Water through Pakistani eyes

Writing in these pages some time ago (March 3, 2010), this writer had expressed the apprehension that perceptions of Indian wrongdoing on water might become widespread in Pakistan and might affect India–Pakistan relations even at the people-to-people level. That is no longer an apprehension; it is a reality. This is a very disturbing development that needs to be understood in India and responded to appropriately. This article will try to set forth the Pakistani perceptions for the information of the general public in this country.

The first point to note is that in Pakistan, as in India, there is a sense of an imminent (or already present) water crisis. The per capita availability of water is said to have declined; groundwater is said to be under stress through over-exploitation; river flows are reported to be diminishing, and some rivers to be so polluted as to be no more than sewers; and water supply in cities is reportedly intermittent and unreliable. All this is very familiar to us in India. Whether the crisis in Pakistan can be averted or minimised through better management is an internal matter for the people of Pakistan to consider. However, the perception of a crisis tends to lead to the attribution of that crisis to Indian wrongdoing. “India is stealing Pakistan's water” has become a familiar cry at the popular level, echoed in the media, picked up by the jihadists, and acquiesced in at the official and expert levels through silence (or even aggravated by official statements). This is a new development. Until recently, there were criticisms of particular Indian projects on the western rivers as not compliant with the Treaty, but no accusations of ‘water theft' by India.

Accepting that Pakistan faces a water crisis, how is the connection to India established? The answer is that some studies reportedly indicate a reduction in the flows in the western rivers, and it seems to be readily assumed that if the flows show a reduction, the upper riparian must have reduced them. India would say that this is a non sequitur, and that if there are reductions in flows, they cannot forthwith be attributed to Indian action. It is clear that both the fact (and extent) of reduced flows and the factors responsible need to be studied.

The second point to note is that Pakistan continues to be uneasy about Indian projects on the western rivers despite the many stringent safeguards provided by the Treaty to protect Pakistan against certain perceived dangers. What answer can India give to that continuing uneasiness, except a request to look at the provisions of the Treaty? Pakistan could have been totally free of anxiety if the Treaty had given it the exclusive use of the western rivers with no provision whatever for even limited use by India; but such a Treaty might not have been signed by India. What both sides agreed to and signed was the Treaty in its present form; and what both sides can do now is to abide scrupulously by the provisions of the Treaty. Unfortunately, the combination of permissive and restrictive provisions in the Treaty, and the density of technical detail in it, make for an adversarial situation in the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC), leading to a constant tug of war, instead of what is desirable, namely, a spirit of constructive cooperation. As for members of civil society, the media and academia in either country, they tend to be guided by whatever officialdom says, because they have no other sources of information.

The third important component in Pakistan's anxiety, whether at the official level or at the level of civil society, is the worry caused by the number of projects that India is planning on the western rivers. Pakistan is apprehensive that even with strict compliance with the provisions of the Treaty in each case, India might, taking all the projects together, acquire a measure of control over the waters of the western rivers and might potentially be able to inflict harm on Pakistan. (A military variant of this view is that with the assistance of such structures India will be able to use water as a weapon of war.)

Two questions arise here: the number of projects that India is planning, and their cumulative potential for harm to the lower riparian. Some Pakistani writings talk about a hundred projects. There seems to be no basis for that number. It appears that India might have in mind some thirty projects or so. It is not clear whether all those projects will in fact be undertaken, but assuming that they are, it is necessary to consider whether all of them will together give India a greater degree of control; enable large storage; make it possible for India to withhold water from Pakistan, or release stored waters and flood Pakistan. The Indian answer would be that most of these will be small projects; that all these are run-of-the-river projects; that given the restrictive provisions of the Treaty, there is hardly any scope either for the retention of waters to the detriment of the lower riparian or for flooding the lower riparian; and that assuming that India wants to harm Pakistan it can do so only by openly violating the Treaty and by first harming itself, its own people, and its own projects (built at great cost).

Having taken note of both Pakistani and Indian views on this question, one would still suggest that the hypothetical fear of ‘cumulative impact' needs to be looked at. Quite apart from Pakistan's worries (real or imaginary), there is room for some concern even from the Indian point of view: by building such a large number of projects on these rivers what are we doing to the river system as a whole and to the ecological system of which they are a part? Perhaps this too is an imaginary fear, but it seems desirable to look at this carefully before dismissing it.

As evidence of possible harm, Pakistan might mention two cases: the initial filling of the Baglihar reservoir, and the planned diversion of Kishenganga waters. The first was a very minor and relatively innocuous matter which was blown up into a huge controversy. One has written about this elsewhere. In any case, the issue has been closed at the last meeting of the PIC. The Kishenganga diversion, which Pakistan considers to be a violation of the Treaty and India holds to be specifically permitted by the Treaty, is going to the Court of Arbitration, and need not be discussed here.

In the light of the foregoing, what needs to be done? This writer has some suggestions: (i) a joint study needs to be made of the fact and extent of reductions in flows in the western rivers and the factors responsible; (ii) whenever the Treaty prescribes an operational condition (as in relation to the initial filling of Baglihar), there should be institutional arrangements for the joint monitoring of compliance at the relevant point (there are none in the Baglihar case); (iii) the working of the Permanent Indus Commission should change from a spirit of tug of war to one of constructive cooperation (but unfortunately this is a function of the political relations between the two countries); (iv) there should be a review of the totality of the planned projects on the western rivers from the ecological perspective as well as from that of Pakistani apprehensions; (v) in both countries, the media, academia and civil society should refrain from echoing official positions and should examine matters independently; and (vi) to facilitate this, all data and information regarding the working of the Treaty should be in the public domain. Going beyond those specifics, it is necessary to take note of and allay what has been called the “visceral lower riparian anxiety,” but is that feasible in an ambience of distrust and hostility (again visceral) often sedulously fostered by official disinformation?

( The writer is a former Union Secretary for Water Resources.)

“India is stealing Pakistan's water” has become a familiar cry at the popular level, echoed in the media, picked up by the jihadists, and acquiesced in at the official and expert levels through silence in Pakistan.

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