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Cleaning up the Indus

By Sujata Ray

As the upper riparian state, India is responsible for maintaining acceptable water quality near its border with Pakistan... If India cooperates in this regard, bilateral relations are likely to improve vastly.

THE INDUS and its five tributaries flow through the Punjab in India and Pakistan to meet the Arabian Sea. The river ties the two countries together and their mutual dependence was recognised in the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, which has remained intact despite the wars that have been fought between them.

The meeting of the Indus Treaty Commissioners was the first official contact between Pakistan and India after the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, extended his `hand of friendship' in April. The treaty offers great potential for cooperation and development in the subcontinent. If India and Pakistan build on its solid foundations, for example by starting to responsibly manage the river and clean it up, it would be a small step towards peace.

The Indus Waters Treaty gave the three eastern rivers, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, to India, and the western Chenab, Jhelum and Indus to Pakistan. But there is more to the treaty than just allocating the rivers to the two countries. Article VII asserts that the signatories have a common interest in the development of the rivers and that they should cooperate to the fullest extent in this regard. This is an open door to cooperation on the development of the Indus Basin, if the will is there.

An important area of cooperation could be improving the quality of the Indus waters. The World Wide Fund for Nature (Pakistan) has measured pollutant concentrations along the almost 100-km-long Hudiara Drain, which starts from Gurdaspur district in India and ultimately discharges into river Ravi in Pakistan.

Originally meant to be a storm drain, it now carries untreated waste containing organic material and toxic heavy metals across the border. As the drain flows through Pakistan, it is further burdened with municipal sewage and industrial effluents, all of which end up in the Ravi.

The effects of water contamination are evident. As a result of using this water for bathing and irrigation, people on the Pakistani side have developed infection in the eye and skin, and have high levels of lead in the blood.

There are also frequent outbreaks of diarrhoea and dysentery. Irrigation with this water has led to heavy metal accumulation in the soil, which may ultimately decrease its fertility. These metals and other pathogens may enter the food chain through this route. As the upper riparian state, India is responsible for maintaining acceptable water quality near its border with Pakistan. The Indus treaty specifically reminds both nations that waste must be treated before discharge into the rivers so that water use is possible in the neighbouring State. Furthermore, if India cooperates in this regard, its relations with Pakistan are likely to improve vastly.

As a first step, Pakistan and India could begin a joint study of water quality in the Indus and develop an economically feasible quality management plan.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (Pakistan) has outlined a treatment scheme for improving water quality. This plan is feasible and inexpensive, and includes screening, grit removal and primary sedimentation. To this may be added removal of organic matter by activated sludge plants. But a feasible management plan requires accurate data on the quantity and nature of industrial waste actually discharged into the rivers on both sides of the border. Then it will be possible to determine where the most effective pollution control measures ought to be located.

Given the large quantity of waste carried over from India, Pakistan can never hope to achieve water quality standards by treatment within its borders alone. It will be cheaper for Pakistan to finance a part of the cost of treatment in India, rather than further control pollution within its own territory.

Thus, negotiations between the two countries will serve to outline the most economic plan of action. India stands to gain substantially by participating in this process.

Cooperation with Pakistan will lead to friendly relations. In addition, the pollution in its water bodies will be treated at a lower cost, with Pakistan subsidising a part of it. The people exposed to pollution will be benefited most. Finally, this programme will serve to meet the obligations under the Indus Waters Treaty.

This Treaty is the only agreement that has been faithfully upheld by both Pakistan and India. The potential for cooperation still exists and may lead to peace in the subcontinent as well as development.

(The writer is a Research Scholar at Princeton University, U.S.)

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