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Earthly matters: Sharing our resources

May 02, 2010

The multilateral Indus Water Treaty of 1960 enabled India and Pakistan to share their rivers and has survived three wars if you count Kargil. Now, sixty years later, tensions over a series of Indian dams being built upstream in Kashmir and increased water scarcity in the region, is threatening the treaty. History has proved that the Indus Treaty can keep the peace, but will this “history” be less applicable as the environment changes?

Today, both countries are plagued by water scarcity caused by climate change and strained by the demand from growing populations and increased competition for the Indus' dwindling resources. The Indus' flow is largely dependent on the seasonal runoff from snow melt and rapidly shrinking Himalayan glaciers. Right now there is insufficient data to say what exactly will happen to the Indus, but there are fears that the flows of the Indus could be severely affected by climate change and reduced by perhaps as much as 50 per cent.

Journalists from both sides need to report objectively and dispassionately on this crucial issue. I was horrified to discover while reporting on the Climate Change Conference 2009 in Copenhagen that I was the sole journalist from Pakistan, while there were dozens of journalists there from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India. Thus I asked the Islamabad based Leadership in Environment and Development NGO (LEAD-Pakistan) to facilitate a cross border training workshop for Indian and Pakistani journalists on climate change. The idea was that they could learn from one another and raise awareness of how climate change will affect water supplies in both countries.

The workshop, entitled 'Sharing Our Resources A Vision for Addressing Cross Border Water Scarcity Caused by Climate Change' was held from March 28-30 in Islamabad, with funding from DFID and the One UN-Joint Programme on Environment. The UNDP GEF Small Grants Programme and the Commonwealth Foundation UK also gave support to the workshop, which was organised by LEAD-Pakistan.

Due to visa delays, only seven journalists from India who are climate change specialists, managed to make it to Pakistan. The remaining 23 journalists who have an interest and experience in environmental reporting were invited from all over Pakistan. There was a mix of print and electronic journalists from big media houses. Members of the Urdu press were also invited.

The Federal Minister for Environment, Mr Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi, inaugurated the workshop. His speech stressed upon the importance of the media in raising awareness about the environment at different levels of society. Some key achievements of the Ministry of Environment like the Forest Policy for Climate Change Mitigation, and the Clean Drinking Water Policy 2009, which envisages the provision of clean drinking water to all by 2025, and the formation of a Task Force on Environment were explained. The speech also touched upon how agriculture would be adversely affected by water shortages in the near future.

Climate change specialist, Dr Pervaiz Ameer, later talked about the impact of climate change on agriculture in detail. He pointed out that due to climate change, cropping patterns had to be changed in the region. If the temperature rise and rainfall patterns of the region can no longer support wheat as a major crop, farmers should promote alternative crops such as maize. He also pointed out that water intensive crops like sugar cane and rice should no longer be grown in this region due to increasing water scarcity.

Another important session was by water expert Arshad Abbasi, who focussed on the Indus Water Treaty and the construction of major dams on the rivers of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The conflicts among the three countries over bad designing of the dams and its repercussions on the environment, agriculture and human health were also highlighted. The Farakka Dam between India and Bangladesh was highlighted as a poor case of construction of a dam. This dam is responsible for rapid floods in Bangladesh. It was stressed that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of any development project especially those aimed for public service should be mandatory prior to construction. The results of the findings should be shared with concerned stakeholders so that proper adaptive strategies can be adopted right from the inception of such kind of projects.

He also called for greater transparency by the Indus Water Commission who should make their reports public. The Commission still uses outdated information technology and needs to share real time data on water quality and quantity in this day and age. Arshad Abbasi pointed out that joint watershed management was now crucial and both countries have to start planting trees in their watersheds. Forests up in the mountains, especially Chir Pines, act like monsoon harvesters and due to massive deforestation in recent years on both sides of the border, rainfall is decreasing. It seems that the link between water-trees-environment is still not clear to our policy makers!

The three day workshop included talks/discussions, presentations, group work and case studies. It provided a historical opportunity for environmental journalists from Pakistan to interact with their Indian counterparts and actually sit down at one forum and discuss water issues in a sensible manner. Most importantly, it led to the formation of a permanent media network for journalists from India and Pakistan on climate change.