Water: new ‘core issue’ in India-Pak ties?

  • Lt Gen PK Grover (retd), Hindustan Times, Chandigarh
  • Updated: May 26, 2014 10:56 IST

Pakistan and India have inter mittently but consistently engaged each other in dialogue over several unresolved issues between them related to peace and security in the region. Of late, however, Islamabad has been attempting to include water as a core issue and to inter nationalise this bilateral matter.

Until a few years ago, while there were arguments about certain Indian projects on the western rivers and their conformity to the Indus Water Treaty that has guided the division of river waters between the two countries since 1960, no one in Pakistan talked about water as being a major issue.

But, the early 2010 onwards, this changed. Ever since, Pakistan has been projecting water as a new “core issue” as important as Kashmir, if not more.

All bilateral issues pertaining to water disputes, so far, have been dealt with most efficiently under the Indus Water Treaty, regarded internationally as an example of successful conflict resolution.

It is, perhaps, the only agreement that has survived three wars. The treaty contains provisions for dealing with any “questions” or “differences” or “disputes” that might arise in the course of operation.

The resolving of problems as perceived by Pakistan regarding construction of Baglihar Dam and Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project within the framework of the treaty bears testimony to and is indicative of the inherent strength of its provisions.

Recently, Pakistan foreign office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam said her country had no plan to rene gotiate the historic Indus Water Treaty with India and instead considered getting the water dispute included in the composite dialogue process.

She added that this policy development was credited largely to the parliamentarians. Sughra Imam of the People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) had stated in Senate that since Pakistan ranked 31st among the most water-stressed countries, steps were needed to stop India from violating the water treaty.

She specified that the purpose of the resolution was to ensure that the government raised the water issue in any dialogue process that Pakistan initiated with India, something Islamabad had failed to do effectively in the past. The resolution was passed unanimously.

Pakistan had invited technical experts from international agencies such as World Bank (WB), Asian Development Bank (ADB), Inter national Water Management Institute (IWMI), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the United Nations (UN) to Pakistan Water Summit on March 20 to discuss and prepare a “water policy” on 14 themes, one being transboundary water (internal and national dialogue).

Projecting water as a core issue appears to be Pakistan’s well-thought out plan to tell the world that water is an unresolved issue between the two countries and that India accepts implicitly that it has given Pakistan cause for complaints. The world’s sympathy is with the lower riparian nation always.

There is a need to analyse as to why Pakistan is so keen to include water among the core issues. The instinct is to blame India for all water paucity but Pakistan has to consider own failings
that have led to a most serious disaster.

Excellent irrigation development projects exist in Pakistan, which with its extensive network of canals and storage facilities provided water for one of the largest irrigated areas (2.6 crore acres) for any single river system. However, a tragic decision demoted water policy on the priority list.

In the years since, increasing silt because of the lack of maintenance has reduced the storage capacity by 30% of the 1976 figure. The politicising of Kalabagh Dam only served to highlight the inherent lack of foresight, which has proven so costly already.

Further, more than 35 million acre feet (MAF) of water from Pakistan (approximately 30% of its requirement) runs off into the sea in the absence of dams.

Pakistan federal minister for planning and development Ahsan Iqbal recently admitted that domestic factors were responsible for up to 1,186 MAF water going into the sea unutilised in 35 years, causing a loss of $174 billion (more than Rs 10 lakh crore) to the national exchequer.

The situation continues, in spite of the fact that even today more than 5 to 11 MAF of water from the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej flows into Pakistan, according to its own government records.

Pakistan accuses India of diver ting/storing water in violation of the Indus Water Treaty. It demands a bigger share from rivers that run from India, even though India, gave away a generous 80.52% of the Indus system waters to it for indefinite duration.

Pakistan also blames Indian action for the water scarcity in Pakistan, which would jeopardise its economic growth and create a health hazard.

A recent report stated that Pakistan’s annual per-person water supply had dropped from about 5,650 cubic meters in 1947 to about 964 cubic meters now, a serious situation when the population is set to double over the next 25 years. Climate change will exacerbate it and overexploitation will lower the groundwater levels further.

Therefore, the main reasons for Pakistan to project water as a core issue seem to be (a) dissatisfaction with the Indus Water Treaty and the functioning of the Indus commissions on both sides; and (b) its attempts to divert attention from inter-provincial water conflicts by accusing India of wrongdoing.

The inclusion of water as a core issue is a new and disturbing development in India-Pakistan relations that will have far-reaching consequences. It may gain more importance than Kashmir.

And even if Kashmir gets resolved tomorrow, water will remain a core issue. Do not accept it at face value.

(The writer is a commentator on India-Pakistan water issues. Views expressed are his personal)

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