Evading water wars

Published January 21, 2011

EXPERTS believe that future wars will be fought over water. Population growth, climate change and depleting sources of water have increased its importance and given rise to terms such as 'hydro-politics' and 'water security'.

While this theory remains to be tested, we can already see the early indications of the possible conflict over water resources in the Indus delta that transcends from Kashmir through Indian and Pakistani Punjab to the coastal areas of Sindh: this is a region marred with ethnic, religious, social and economic divisions.

A conflict over water may operate at both the international and sub-national levels. Between Pakistan and India for example, sharing the water of the Indus and its various tributaries has been a cause of contention. Some suggest that one of the reasons for Pakistan's obsession with Kashmir is that all of these rivers originate from the valley. The statement of Mr M.A. Jinnah referring to Kashmir as the “jugular vein” of Pakistan is also interpreted in this context.

This is not to say that both countries have not attempted to resolve the water issue. The Indus Basin Treaty signed by India and Pakistan in 1960 was a good initiative that gave Pakistan exclusive rights over the three western rivers, while India the three eastern rivers. The treaty is, however, under pressure due to India's increasing appetite for power to fuel its high economic growth. This has already resulted in disputes with Pakistan over the Kishanganga and Baglihar dam projects.

The treaty has provisions that allow India to establish projects on the rivers allocated to Pakistan as long as they do not obstruct the flow of the river and have limited storage capacity. Differences have, however, emerged on the interpretation of these provisions and Pakistan has objected to the design parameters of such projects fearing that these may provide India with the ability to accelerate, decelerate or block the flow of the river in times of political tension or war.

On the sub-national level, the division of water resources has been a bone of contention between the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. It was one of the main reasons that led to the Sikh uprising in Indian Punjab during the 1980s. In Pakistan, although provinces have frequently disagreed on the formulas for sharing water resources, this has remained confined to political debate and so far has not turned ugly.

However, keeping in mind the Indian example and the growing divergence of opinion on the water issue between Punjab and the other three provinces epitomised by the severe dispute over Kalabagh Dam, there is potential for such an eventuality.

The disagreements between Punjab and Sindh go back to the colonial period when the two provinces signed a treaty in 1945 that allocated the bulk of water (75 per cent) from the Indus River to Sindh while the majority share (94 per cent) of the water from the five tributaries to Punjab.

Under the Sindh Basin Treaty, the share of Punjab was severely cut as three of the tributary rivers were allocated to India. In order to compensate for this, link canals were constructed from the western half of the Indus basin to the eastern half, reducing the share of water that Sindh received under the earlier treaty. Despite the subsequent inter-provincial water accord in 1991, there is much discontent in Sindh about any new project upstream that has the capacity to store and further reduce the supply of water downstream.

The public policymakers in both India and Pakistan and indeed around the world have been obsessed with mega-projects such as Kalabagh and Baglihar. Efforts have been made to make an argument on the basis of technical jargon and those opposed to the projects have been criticised for interfering in a purely technical matter. It has been argued that millions of cusecs of water are wasted as they flow into the Arabian Sea. Some even argue that the recent floods in Pakistan could have been 'controlled' if Kalabagh had been built.

However, narrowly defining the problem in merely technical and economic terms is a mistake. The issue of water has much more to it; people's identities have revolved around the sources of water they have lived by. Nothing signifies this more than the terms 'Sindhi' and 'Punjabi'.

Water, thus, retains a strong social, cultural and emotional attachment with the people. Any chances of agreement on sharing water rest upon acknowledging this affiliation, building trust and creating a win-win situation for all communities concerned.Using the lingo that perpetuates a desire of controlling and taming the mighty rivers creates a perception of possible encroachment of water resources in the communities downstream and may trigger an adverse emotional response leading to resistance against any such effort.

Proactive and pre-emptive diplomatic efforts are therefore required in order to create shared understanding of the problem and search for innovative, home-grown and consensual solutions to this problem at both the national and sub-national levels.

The water managers of both countries must think out of the box and explore alternatives to the large-scale projects that may in future plague relations between communities living along the Indus.

Experts have suggested that improving the conveyance efficiencies of the available water channels, enhancement in the existing infrastructure, better on-farm water management and smaller run-of-the-river hydroelectric projects may yield better results at much lower cost as compared to costly, time-consuming, environmentally detrimental and politically contentious mega- projects.

These suggestions should be seriously considered. This, however, requires rectification of established institutional biases and a major paradigm shift in the bureaucratic ways of managing water.

The writer is a doctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

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