism and the Indo-Pak conflict on Kashmir, water is a new source of tension between the two nuclear armed neighbors. So much so, the founder of the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, recently warned that if India did not stop what he described as water terrorism, the next war between India and Pakistan could be fought over water. He claimed that India was diverting the flow of rivers in Jammu and Kashmir by building dams and tunnels so as to turn Pakistan into a desert. Charges the Indians say are ludicrous.

Pakistan cannot help but fear being strangulated when it comes to its energy and water resources, which along with the war on terror are having an acutely negative impact on its economy. The country sees this as part of a well orchestrated strategy to weaken it and thus change its position on Afghan and Kashmir conflict. This article compares the perspective of India and Pakistan on water in historical context, and presents how these differing views on the use of shared water resources are gradually leading both countries towards confrontation.



As it is, Pakistan, one of the driest countries in the world, is facing severe water and energy crisis. Over the years, water availability per person has fallen from about 5,000 cubic meters (175,000 cubic feet) in 1947 to around 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 cubic feet) presently. Population growth and global climate changes are some of the factors responsible for the decreasing water availability.

The International Centre for Mountain Area Development (ICIMOD), the Chinese Academy of Meteorological Sciences, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other such organizations have warned that Himalayan glaciers, a major source of water for both India and Pakistan, are melting and could be gone by the next century. Because of the water shortage, Islamabad is also facing severe energy crisis as hydropower from the country’s largest Tarbela Dam has hit negligible levels.

In 1960, India and Pakistan had signed the Indus Water Treaty, which allotted the eastern rivers (Ravi, Sutlej and Beas) to India and the western rivers (Jhelum, Chenab and Sindh) to Pakistan. The treaty was greatly successful. However, things have changed recently.

Pakistan is upset over India’s construction of a 450-megawatt Baglihar hydel project on the Chenab River, which flows from Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan. Pakistani officials say the dam, with storage capacity of 15 billion cusecs of water, has significantly reduced water flow to Pakistan. Officials add that Pakistan is to receive 55,000 cusecs of water from the Chenab but in 2009, the country on an average received only 20-25,000 cusecs. As a result, the Chenab River has mostly gone dry, greatly affecting agriculture in the country.

It is important to mention though that in 2005, a neutral expert appointed by the World Bank had okayed the Indian Baglihar hydro-electric project with some minor modifications.

On the other hand, Indian officials point out that New Delhi, under the Indus Water Treaty, has rights on the western rivers as well. They say that they can use the rivers for domestic use, non consumptive uses (navigation, flood control and fishing). Furthermore, they can also draw water to irrigate crop area over 1.34 million acres and build hydroelectric projects. Recently, the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sarat Sabharwal, told Pakistan that New Delhi had no storage and diversion canals network to withhold Pakistan’s share of water. The Pakistani media has also been blamed of launching the water war without determining the facts. The Indians point out that reduced water flows into Pakistan is due to natural reasons such as low rainfall and receding glaciers.

Pakistan, however, remains skeptical, and considering its options. It may file complaints with the World Bank and the International Court of Arbitration against India for ‘unauthorized use’ of the Chenab River, a charge that New Delhi rejects. Syed Jamat Ali Shah, Pakistan’s Indus Water Commissioner, commented recently that Islamabad wants to retain the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) and it is India that wants to circumvent the provisions.

According to Jamat, Pakistan may have to go for neutral arbitration over the Kishanganga in the Indian-administered Kashmir. According to Pakistani officials, The Kishanganga Hydropower Project on the Ganga River, is being used to divert waters from Neelum River, which the Indians call Ganga in Kashmir. They say under the Indus Water Treaty, India cannot do so. Meanwhile, Pakistan is constructing the Neelum-Jehlum Hydropower Project downstream that could face water shortage if Kishanganga gets completed. There are also fears in Pakistan that Kishanganga, which will feed the Wullar Barrage, can be used as a geo-strategic weapon i.e. a mean to disrupt the triple canal project of Pakistan (upper Jhelum, upper Chenab, Lower Bari Doab canals), besides blocking water and thereby affecting agriculture in Kashmir and West Punjab.

On the other hand, the Indians claim that the Wullar Barrage on the Kishanganga is primarily a navigational and transportation project and would help regulate flood waters downstream. Whatever the case may be, water is the buzzword that besides Kashmir would mark the already volatile Indo-Pak relationship in the 21st Century.

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