Prepare for ‘water stress’ - Mir Adnan Aziz - Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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The word rival originates from Latin rivalis, meaning sharing a river. A water war between two Sumerian city-states, Lagash and Umma, 4,500 years ago, is recorded on a stone carving. However, the subsequent history of water dispute resolution has been impressive. States have favoured cooperation over conflict. Since the Laggash-Umma war 3,600 international water treaties have been signed, 145 being in the 20th century.

Of three trans-boundary river basins in South Asia, the Indus River Basin is the lifeline that feeds the agrarian economy of Pakistan. During the first year of Partition, Indus Basin waters were apportioned by the Inter-Dominion Accord of May 4, 1948. Twelve years of negotiations led by the World Bank saw the signing of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. It allocated three western rivers, Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab, to Pakistan.

The treaty gave Pakistan a transition period till 31 March 1970 to build a link canal system to divert water from the western to the eastern rivers. Pakistan rose up to the challenge and constructed two major dams, Tarbela and Mangla, along with barrages. Also built were 62,000 kilometres of canals, which fed 1.7 million kilometres of tertiary canals, the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system.

According to the treaty, India was allowed to harness the hydroelectric potential of the western rivers without storing or diverting the water. It was also bound to inform Pakistan about the design of any work on these rivers well before initiating it. With the passage of time, water scarcity, compounded by our lack of political will and vision, encouraged India to manipulate the treaty. And the World Bank, which brokered the treaty, had no monitoring provisions and enforcement mechanism.

Jawaharlal Nehru called dams the “temples of modern India.” Today these temples and tunnels are being built at a feverish pace. Sitting on our headwaters in occupied Kashmir, India has completed various projects, thus greatly limiting the flow downstream. Successive governments have failed to influence India against this.

The Chenab River alone provides water to 21 canals and irrigates about seven million acres of agriculture land in Punjab. India has already built 14 hydroelectric plants on Chenab River. All these and other projects are reservoir-based; many are diversion dams. By 2017 India reportedly plans to construct another 192 power projects on the Jehlum, the Indus and the Chenab and the tributaries. India is also spending around $200 billion on the construction of water tunnels to funnel away water from the Indus River.

“The treaty worked well in the past, mostly because the Indians weren’t building anything,” says John Briscoe, an expert on South Asia’s water issues at Harvard University. “This is a completely different ballgame. Now there is a whole battery of these (Indian) hydro projects.” Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Rao termed our stance on Indus treaty manipulation as “breast-beating propaganda,” adding: “The myth of water theft does not stand the test of rational scrutiny or reason.”

India’s sits on our headwaters in occupied Kashmir. Its conduct has been that of an errant child who finds itself in charge of a water tap. On April 1, 1948, India totally shut off water from the Ferozepur Headworks to the Dipalpur Canal and the main branches of Upper Bari Doab Canal, thus totally starving Punjab of water.

Also by 2017 India will acquire the capability to completely shut the sluice gates on the Jhelum, the Chenab and the Indus. Sun Tzu says in The Art of War: “The greatest victories are those won without fighting.” Thanks to the indifference and apathy of our political czars, we have allowed India military and political supremacy through the building of these dams.

When President Zardari assumed office, he declared that the “Kashmir dispute be left to future generations,” even though his claim to being heir to his party’s leadership could not wait for even a few days after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. This was an utterance which belittled our own sustained stance on the core issue, if not the sacrifice of thousands of Kashmiris. When Jairam Ramesh was India’s power minister, he countered the row over Kishanganga by saying: “This is an issue with geo-strategic and foreign-policy implications.” President Zaradari and our political mandarins seem oblivious to these implications as they seem to be on all other matters of national import.

In a knee-jerk reaction to the energy crisis, the controversial rental power projects have given way to a proposal to import 1,000 MW electricity from Tajikistan, an upper-riparian country. Being lower riparian countries, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are opposing the construction of Ragun Dam by Tajikistan. Importing electricity from Tajikistan will be our tacit approval ceding right to the upper riparian. If this intended import goes through, we will sabotage our own case against Kishanganga in the International Arbitration Court, India being the upper- and Pakistan the lower riparian.

The Indus Water Treaty was supposed to guarantee equitable distribution. What we have is India asserting a unilateral and unfair doctrine of upstream riparian propriety rights. We may soon face, in addition to the host of stress factors, what Prof Malin Falkenmark of the Stockholm International Water Institute terms “water stress.”

The upcoming Pakistan-India secretary-level talks in New Delhi (March 28-29) should prominently figure our reservations about India’s dam-building spree in Occupied Kashmir and the Kashmir issue itself. It will be all the more appropriate with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement in Jammu that the upcoming talks will include Kashmir. Ironically, the vacant foreign minister’s slot at this crucial juncture portrays Pakistan khappay style of governance.

Global warming may soon see inadequate drinking and agriculture water leading to starvation and dislocation on an unprecedented scale. With an annual average rainfall of just 240 millimetres and groundwater falling as much as 20 feet per year, we remain oblivious to this looming water challenge. Our imbalance between water use and resource, Indian dams on our headwaters and climate change pose a grave threat to Pakistan. The greatest factor, though, is our indifference and a total planning deficit.

We have to build multiple water reservoirs all over the country and maintain and upgrade our existing water infrastructure on a priority basis. As a nation we have to conserve water and improve efficiency of water use, including modern farming techniques. Benjamin Franklin says in Poor Richard’s Almanac: “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.” We still have time before the well runs dry.

The writer is a freelance contributor.


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