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Water wager

Athar Parvaiz

Readinch

India and Pakistan are locking horns over dam projects in a race to secure priority water rights on the Indus River. Athar Parvaiz reports from Kashmir.

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India and Pakistan are once again at loggerheads over the issue of water-sharing. Pakistan is raising strong objections to India’s construction of a hydropower project on the Neelum River – known as Kishanganga in India – a tributary of the Jhelum in the flashpoint territory of Kashmir. While the dispute is only the latest in a long series of such scraps, it is the first to be referred to international arbitration under the 50-year old Indus Water Treaty (IWT), marking an escalation in the race to take control of the Indus River. 

After bilateral negotiations collapsed in April last year, Pakistan took the case over the 330-megawatt Kishanganga dam to the International Court of Arbitration on the premise that India had violated the World Bank-mediated  IWT, which provides a mechanism for resolution of disputes over waters originating from the Indus basin. Under the 1960 treaty, the waters of the eastern rivers of the Indus basin – Sutlej, Beas and Ravi – are allocated to India, while Pakistan has unrestricted use of the western rivers, Indus, Jhelum and Chenab.

The first meeting of the Court of Arbitration was held in January and Islamabad is due to submit its case in April this year. But as the case drags on, India is quietly pushing ahead with dam construction, intensifying concerns in Pakistan that its government is wasting precious time in preparing its case. Recent Pakistani media reports have called for an immediate moratorium on Indian hydropower projects. The Kishanganga dispute is expected to feature prominently in the Pakistan-India secretary-level talks in New Delhi at the end of March.

This is the first case referred to international arbitration under the provisions of the IWT. Despite persistent hostilities, India and Pakistan have managed to uphold the treaty for decades. Yet from time to time, the two south-Asian neighbours have found themselves at odds over hydropower projects, as both countries’ energy and irrigation needs continue to grow.

Pakistan has raised objections to a number of controversial projects undertaken by India in Kashmir in the past, including the Baglihar project on the Chenab River and the Wullar Barrage on the Jhelum River. But the Kishanganga dispute assumes a greater significance because Pakistan is also vying to construct its own project – the Neelum-Jhelum hydro scheme – on the Pakistani side of the Neelum River. The IWT states that the country that completes its project first will secure priority rights to the river.

Adding to tensions, the Neelum River flows across the militarised Line of Control that separates the Indian and Pakistani administered parts of Jammu and Kashmir and which has witnessed the 1947-war between these two south Asian neighbours and a number of military fire-exchanges since.

The dispute over the Kishanganga project itself centres on the diversion of water from one tributary of the Indus River to another. Pakistan said this violates the IWT, while India argues the diversion is well within treaty provisions. India maintains that it will only divert the Neelum to join the Jhelum River, which also flows through Pakistan – and that therefore the water will ultimately reach Pakistan anyway.

However, Pakistan has raised strong objections, saying the diversion will turn the country’s Neelum Valley into a desert. “Due to the construction of the Kishanganga project, water will be diverted from the Neelum River and a 90-kilometre long stretch of the river that 600,000 people depend on for agriculture and fisheries will dry up,”  said Arshad Abbasi, a water and power consultant with the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad.   

Pakistani experts also argue that the reduced flow of the Neelum River will decrease the power generation capability of Pakistan’s proposed 969-megawatt Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project by more than 20%.

Last year’s floods in Pakistan forced it to halt construction of the Neelum-Jhelum project, already delayed by problems over land acquisition and failure to construct a bridge. India, on the other hand, has speeded up work on the strategically important Kishanganga project in order to finish it by 2014, well ahead of the 2016 deadline. Pakistan plans to complete the Neelum-Jhelum project by 2015.   

India first developed plans for the 303-megawatt Kishanganga project in 1984, but failed to build it for a long time. Egged on by Pakistan’s progress on the construction of the Neelum-Jhelum project on the other side of Line of Control, India made frantic efforts to revive the 18-year old plans in 2008. “This project is of strategic importance to India…we have to move heaven and earth to ensure the earliest commissioning of the project,” the then minister of state for power, Jairam Ramesh, told a press conference in New Delhi in 2008.   

Two years later, India has reason to feel satisfied, with the Kishanganga project now in full-swing. “We have been working constantly on all fronts,” said OP Thakur, general manager of the project. Arshad Abassi of Islamabad’s SDPI backed up this view: “The project is far ahead of Pakistan’s Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project. Technically, whoever builds first establishes the right to the river. Due to the negligence of Pakistan's water and power ministry, it is likely that we will lose the case.”

Pakistan is not the only party that feels aggrieved.  Kashmiri people feel “deprived” by the fact India and Pakistan use their water resources without allowing local people the benefits they deserve. “They don't share the profits and the resources generated by these rivers – which actually belong to the people of Jammu and Kashmir – with the Jammu and Kashmir state, except for the 12% royalty on power that it gets,’’ said a Kashmiri resident, Arshad Ahmad.

Shakeel Qalandhar, president of the Kashmir Industries and Commerce Federation, said that Kashmir's economy would have greatly progressed, but for the 1960 treaty. “These three main rivers have the potential to generate 30,000 megawatts of hydropower, but we are currently generating just over 500 megawatts in the state sector and 1,600 megawatts in the central sector (and we are paying for the electricity from the central sector). This is less than 2,000 megawatts overall, whereas we require 2,500 megawatts of electricity for our own consumption – domestic and industrial.’’

According to Qalandhar, the Jammu and Kashmir State Power Department purchases power worth millions of dollars (from the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation) every year. “It is a tragedy that despite the potential to generate 30,000 megawatts of power, 25% of our population has no access to electricity and the remaining 75% gets only episodic electricity which is often cut off for hours in harsh winters.”

In the Gurez Valley, where India is constructing the Kishanganga project, 1,300 people will be displaced.  “I have been trying very hard to convince the government that they should provide displaced people with proper compensation for their land that will be submerged. But the government is adamant on giving just a paltry sum,” said Nazir Gurazi, Gurez constituency member of the Jammu & Kashmir State Legislative Assembly. 

“In Gurez valley, the land isn’t worth much and these poor people won’t be able to buy land elsewhere with the compensation they are getting. You also have to consider the fact that you are uprooting them from their culture” he added. He hopes that the government will listen to reason.   


Athar Parvaiz is an environmental journalist based in Kashmir.

Homepage image from International Rivers shows a march in Pakistan against Indus dams. 

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