Time to bridge this river divide

Much of South Asia is now haunted by the spectre of hydro-electricity. At heart remains the sub-continent’s unsolved riddle of trying to ‘meaningfully share’ its many trans-boundary rivers. Existing river development models, as all governments have learnt, are indeed a zero sum game: in which a benefit extracted from one point of the river’s stem will inevitably involve a cost at another point in the flow. For all the careful wording that has gone into framing water treaties, sharing agreements or cooperation models, the overwhelming fact remains that every country in the region is energy starved, politically impatient and is compelled to tap rivers for hydropower.

Claim for ‘compensation’

In April of this year, the government of Jammu and Kashmir loudly restated an earlier claim for ‘compensation.’ This demand for financial reimbursement was made not only upon the government of India but in an equally emphatic tone on Pakistan as well. And the source of this twinned nature of J&K’s grief, as they dramatically point out, is the >Indus Water Treaty (IWT). Signed in 1960 between India and Pakistan, the IWT, ironically enough for J&K, continues to be celebrated as a diplomatic-legal-technical success story in the region. The consensus over the IWT, in fact, has not only held and endured wars but arguably, as well, offers one of the most substantial set of protocols for addressing disputes and disagreements that may arise over water sharing. But clearly this curriculum vitae of the IWT has failed to impress the J&K government, which has even gone on to hire the services of a private consultancy firm — M/S Halcrow India Limited — and tasked it to assess losses that have ostensibly been incurred by the State in the past five decades on account of the IWT.

According to one such estimate, J&K suffers an annual loss of Rs.6,000 crore; a calculation based on the perceived benefits that are denied to the State from clauses in the IWT that prevent the former from storing water (for generating electricity) and from diverting flows for irrigational needs. Jammu and Kashmir is, in fact, energy-deficit and according to the latest Economic Survey (2012-13), only 23.22 per cent of the required power was generated within the State while the rest had to be imported. As of now, J&K purchases around 1,400 MW of power from the northern grid and spends Rs. 3,600 crore annually on meeting its growing demand which peaked at 2,600 MW. This, given the fact that ‘potentially’ it can generate 20,000 megawatts from the rivers and many cascading tributaries that run through its valleys and hills. In effect, J&K‘s hydro-electricity dilemmas have turned into a hard rock that the State government is now continually hurling against the IWT and battering the delicate water sharing agreement between India and Pakistan.

But if the IWT appears to be failing the people of J&K who, geographically speaking, inhabit the head-reaches of the Indus system, what does one make of the environmental mess that has come to afflict the Indus delta? Historically, the estimated total water available from the Indus catchments has been calculated at being approximately 150 Million Acre Feet (MAF) (181 billion m3), a large portion of which then hurtled as fresh water flows into the sprawling edges of mangroves and estuarine ecologies of the delta. Over the past 60 years or so, however, the quantity of sweet water flows has been reduced below Kotri (in Sindh Province) to a peak (in the three monsoon months) of about 34.8 MAF (43 billion m3), with barely 20 MAF reaching the mangroves. In effect, fresh water flows have been steadily slurped off in the flood plains, with diversions for agriculture and industry and reservoirs holding back volumes for power generation. Importantly as well, instead of the 400 million tonnes of nutrient rich fine grained soil that used to annually nourish the delta, there is now barely a 100 million or so tonnes of soil washing up along the coasts.

Disastrous implications

The long-term consequences of this water and soil squeeze on the delta are yet to be fully understood as an environmental phenomena. In fact in 2000-01, the flow downstream of Kotri (Sindh Province) was recorded as an unprecedented ‘nil’. Only a few recent studies (such as A. Amjad et al, ‘Degradation of Indus Delta Mangroves…’ International Journal of Geology, 2007) have taken note of the potentially disastrous implications from dying fisheries, coastal erosion, mangrove destruction and an increase in sea water ingress into the coastal regions.

What does one make of this simultaneous failing and success of the IWT in the head-reaches and tail ends respectively of the Indus system? And equally, as well, how will this perplexing developmental and environmental conundrum impact future India-Pakistan dialogue and the peace process in the region? This riddle, it could be persuasively argued, has been, paradoxically enough, constructed not only by the context of the IWT but, significantly as well, by the peculiarities of the ‘knowledge regime’ that has largely informed trans-boundary river management in the subcontinent.

The IWT was too simplistically (though perhaps appealing in its time) based on an engineering formula which ‘divided’ the Indus rivers (Western streams to Pakistan and Eastern branches to India), rather than treating the river system as an organic entity that was ecologically linked and environmentally viable only as a connected phenomena. Secondly, managing the IWT has been kept confined to the limited knowledge resources generated by a thin sliver of civil engineers, state managers and ideas borne out of diplomatic intrigue.

Thus, if the IWT is to be saved from a political cul de sac, as far as J&K’s energy crisis is concerned and from a potential environmental collapse in the delta, the treaty and its weighty technical arrangements have to be moved beyond the zero sum logics of dividing waters. Instead, a policy architecture needs to be designed that allows and enables economic and environmental ‘transactions’ within the Indus system. Put differently, rather than stoking a politics of compensation based on narrower or opportunistic readings of the IWT’s many clauses and annexures, the way ahead would be to craft a credible ecologically based cost benefit model that acknowledges the Indus rivers as an organic hydraulic system: made up of fluvial interconnections.

Thus, if the head waters need to be preserved to sustain ecological functions within the flood plains and the delta, a case could be made to pay-off sections in the head reaches either through the transfer of hydro-electricity or commensurate financial packages. Similarly, if the head reaches or catchments of the Indus system are recognised for the range of ecosystem services that they deliver lower down the system then the latter must be expected to be conserved as a viable environmental entity.

Excellent case for reward

Put differently, the government of J&K could make an excellent case for being ‘rewarded’ for preserving its rivers for their potential eco-system services enjoyed by downstream users rather than having to claim compensation for presumed ‘lost’ development benefits. The model of development, hence for the catchment, would be recognised as involving different priorities than the flood plains and the delta.

By allowing such kinds of ecologically calculated cost-benefit transactions across the Indus system, India and Pakistan can turn volatile environmental limits into both economic opportunity and political possibility. The way forward is to harness new knowledge on river ecology, de-centre the civil engineering mindset and craft fresh decision-making collectives that draw upon cultures and traditions of river management in the region.

(Rohan D’Souza is Assistant Professor, Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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Printable version | Jan 12, 2021 12:41:27 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Time-to-bridge-this-river-divide/article11866196.ece

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