Water Wars: Why India and Pakistan Are Squaring Off Over Their Rivers
By Faheem Belharvi
India’s Wular Lake, a popular picnic and tourist spot nestled in the Kashmir Valley, is an unlikely site for conflict. But India’s plan to build a structure on the Jhelum River at the mouth of the lake that will allow it to release water during the river’s lean winter months has outraged neighboring Pakistan, which believes the project will give India the power to control how much water flows downstream to its farmers. After two and a half decades of deadlock and 15 marathon rounds of bilateral talks — the most recent occurring in late March — the countries appear a long way from finding common ground.
The dispute isn’t the first of its kind, nor will it be the last. The waters of the Indus River and tributaries like the Jhelum — and the dams built on them by India — have long been one of the main points of contention between the rival neighbors, along with the disputed region of Kashmir itself and cross-border terrorism. Pakistan, whose agriculture-dominated economy is heavily reliant on the Indus and its tributaries, fears upstream dams allow India to manipulate the flows of water as it sees fit. Many in Pakistan accuse New Delhi of wantonly exacerbating the country’s dire water shortages, choking its agricultural production and ruining livelihoods.
India dismisses these accusations as paranoid and without scientific backing. Its dams are run-of-the-river, it says, aimed at generating hydroelectricity, or in the case of the Tulbul navigation project on the Jhelum, meeting other development needs like facilitating year-round trade. India’s Indus Water Commissioner G. Aranganathan says that after India fills its reservoirs in the initial stages of each project, it only uses the water it needs to run its turbines and doesn’t prevent any from flowing into Pakistan. “There is absolutely no question of interrupting or reducing Pakistan’s water supply,” he tells TIME.
The countries’ early leaders anticipated this fierce rivalry over the waters that straddle their volatile border. Following protracted and painstaking negotiations, they signed an accord in 1960 called the Indus Waters Treaty that determined exactly how the region’s rivers are to be divided. In the treaty, control over the three “eastern” rivers — the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej — was given to India and the three “western” rivers — the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum — to Pakistan. More controversial, however, were the provisions on how the waters were to be shared. Since Pakistan’s rivers flow through India first, the treaty allowed India to use them for irrigation, transport and power generation, while laying down precise do’s and don’ts for Indian building projects along the way.
The treaty has been widely hailed as a success, having survived three post-independence wars between the hostile nuclear neighbors. But its resilience is increasingly being tested by challenges thrown up by the 21st century. For one, Pakistan is on the brink of water scarcity. Its once-lush agricultural fields, which employ half of all Pakistanis and account for a quarter of its GDP, are now frequently parched. This predicament, experts say, is attributable in large part to the country’s haphazard water management policies, unproductive agricultural practices, dilapidated infrastructure and grossly inadequate water storage facilities. Climate change, too, has begun to have an impact. A recent Dutch study found that by 2050, shrinking glaciers are predicted to reduce the flows of the Indus by 8%. But in Pakistan, which is deeply distrustful of its larger and more powerful neighbor, the country’s crippling water shortage is seen as a direct result of India’s upstream dams and water projects.
Indeed, India has ramped up its hydroelectricity projects in recent years to try to boost its woefully inadequate power supplies. The government has a total of 45 projects either already completed or in the proposal stage on the western rivers, some as large as 1000 megawatt and many as small as 2 and 3 megawatt. This expansion has irked Islamabad. “India is putting more and more restrictions and constrictions on Pakistan’s waters,” Kamal Majidulla, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani’s special assistant on water resources and agriculture, tells TIME.
A 2011 U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report said that studies show no single dam will affect Pakistan’s access to water, but the cumulative effect of multiple hydroelectric projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit Pakistan’s supply at crucial moments in the growing season. India has never abused its water supplies in this way, the report adds, and New Delhi rejects the theory as an unsubstantiated hypothesis. But the report’s observations serve as a suitable analogy for India and Pakistan’s water conflicts overall. While no single legal or diplomatic tussle will rupture the fragile relations between the countries, the cumulative effect of a series of standoffs could cause tensions to boil over.
The countries have already been embroiled in two high-profile legal fights over water. In 2005, Pakistan challenged India’s 450-megawatt Baglihar dam before a World Bank-appointed neutral expert and lost. And last year, the countries went head to head at the International Court of Arbitration over India’s 330-megawatt Kishanganga project in Jammu and Kashmir. The court has ordered India to temporarily stop some constructions on the dam while assessments are being made. Pakistan is also considering arbitration to iron out differences over another dam — the Nimoo Bazgo — on the Indus.
“Unfortunately, we are going towards conflict and not conflict resolution,” says Majidulla, who heads a body called the Pakistan Trans-border Water Organization, formed in September to monitor what he calls “increased activity” on the Indian side of the border. The countries’ antagonistic political relationship has certainly not helped to ease their differences over water. “Given the mutual hostility between the two countries, it is not surprising that there is a tendency in Pakistan to believe that the scarcity it is experiencing or fearing is partly attributable to upper riparian actions,” Ramaswamy Iyer, India’s former secretary for water resources, wrote in an op-ed in the Hindu newspaper. At times, the rhetoric has even reached a fevered pitch, such as when Hafiz Saeed, head of the Pakistani militant group Jamaat-u-Dawa and alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, whipped up public sentiment against India’s so-called “water terrorism” in 2010 by using slogans like “water flows or blood.” Few believe India and Pakistan will actually go to war over the disputes, but one thing is for certain: water is making it harder for the long-time rivals to put their enmity behind them.