Brewing conflicts over water in South Asia are not new to the readers of the New Security Beat
. Violence due to variations
in the monsoon season , high tensions over water and energy diplomacy
, and pressures stemming from mismanaged groundwater stocks
in the face of burgeoning population growth
have all been reported on before.
The latest addition to this thread is disappointingly familiar: escalating tensions between Pakistan and India over the Indus river basin. Pakistan views Indian plans to construct the Nimoo-Bazgo, Chutak, and Kishanganga power plants as threatening the crucial water flows of an already parched nation according to objections voiced by the Pakistani Water Commission at the annual meeting of the Indus Water Commission in March. As a result, all efforts to reach an agreement on India’s plans for expanded hydroelectric and storage facilities in the basin’s upstream highlands failed.
In a recent editorial in the Pakistani newspaper The Dawn , former Indus River System Authority Chairman Fateh Gandapur claimed that new construction amounts to a clear violation of the Indus Water Treaty (IWT):
“India is building large numbers of dams …on the rivers Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej and Beas, including on their tributaries in Indian-administered Kashmir. Together, these will have the effect of virtually stopping the perennial flow of water into Pakistan during a period of six to seven months that include the winter season. Not only will this be a blatant violation of the IWT and international laws on water rights of lower riparian areas, it will also amount to making Pakistan dry and, in the future, causing water losses that will deprive this country of its rabi and kharif crops. Our part of Punjab, which has a contiguous canal irrigation system that is amongst the largest in the world, will be turned into a desert.”Gandapur’s fears, shared by many in Pakistan, are borne out of the desperate situation in which many of their compatriots live. As noted in Running on Empty: Pakistan’s Water Crisis, a report by the Wilson Center’s Asia program, water availability in the country has plummeted from about 5,000 cubic meters (m3) per capita in the early 1950s to less than 1,500 m3 per capita today–making Pakistan the most water stressed country in Asia. With more than 90% of these water flows destined for agricultural use, only 10% remains to meet the daily needs of the region’s booming population. This harmful combination of low supplies and growing demand is untenable and in Karachi results in 30,000 deaths–the majority of which are children–from water-borne illnesses each year.
This harmful combination of low supplies and growing demand is untenable, and may be get worse before it gets better, as Pakistan’s population is projected to almost double by 2050. At an upcoming conference at the Wilson Center, “Defusing the Bomb: Pakistan’s Population Challenge,” demographic experts on Pakistan will address this issue in greater detail.
Recent talk of ‘water wars’ and ‘Indian water jihad’ from Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and head of Jamaat-ud-Dawah, have played upon popular sentiments of distrust and risk inflaming volatile emotions, the South Asian News reports.
Harvard’s John Briscoe, an expert with long-time ties to both sides of this dispute, sees such statements as the inevitable result of the media-reinforced mutual mistrust that pervades the relationship of the two nations and plays on continued false rumors of Indian water theft and Pakistani mischief. “If you want to give Lashkar-e-Taiba and other Pakistani militants an issue that really rallies people, give them water,” he told the Associated Press.
The rising tensions have echoed strongly throughout the region. For the first time in its 25-year history, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has raised the water issue (long thought to be a major political impediment and contributor to SAARC’s stagnation) among its members during its meeting this week. “I hope neighbors can find ways to compartmentalize their differences while finding ways to move forward. I am of course referring to India and Pakistan,” said Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed, during his address on Wednesday. “I hope this summit will lead to greater dialogue between (them.)”
Prime ministers Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani heeded the calls and responded with a hastily arranged in-person meeting on the sidelines of the SAARC conference. The emerging agreement targeted a comprehensive set of issues, including water and terrorism, and, while unsurprisingly weak on action, set a path upon which the nations can begin to move forward. Speaking about the agreement’s significance, Indian Foreign Secretary Nirumpama Rao told the Los Angeles Times, “There’s been a lot of soul-searching here. We need to take things forward. This is good for the two countries and good for the region.”
The fragile détente faces great hurdles in the months to come, especially if rainfall remains scarce as forecasters predict. Already, local communities in India and Pakistan are venting frustrations over water shortages. On Thursday, just one day after the agreement between Prime ministers Singh and Gilani, several Bangalore suburbs staged protests at the offices of the local water authorities, complaining loudly about persistent failures of delivery services to produce alternative arrangements for water provision despite regular payments by local citizens. Whether local civil action ultimately helps or hinders bilateral water cooperation between India and Pakistan will be interesting to track in the near future and we at the New Security Beat look forward to continuing to engage with readers on the latest developments.
Photo Credit: Mahe Zehra Husain Transboundary Water Resources Spring 2010