Fight Threatens Peace Talks as Islamabad Requests Arbitration Over New Delhi’s Plans for a Hydroelectric Plant. A feud over water between India and Pakistan is threatening to derail peace talks between the two neighbors.
The countries have harmoniously shared the waters of the Indus River for decades. A 50-year-old treaty regulating access to water from the river and its tributaries has been viewed as a bright spot for India and Pakistan, which have gone to war three times since 1947.
Now, the Pakistanis complain that India is hogging water upstream, which is hurting Pakistani farmers downstream. Pakistani officials say they will soon begin formal arbitration over a proposed Indian dam. At a meeting that started Sunday, Pakistan raised objections to new Indian dam projects on the Indus River and asked for satellite monitoring of river flows.
“Water I see emerging as a very serious source of tension between Pakistan and India,” said Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, in an interview Friday. He said he has raised the issue with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
A senior Indian government official denied India is violating the treaty. He blamed Pakistan’s water shortage on changing weather patterns and the country’s poor water management. He called the strident rhetoric from Pakistani officials a “political gimmick…designed to place yet one more agenda item in our already complex relationship.” Indian officials declined comment on the record.
The latest dispute revolves around India’s plans to build a 330-megawatt hydroelectric power project on the Kishenganga River, a tributary of the Indus. India says it is well within its rights to build the dam. The project has been on the drawing board since the late 1980s and is expected to cost about $800 million.
Pakistan says New Delhi’s plans to divert the course of the river will reduce its flow by a third in the winter. That would make it unfeasible for Pakistan to move ahead with its own plans for a hydroelectric dam downstream.
Pakistan wants to put the Kishenganga project before an arbitration panel—the first time that mechanism of the treaty will have been used. If India agrees, a seven-person court of arbitration would include two members appointed by each country, and three outsiders. India hasn’t yet responded formally to the proposal, according to the Pakistan delegation to the meeting.
“We’re already a water-stressed country,” Jamaat Ali Shah, Pakistan’s Indus waters commissioner, said ahead of this week’s meeting. India’s construction of new dams is “aggravating the stresses.”
The water dispute comes as the relationship between the nuclear-armed neighbors is at an inflection point. India last month invited Pakistan to discuss the resumption of regular peace talks, and the two countries’ foreign secretaries met in Delhi Feb. 25. A water squabble could upset those peace efforts.
That would deal a major blow to Indian Prime Minister Singh, who views engagement with Pakistan as the best way to contain terrorism. Mr. Singh wants Pakistan’s aid in bringing to justice Pakistan-based militants that New Delhi believes carried out the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, a bloody siege that killed 166 people.
Further deterioration of relations between New Delhi and Islamabad would also be a setback for Washington’s efforts to stabilize the region. Pakistan has told the U.S. that tensions with India on its eastern border over the disputed territory of Kashmir have prevented it from cracking down more aggressively on Taliban and al Qaeda leaders directing the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Islamist groups in Pakistan have taken up the water issue as a new focus. “If our government doesn’t act to resolve this issue then the people will take it in to their own hands. If water doesn’t flow in to these rivers, then blood will,” said Hafiz Khalid Waleed, the political affairs chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawah, an Islamic charity. India and others call the charity a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group it says orchestrated the Mumbai terrorist attacks in Nov. 2008. Mr. Waleed denies any link to terrorism, calling it “American propaganda.”
Water scarcity is a growing political issue across the globe, from the Middle East to the U.S. West. South Asia’s water politics date back to Britain’s partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, when newly created nations India and Pakistan wrangled over how to divide resources.
The Indus River, whose waters Britain had harnessed through a vast system of irrigation canals, was a crucial lifeline to farmers in the Punjab region stretching across both countries. But India and Pakistan were fighting over control of Kashmir, where several Indus tributaries begin.
After years of tense negotiations, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960 with the help of the World Bank. As part of the treaty—which is widely viewed by water experts as a model of how water conflicts can be managed—each side got unrestricted use of three rivers and rights to use the others for nonconsumptive purposes such as flood control, navigation and bathing. India was granted limited agricultural usage of Pakistan’s rivers, plus the right to build hydroelectric projects, as long as they don’t store or divert large amounts of water.
The treaty provides for bureaucrats appointed by both governments to meet regularly, exchange data, and resolve disputes. Commissioners have held more than 200 site inspections and meetings since 1960, even during times of war.
Yet Pakistan’s rows with India have intensified as its water situation has worsened over the years. Water availability in Pakistan has fallen 70% since the early 1950s to 1,500 cubic meters per capita. It is expected to reach the 1,000-cubic-meter level considered officially “scarce” by international standards in 25 years, according to a report last year by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Pakistani officials acknowledge their water woes aren’t caused by India’s damming of rivers alone. Major reservoirs are filling with sediment picked up by the rivers on their routes to the sea. Canals are aging and breaking down. The World Bank says soil erosion and poor irrigation are sapping roughly 1% from Pakistan’s Gross Domestic Product growth.
Skeptics in India say Pakistan is simply looking for a scapegoat as it struggles to manage its internal water politics.
The especially arid province of Sindh, for example, blames the powerful upstream province of Punjab for consuming too much.
“Their water management is in terrible shape, and it’s convenient to put the onus on India,” said G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian envoy to Pakistan.
But Pakistani officials say New Delhi’s actions are exacerbating a precarious situation.
This year the Pakistan province of Punjab—the political heartland of the nation and a major producer of wheat, rice, maize and sugar cane—is facing unprecedented water shortages. At harvest time in Mandi Bahauddin, an area in the north of Punjab province of relatively prosperous farmland, the wheat still grows waist-high.
But farmers here complain that yields and incomes have dropped by a third in the past five years because of water shortages. In the past, canals used to supply water for irrigation year-round. They are now empty for about four months each year. That forces villagers to pump groundwater, which is fast turning brackish and causing diseases like hepatitis, said Tariq Mehmood Allowana, a local farmer and member of the provincial assembly.
In the past, the area’s only problem was regular flooding. India’s dams stopped this, causing a dearth of water instead, says Mr. Allowana, who owns 25 acres of wheat fields. The farmer represents the Pakistan Peoples Party of the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Farmers say they have stopped cultivating rice—a water-intensive crop—except for personal use. Nearby, more than half of the Chenab river bed has become a dusty plain where children play with the flow reduced to a trickle.
“India is engaged in an economic warfare against Pakistan. If the problem persists for another five years the whole area will become barren,” said Mr. Allowana, as a group of farmers nearby filled irrigation channels from groundwater supplies using a diesel-fueled pump.
Over the years, tensions have built as Pakistan has objected to the size and technical design of various Indian projects. India says it has 33 Indus-related hydrological projects at various stages of implementation, and all have been contested in one way or another by Pakistan. India also says it has yet to make use of its limited rights to store water on Pakistan’s rivers or use it for limited irrigation.
“We’ve found there’s a pattern in Pakistan of raising technical issues ad nauseam to stall a project or delay a project indefinitely,” the senior Indian official said Friday.
In 2005 Pakistan raised issues with the Baglihar dam, an Indian power project on the Chenab river—one of those allotted to Pakistan—saying it would store too much water upstream and reduce downstream flow to Pakistan. The countries agreed in 2007 to let the World Bank appoint an independent expert, who ruled that India had to make minor modifications to the dam, such as lowering its height. Pakistan now contends the dam, which began operations in 2008, is reducing the flow of the Chenab below levels stipulated in the treaty. India denies this.
Pakistan wants Washington to play a mediating role with India—in the water dispute and wider issues like the Kashmir conflict. The U.S. is pushing for tighter relations with Pakistan as it steps up pressure on the Taliban in Afghanistan but has to balance this with its close ties to India. For now, the U.S. is treading carefully, offering Pakistan stepped-up economic aid and military hardware supplies.
Pakistan raised the water issue in Washington during an official visit last week. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has signaled that Washington isn’t interested in mediating on water issues.
A State Department spokesperson pointed to an interview Mrs. Clinton recently did with a Pakistani news channel in which she said it would be “sensible” to stick to the Indus Waters Treaty for resolving disputes.
The Indian projects that Pakistan says are draining its water resources are primarily on Indus tributaries in Kashmir. Some experts say the water issue is a back door way for Islamic militants to push their political agenda regarding Kashmir.
“They’re saying, ‘We must liberate Kashmir to save our water,’” said B.G. Verghese, a veteran journalist who has studied water issues closely and is a visiting professor at the Center for Policy Research, a New Delhi think tank.