Lahore, Pakistan — From Tuesday’s Globe and Mail Published on Tuesday, Jul. 27, 2010 2:42AM EDT Last updated on Tuesday, Jul. 27, 2010 8:38AM EDT
The last time water issues pushed India and Pakistan to the brink of armed conflict was half a century ago, when Bashir Ahmad Malik was an engineering student. His government asked him to drop his graduate studies and join a team of experts urgently negotiating a way to share water between the rival countries.
“Both sides were threatening war,” he said. “India was shutting the canals, starving or flooding us.”
The Indus Water Treaty averted disaster when it was signed in 1960. Even when India and Pakistan did eventually go to war over different issues in the following decades, they continued to respect the water treaty.
But the agreement now seems to be unravelling. Dispute-resolution mechanisms, never invoked in the first four decades of the treaty, have been triggered twice in recent years. The latest round of talks broke down earlier this month, as the two sides failed to agree on a neutral umpire to settle a quarrel over India’s plans for the Kishanganga hydroelectric project in northern Kashmir.
Even the veteran water expert who assisted with the original negotiations now feels that the treaty was inadequate.
“At the time, we felt it would be all right,” Mr. Malik said. “But now, I don’t think it was a good treaty for Pakistan.”
Loss of faith in the Indus Water Treaty comes at a time when water disputes between the nuclear-armed neighbours have reached unprecedented levels of bombast.
Pakistan claims its neighbour is behaving aggressively with plans to build dozens of hydroelectric projects in the coming years, accusing India of seeking the capacity to interrupt flows on three key rivers – the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum – protected under the treaty.
For its part, India says Pakistan is stirring up nationalist sentiment as a way of deflecting attention from water disputes and mismanagement inside its own borders.
Both accusations have a basis in fact, but neither side seems capable of giving ground. India faces an increasing shortage of electricity, with growing demand from industry and a burgeoning class of consumers who can afford household appliances, and seems unlikely to halt any of the 33 projects now at various stages of completion on the rivers covered by the treaty.
In a background briefing for journalists in New Delhi, senior Indian officials noted with concern that water campaigners on the other side of the border have promised that if rivers go dry in Pakistan, local people will “drink the blood of Indians.”
That kind of rhetoric is not only unhelpful, the government officials said, it is unnecessary, because India’s projects are strictly “run-of-the-river.” In other words, they generate power without interfering with river flows, as required by the treaty.
But in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, where most of the construction is under way, the government’s own Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said the projects could affect river levels in Pakistan.
“A lot of people will tell you that future battles will be fought over water, not over oil,” Mr. Abdullah said in an interview. “If India has the potential to close the gates and shut off the water, that’s a problem for Pakistan. Whether India would do it or not is a different matter, but obviously the potential would exist.”
Mr. Abdullah insists India would not want to antagonize Pakistan that way, but others have publicly contemplated the idea. A report published in December, 2008, by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry listed water as one of the methods India could use to retaliate against terror attacks. “India channelizing water for irrigation and power can seriously pressurize Pakistan,” the report said.
In fact, none of India’s projects has the ability to block the rivers entirely, but all have the capacity to store about a month’s worth of water – enough to disrupt a planting season. That’s a frightening prospect in places such as Lahore, Pakistan’s agricultural capital, where all kinds of people – from businessmen in tailored suits to bearded religious leaders – are conversant in the technical language of water engineering.
Even the radical group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an Islamic charity described by the United Nations as a front for the terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, recently formed a group called the Pakistan Water Movement and took up irrigation issues as a central part of its campaign.
The convener of the new group, Hafiz Saif Ullah Mansoor, owns a 28-hectare farm in Punjab and says his yields have fallen 20 per cent this year because of water shortages. When he led a rally through Lahore recently, he said, hundreds of farmers on tractors crowded the streets. Even more astonishing, he said, was a train of at least 60 camels carrying outraged farmers from an arid district 300 kilometres southwest of the city.
“The people are flared up,” Mr. Mansoor said. “The government of Pakistan will have no choice but to respond with war.”
His colleague, Jamaat-ud-Dawa spokesman Yahya Mujahid, nodded in agreement. His group has gained added support since becoming vocal about water issues this year, he said. The group’s campaigns have become a way of drawing attention away from the water conflicts among Pakistan’s provinces, he said, and focusing on India as a common enemy.
“This is a way to create unity in Pakistan,” Mr. Mujahid said.