Protecting the ecosystem

January 03, 2020


The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development
The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development

on learning that India has started construction of the Ratle dam, Pakistan’s hurriedly dispatched delegation to the World Bank has returned empty-handed. Pakistan’s water diplomacy has come to a dead-end. The Pakistan Commission for Indus Waters has no regular communication with its Indian counterpart. Their meetings have become increasingly infrequent, and they are used to talking at rather than to each other. More importantly, instead of having a piecemeal approach of dealing with one dam at a time, India and Pakistan need to develop an integrated ecosystem-based approach.

Instead of looking at the entire spectrum of the Indian ambition to construct a cascade of dams aimed at a web of link canals for out-of-basin water diversions, the vision of Islamabad’s negotiators is confined to engineering matters focusing on questions about the permissibility of the design or capacity of the proposed infrastructure. This time it is Ratle on the Chenab. Before this, it was Kishanganga on the Jhelum. And earlier, Baglihar on the Chenab. For Pakistan, it is one failure after the other, for want of a clear water vision and negotiating strategy.

The Indian government’s ambitions are imperial and built upon the British colonial tradition of disregarding the integrity of ecosystems. In fact, they are reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s diversion of Amu Darya and Syr Darya in the 1960s so that they could irrigate the desert region in order to favour cotton rather than protect the Aral Sea. Today, the Indus ecosystem is fast becoming a global environmental disaster, only much bigger than that of the Aral Sea. The region’s water policymakers, however, continue to be tragically uneducated and utterly unblemished by contemporary knowledge on ecosystem-based approaches to transboundary water management.

The story of the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi rivers given to India under the treaty with full rights to utilise their waters is very instructive. Still, Pakistan used to get excess water that helped recharge groundwater, annually flush pollutants and keep the ecosystem alive at nominal levels. Rapid depletion of groundwater in Lahore is partially attributable to the fact that Ravi has become a dead river with zero flows into Pakistan. Ravi’s water is diverted at Madhupur headworks to Beas and Sutlej, rather than being allowed to come to Ferozepur to feed the canals constructed in pre-Partition India for eastern and western Punjab. The upstream construction of a cascade of dams for out-of-basin transfers has begun to strangulate the Indus ecosystem.

Pakistan must abandon its piecemeal approach for a clear water vision and negotiating strategy.

Let us briefly examine what is happening in Indian Punjab. Soon after Partition, the Indian government took charge of Punjab’s waters. A master plan to link Punjab’s rivers started in 1950 with two major projects, Harike headworks and Bhakra-Nangal, shifting waters from the Beas to the Sutlej, through the Beas-Sutlej link canal. The headworks were developed in Himachal Pradesh, denying Punjab control over its water. To date, this has continued to cloud Punjab’s water relations with the central government.

The Beas-Sutlej link canal takes water to Bhakra dam on to Nangal dam from where two concrete canals transfer 7.5 million acre feet (MAF) water of Beas and Sutlej to Delhi, Rajasthan and Haryana, leaving less than one-third of the total available water for Punjab. This scheme has rendered the Sutlej into a seasonal nullah that gets water only when excess water cannot be absorbed at Bakhra dam. Result: there are now hardly any environmental flows to Pakistan from the Sutlej.

Likewise, a Ravi-Beas link canal was constructed in 1955 to take the waters of both rivers through Bikaneer feeder and the controversial Indira Gandhi canal deep into Rajasthan, up to Jaisalmer, some 750 kilometres away. This has foreclosed any water for all canals in eastern and western Punjab from Ferozepur headworks, thus denying any seasonal flows for the Ravi river or local groundwater recharging on both sides of the border.

Further, another out-of-basin water transfer was envisioned in the early 1980s through the Sutlej-Jumna link canal for transferring 3.5MAF water. Despite the Indian supreme court decisions and central government interventions, Punjab continues to resist. Yet, it has been made operational by the central government through an interim arrangement from Bhakra to take 2.1MAF water away from Punjab, and thus further reducing the water availability in the state.

Tinkering further with the ecosystem, Hindutva has commenced the Vedic Sarswati, a mythical canal mentioned in the Rig Veda, to take Sutlej water up to the Rann of Kutch in Gujrat. Some plans suggest that, given opposition in Punjab, Sutlej waters will be diverted upstream from Himachal Pradesh with the help of three dams at Haripur, Adi Badri and Lohgah.

In the last 70 years, Indus water flows have changed dramatically. More than 75 per cent water of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej now flow to other states instead of Indian Punjab, resulting in accelerated groundwater depletion and ecosystem degradation.

The diversions to non-basin riparians have resulted in self-inflicting reliance on groundwater. Heavy subsidies by the central government (by providing free electricity to almost two million tube wells and submersive pumps) have played havoc with the ecosystem. Of 142 blocks (subdivisions), 110 are overexploiting water, particularly in central Punjab which is India’s food basket. According to Nasa’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment project, this level of abstraction is not sustainable, attributing it to the collapse of agriculture output and severe shortages in potable water. The time given is barely a few decades.

While Punjab is threatened by desertification, a water-intensive cropping pattern (which includes paddy, sugarcane and other water-intensive crops, particularly fruit and vegetables, for the growing middle classes of distant consumers) continues. It adds to the stress on the water balance in the Indus ecosystem. Instead of identifying the sources of scarcity and curbing wasteful usage, demonising the Indus Waters Treaty has become fashionable.

Out-of-basin transfers and consumption practices in Indian Punjab are — or need to be — of strategic interest to Pakistan and its water negotiators. For an ordinary farmer, growing early-season and exotic fruit and vegetables is understandably more profitable than worrying about the death of the Indus ecosystem.

The writer is an Islamabad-based expert on climate change and development.

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2020