Water bomb?



DISPUTED WATERS: A barrage on the Jhelum.

DISPUTED WATERS: A barrage on the Jhelum.  

A barrage on the Jhelum.

"The wars of the 21st Century will be fought over water." Ismail Serageldin, Egyptian academic, former Vice President for Environmental Affairs, World Bank.

THOUSANDS of people passing through the famous National Highway 1A — the only road link to Kashmir valley — stop near Chanderkot area of Doda district to relish the Rajmash beans at the roadside food stalls. At a distance, a large work force can be seen around the Chenab, building a gigantic dam. But the visitor would not know that the dam is the source of a major dispute between India and Pakistan and a looming water war on the Indus basin.

The last few months have seen the Pakistan Government making desperate attempts to stall the construction of Baglihar Dam by invoking the Article 9A of the Indus Water Treaty, which deals with settlement of differences and disputes. On January 18, Pakistan took the issue to World Bank, which had earlier mediated the Indus water treaty on September 19, 1960 as it considers the construction of the dam to be a violation of the Indus Water Treaty.

But this is just one of the various disputes over water resources between the two countries. There is a dispute on Jhelum River in Jammu and Kashmir, which has been lingering for the last two decades. A barrage was constructed at the mouth of the Wullar Lake, the largest freshwater lake in India, near Sopore, to make the river navigable in summer, but Pakistan protested that India could use it as a geo-strategic weapon to control the flow of the river.

The Indus Treaty gives the waters of the three eastern rivers — the Sutlej, the Beas and the Ravi — to India. Pakistan can use water from the tributaries of the Ravi and the Sutlej to irrigate up to 45,500 acres for annual cultivation.

The waters of the three western rivers the Chenab, the Jhelum and the Indus were given to Pakistan. Jammu and Kashmir can use the waters of the three rivers for non-consumption uses and to meet established and future limited consumption uses. A number of projects like the Salal project in Reasi area of Udhampur district on the Chenab have already been constructed under the treaty.

Thus, the two-phase 450 MW Baglihar project was started in June 1999 under Farooq Abdullah. Its construction was described as important to meet the State's power crunch. This is the only Mega hydel project owned by the State Government. The National Hydro Electric Power Corporation owns other major projects such as Salal hydro power station and it decides the State's share from the total power produced.

According to Pakistan, the Baglihar dam would deprive it of more than 7,000 cusecs water a day destroying its agriculture. Another allegation is that India can use the gated structure in a war-like situation to either flood Pakistan or hold back the water supply.

Some Pakistani commentators have even described the Indus Water Treaty as discriminating against Pakistan and have termed the Baglihar dam as a threat to its economic existence. According to Pakistan academic Haris Gazdar, the Indus Water Treaty has led to inter-provincial rifts within Pakistan primarily between Sindh and Punjab as the latter tried to divert natural flow of water to compensate for the loss of the eastern rivers. This led to the construction of several reservoirs on the western rivers — Mangla on the Jhelum and Jinnah Barrage and Tarbela on the Indus to store water for regulation and diversion. This directly affected the flow of water to Sindh. In response to Pakistan's allegation, the Jammu and Kashmir Minister, Mohammad Sharif Niaz, said, "The Salal hydro project is situated the downstream of the Baglihar project. Any attempt to release excess water would damage the Salal project and directly impact the electricity supply to neighbouring States like Punjab, Himachal. In the same way excess water cannot be stored as it would decrease power production."

The National Conference has, on a number of occasions, demanded, "scrapping the Indus Water treaty as it discriminates against Jammu and Kashmir". The State Legislative Assembly also passed a resolution backing it. A writ is pending before the apex court demanding compensation from the Government of India for the restrictions imposed on the State due to the Treaty. But, say experts, violation of the treaty is impractical. By remaining under the ambit of the treaty, Jammu and Kashmir can produce an assessed hydroelectric potential of 8825 MW and also irrigate another 0.53 million acres from the three western rivers.

As the construction of Baglihar dam becomes a battleground between India and Pakistan, the project is running into trouble. The completion is already behind schedule. The first phase was to be completed by 2004 but now the revised date is January 2006. The work force is a hotbed of workers' agitations.

Political disputes between India and Pakistan have hogged the headlines in the last five decades. But problems like the Baglihar issue show that the dispute over water resources may be no less intractable. It would require the combined intellectual and technical pool of the two countries to diffuse this water bomb before it explodes and vindicates the Serageldin's prediction.

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