Water War

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Angry exchanges between India and Pakistan have degenerated into a water war centring on the disputed territory of Kashmir. At stake is control over the Indus, one of the world’s largest river systems, which provides vital water supplies to vast regions of desert. India is threatening to pull out of a long-standing treaty with Pakistan to share the river’s riches. But hydrologists in Pakistan warn that a breakdown of the treaty could lead to widespread famine, and further inflame the ongoing conflict over Kashmir.

The Indus and its tributaries rise in the Indian Himalayas but flow mostly through Kashmir and into Pakistan, which relies on the river for almost half its irrigation supplies and to generate up to half of its electricity. In 1960, the two nations signed the Indus Water Treaty, after years of disputes over the river following independence from Britain and partition in 1947. The treaty gives Pakistan rights to all the water in three western tributaries, and prohibits India from diverting water from these rivers. Water in three eastern tributaries is assigned to India, which channels much of it into a 450-kilometre irrigation canal through desert bordering Pakistan. But the treaty may now fall victim to the Kashmir border dispute that erupted between the two countries in December. Leading Indian politicians are threatening to pull out of the treaty unless Pakistan stops terrorists crossing the border into disputed Kashmir. The Pakistani government has reacted angrily, and Kashmiri politicians are demanding the water for themselves. “Under normal circumstances, India would have continued to fulfil its moral obligation of sharing its water with Pakistan. But unusual circumstances call for unusual action,” says Jasjit Singh, former director of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi.

The Pakistani government complains that since December India has stopped issuing warnings of floods on the rivers. And India has failed to set up the annual water treaty meeting, which was due to take place in New Delhi before the end of this month. “If India fails to invite Pakistan, as the case seems so far, the treaty will effectively be suspended,” a government source told the Karachi newspaper. India pulling out of the treaty would, initially, be a largely symbolic act. But as the downstream country, Pakistan has a lot to lose. On the back of the treaty, the country secured international loans to pay for power and irrigation projects along the Indus and its share of the river’s tributaries. Pakistan built two giant dams at Mangla and Tarbela, and today the Indus irrigates an area of Pakistani desert larger than England—the largest irrigated area on the planet.

Those works have increased Pakistan’s economic dependence on the Indus. Worse, says Adam Nayyar, a Pakistani irrigation engineer, “India would be free not only to starve Pakistan of water, but also to open sluice gates at will to generate devastating floods in the country.” A century ago, British irrigation engineers built canals and tunnels to link the Indus tributaries. That means India could cut Pakistan’s water supply by diverting water from the western to eastern tributaries. India does not currently have large reservoirs in which to store such water, says Javaid Afzal, a leading irrigation engineer based in Pakistan. But it has recently resumed work on a hydroelectric dam at Baglihar on the Chenab, one of the tributaries over which Pakistan has rights. Using the dam to generate power would not contravene the treaty, but diverting water out of the river would. Nayyar says India might also revive plans for two more large dams on Pakistani tributaries at Khapala and Wular. The latter, he says, could easily submerge Srinagar, the Muslim-dominated capital of Kashmir. If India does renege on the Indus Treaty, Pakistan has just one legal recourse: to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Fred PEARCE

Issue 2343 of New Scientist magazine

18 May 2002

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