Pakistan's main river which originates from India, Chenab, is almost dried up.-Photo by AP
Pakistan's main river which originates from India, Chenab, is almost dried up.-Photo by AP

KARACHI: American diplomats were not very hopeful about the long-term prospects of Pakistan and India easily resolving their disagreements about the “emotional issue” of water, especially given “Pakistani anxiety over access to water”, according to a number of previously unpublished secret US diplomatic cables accessed by Dawn through WikiLeaks. They feared the water-related disputes would cast a long shadow over the ‘Composite Dialogue’ process, the latest round of which begins in Islamabad on Thursday.

“Even if India and Pakistan could resolve the Baglihar and Kishanganga projects,” wrote US Ambassador to New Delhi David Mulford in a confidential cable dated February 25, 2005, “there are several more hydroelectric dams planned for Indian Kashmir that might be questioned under the IWT (Indus Water Treaty).” Both Baglihar and Kishanganga projects are on the Chenab River, one of the three ‘western rivers’ to whose waters Pakistan has exclusive ‘consumptive’ rights under the IWT and which have been the source of long festering disagreement between the two neighbours.

The American ambassador also expressed guarded optimism that matters in “this politically charged impasse” would not spiral into “Islamabad’s worst case scenario, that India’s dams in J&K (Jammu and Kashmir) have the potential to destroy the peace process or even to lead to war”.

Mr Mulford wrote his cable at the height of the Baglihar Dam construction controversy and was quoting the opinion of an unnamed World Bank “contact” with regard to the upcoming dams. The bank official in particular referenced the (then under-construction, now completed, 450 MW) Dul Hasti Dam and the proposed Burser, Pakul Dul and Sawalkote projects on the Indian side which were “all on the order of 1000 MW” and which were “significant undertakings in varying stages of planning that might be questioned as to their IWT compliance”.

The Baglihar Dam construction issue, which Pakistan took into arbitration in 2005 after six years of unproductive talks with India, was eventually settled through a World Bank-appointed ‘neutral expert’ in early 2007, mostly in favour of India’s position. Although Pakistan agreed to respect the results of the arbitration, further disagreements arose in 2008 over the unauthorised filling of Baglihar and Pakistani demands for compensation for reduced flows, which are detailed in three further cables from that year.

In a cable dated November 3, 2008, then US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne W. Patterson pointed out that Pakistan was “facing a 34 per cent water shortage” that year because of a reduction in water flows in the Chenab, translating into “lower crop yields for winter” and “extended blackouts across the country due to reduced hydropower production”. She also claimed in her communications that “Officially, India dispels Pakistani claims but, unofficially, the Indian side admits that ‘structural constraints of Baglihar Dam and weather constraints’ have resulted in a reduction of Pakistan’s share of water.” She noted that the dispute had “already resulted in increased anti-India sentiment among the local population”.

Ms Patterson also wrote that “Privately, GOP officials acknowledge they are very worried about future plans for India to build numerous other dams (reportedly up to eight additional dams) on the Chenab River and the likelihood that water scarcity driven by India’s increased usage will become a more frequent occurrence in Pakistan.” In fact, according to Pakistan’s former Indus Water Commissioner, Syed Jamaat Ali Shah, there are some two dozen projects planned by India on the Chenab River alone.

The current focus, however, seems to be on the under-construction Kishanganga Dam on the Neelum River, which Pakistan contends will impact its own under-construction Neelum River hydropower project by reducing flows as well as lead to environmental degradation of the Neelum Valley. This matter has already been admitted for hearing by an independent arbitration court as a “dispute” – a more serious terminology than Baglihar which was accorded the status of “differences” – under the terms of the Indus Water Treaty. Under the treaty, existing downriver projects have priority but since both Kishanganga and Pakistan’s Neelum project are still under-construction, there is disagreement between experts whether the treaty terms have been violated. According to independent water expert Arshad Abbasi, water from Kishanganga is also going to be diverted to another hydropower project known as Uri-2 on the Jhelum River, which has been nearly constructed without apparent Pakistani objections.

After the decision of the Swiss neutral expert, Professor Raymod Lafitte, in the matter of the Baglihar Dam, a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan, G. Parthasarthy, had told American diplomats that the decision has “set precedents” for future construction of dams. According to a cable dated February 14, 2007, he said: “A lot of projects that were held up are now possible,” referring in particular to the Kishanganga Dam project. US Ambassador Mulford noted in a comment, “That India has the green light to complete and/or build similar dams on other rivers throughout Jammu and Kashmir is a fact likely not lost on anyone in energy-starved New Delhi.”

As Indo-Pak water disputes continue to remain unresolved over more than a decade of talks, it would do well to recall the comment a Pakistani diplomat had made to American diplomats in New Delhi. “There are no doves,” Mr Mulford quoted him as saying in his 2005 cable, “and there are no moderates on water issues.”

Cables referenced: WikiLeaks # 25273, 27677, 96616, 172003, 176424, 181176.