Averting water wars

March 07, 2011

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India has been awarded carbon credits by the UNFCCC for two hydropower projects — Chutak and Nimoo-Bazgo — contested by Pakistan for allegedly being constructed in violation of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty by India. — File photo

FOR the first time, the United States has 'elevated' water-related issues in its bilateral relationship with Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Central Asia and would like to help resolve them so as to achieve its foreign policy goals and protect its national security interests in the region. A report prepared by the staff of the US Senate for its Foreign Relations Committee and released to the media on February 22 by Senator John Kerry, its chairman, says that in South and Central Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, water scarcity is fuelling dangerous tensions that will have repercussions for regional stability and the US foreign policy objectives.

The implications of this looming water shortage, caused or aggravated by agriculture demands, power generation and climate instability, will be felt all over the world, it says.

The report warns that the Indus Water Treaty, which has so far maintained stability over water between Pakistan and India despite wars over Kashmir, is now losing its effectiveness in settling the disputes and may fail to avert water wars between the two countries. “A breakdown in the treaty's utility … could have serious ramifications for regional stability,” the report cautions. In other words, Washington is ready to act as a mediator between the two countries (in place of IWT) for two reasons: (1) the conflict over water sharing has assumed grave proportions, (2) to protect its long-term security interests in the region.

The report titled “Avoiding Water Wars: Water Scarcity and Central Asia's Growing Importance for Stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan”, however, substantiates Pakistan's concerns that India is violating the Indus treaty by building dams on western rivers, according to Foreign Office spokeswoman Tahmina Janjua.

India has 33 projects, including controversial Kishanganga, at various stages of completion. Although no single dam along the rivers controlled by the treaty may affect Pakistan's access to water, “the cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season,” says the report.

The spokeswoman said that these concerns which are causing tensions between the two countries need to be “addressed in a sincere, forthwith and result-oriented manner.” India disagrees with Pakistan's contention that its share of waters is being diverted by dams in Indian-administered Kashmir. Instead, it claims that the levels of rivers have fallen due to climate change.

While much of the US focus currently rests on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the report says, it must not ignore the interests in the shared waters by India and the neighbouring five Central Asian countries—Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan.

The report makes following four recommendations to the Obama administration for consideration and action with respect to water issues in the region:

* The countries in South and Central Asia lack access to consistent and comparable data on water supply, flow and usage. This creates tension over the management of water by both upstream and downstream countries. The US should support data-related activities specific to measuring and monitoring water flow and volume for key rivers and river basins.

* The countries in the region cannot simply engineer their way out of growing water scarcity; they must begin by improving management of their existing supply. In fact, they should start shifting their focus from increasing the supply of water to decreasing their demand for it. Specifically, the US can utilise its expertise in demand management to help the countries reduce the amount of water consumed by the agriculture sector and regulate groundwater withdrawals.

* The impact of the US approach to address the water problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan can extend far beyond each country's borders as water ignores political boundaries. Besides, regional water management can be an important type of conflict management. The US can assist in holding river basin dialogues and establishing community-level water management projects on shared watersheds.

* When a country's weak institutions are confronted with natural disasters or human interventions that suddenly disrupt water flow, tensions can flare. The US, with decades of experience on water sharing agreements, is in a position to support programmes that build institutional capacity of government agencies in areas such as international water law, dispute resolution, mediation and arbitration.

In a special report on water published on May 20, 2010, The Economist said that the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty which withstood Indo-Pakistani wars in 1965 and 1971 is now threatened by three developments. First, India proposes to build a water-diversion scheme in Indian Kashmir that would take water from the Kishanganga river to the Jhelum river before it could reach Pakistani Kashmir.

Second, India, which already has more than 20 hydro projects on the three western rivers allocated to Pakistan, is now building at least another ten and more are planned. Each of these projects conforms to the letter of the treaty, since it does not involve storage but merely run-of-the-river dams, in which water is returned downstream after it has been used to generate power.

However, Pakistan is worried about the cumulative effects. When, in 2005, it complained about Baglihar hydro project, the dispute went to arbitration. That resulted in a ruling favourable to India. Pakistan feels that the spirit of the agreement has been breached and the treaty needs revision, partly because advances in technology make it possible to build dams that were not foreseen when the deal was signed.

Third, Pakistan badly needs more reservoirs. Storage is essential to provide supplies in winter (two-fifths of the Indus's flow comes from the summer melting of glaciers) but Pakistan's two big dams are silting up. It would like to build a new one in Pakistani Kashmir, but India has objected, and the money is not forthcoming.