Sunday, February 28, 2010

SMOKE ON THE WATER, BUT WHERE IS THE FIRE

By

SUSHANT SAREEN

    It would perhaps surprise Pakistanis to know that the rising crescendo in Pakistan over India's alleged 'water terrorism' is so far a complete non-issue as far as Indian public opinion is concerned. Other than the strategic community and journalists covering foreign policy, the Indian public opinion is unaware of the concerns in Pakistan over river waters flowing from India into Pakistan. Even the strategic community in India is somewhat bemused by the furore in Pakistan. The debate in Pakistan, which is generating more heat than light, is hardly helping matters. If anything, it appears ill-informed and more rhetorical than real because while a lot of noise is being heard about 'water theft' by India, there is as yet no evidence that would lend credence to this allegation – a classic case of smoke without fire.

An example of this was a TV programme in which, while Pakistan's Indus Waters Commissioner insisted that there was as yet no violation of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) by India, a PMLQ politician on the panel insisted that India was depriving Pakistan of its waters (although he admitted he is no expert on the issue) and the legal expert continued to talk of the spirit of the treaty, prejudging all the time that the spirit of the treaty must have been violated by India. Even the manner in which the issue has been raised in Pakistan's parliament suggests that it is more about grandstanding rather than any grievance based on any wrongdoing on India's part.

Despite all the emotions that water can excite, the IWT is really a technical issue more than a political issue between India and Pakistan. This is not to deny an element of politics that invariably creeps in over the issue of river waters. Over the last couple of years, the IWT is becoming an issue in the politics Jammu and Kashmir with talk of how India and Pakistan have deprived J&K of waters over which it has the first right. Even in the Pakistan administered Kashmir, this issue has been recently raised by the AJK prime minister.

There is also a body of opinion in India that has for long been exhorting the Indian government to use water as a weapon against Pakistan. For people adhering to this view, the water weapon is a fair pay-back for the use of jihad as a weapon by Pakistan. But successive governments in India have desisted from going down this path. At the same time, growing water requirements as well as shortages, and rising energy needs, is forcing the government to exploit all available water resources to their maximum potential.

According to technocrats, while the eastern rivers – Ravi, Beas and Sutlej – have been exclusively granted to India, a lot of water still spills over into Pakistan from these rivers, which is a bonus for Pakistan if one goes by the letter of the IWT. They say that the government has neglected developing the infrastructure needed to stop this water flowing into Pakistan, water that is required for growing needs of Indian agriculture and drinking water needs of Indian cities. What is more, some estimates suggest that if this water can be utilised properly, it will go a long way in addressing river water disputes between Indian states like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan.

As far as the western rivers – Indus, Chenab and Jhelum – are concerned, the IWT grants certain rights to India on these waters. For instance, India is permitted to build run-of-the-river hydroelectric plants. There are also provisions for using these waters for drinking water as well as agricultural use in J&K. Given the massive energy needs of the Indian economy, the government is now trying to use these waters, but without violating the IWT. And this is the critical point that seems to be missing in the debate that is currently underway in Pakistan over the Indian plans to build a series of dams on the main western rivers and its tributaries.

The issue of IWT is at one level a simple technical issue: if India is indeed violating the IWT, then Pakistan is well within its rights to invoke the dispute clauses and approach the international guarantors and seek the opinion of a neutral expert which will be binding on both countries. The case of Baglihar dam is instructive. Pakistan had objections to the design of the Baglihar dam, objections that India rejected. Pakistan sought the intervention of the neutral expert, whose ruling was accepted by both countries. The fact of the matter is that India is well aware of the diplomatic and political repercussions of violating the IWT and is therefore not interested in violating the treaty. And yet, India wants to use modern engineering techniques that enhance the life of a dam project, techniques that were not available when the IWT was signed. In this, the Baglihar ruling has come as a shot in the arm for Indian dam designs because the neutral expert ruled in favour of such modern techniques.

Pakistan's fears are misplaced also because regardless of the dams that India plans to construct on the western rivers, India cannot stop the water flowing into Pakistan unless it builds the canal infrastructure that can divert this water away from Pakistan. And as yet there is absolutely no such infrastructure that is on the design board. In the case of the Kishenganga river (Neelum) the dam that India is building will keep the total quantum of water in Jhelum the same, only the water will be diverted from Kishenganga into Jhelum. The point of contention in the case of the Kishenganga project is that Pakistan too is building a dam on the same river downstream and the Indian dam will render the Pakistani dam useless. In the case of these two projects, the country that finishes its dam first wins because the other country will have to give up on its project.

While this is something that is part of the treaty, the Neelum-Kishenganga project has become a metaphor that the two countries need to use to think out of the box on the issue of river waters. In other words, rather than follow a competing model, the two countries need to consider following a cooperative model in which a common resource can be exploited jointly to maximise welfare on both sides. The fact is that rising population and, increasingly agricultural and energy needs are raising the water requirements on both sides. At the same time, hydrological factors and environmental factors are reducing the water flows in rivers. This makes it imperative for both countries to use a scarce resource like water optimally.

In the case of water, more is not necessarily better than enough. This means that irrigation techniques need to change from flood irrigation to drip irrigation that uses water far more efficiently. While this will necessitate a change in cropping patterns, it will also mean investing in a modern irrigation technique that takes care of agriculture (which consumes close to 90% of water) and leaves enough for water requirements of growing cities. The problem is that for politicians and bureaucrats it is so more easier to excite and incite people on the issue of water, but so much more difficult to do the hard work to invest in systems that utilise a scarce resource in a more efficient manner.

Perhaps, the time has also come for India and Pakistan to rethink the IWT and rework it in a way that it addresses the issues we will face in the next 50 years instead of harping on issues we faced in the last 50 years. But if this is not acceptable, then at least the two countries can work together on joint projects that will serve both their peoples and becoming a huge CBM that can effect a paradigm change in their perceptions of each other. The salvation and indeed the survival of the subcontinent depends on the ability of the two countries to cooperate and manage a joint but scarce resource like water efficiently and sensibly.

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    <1350 Words>                    22nd February, 2010

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