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Oil on troubled waters

The verdict on the Indo-Pak dispute over the Baglihar power project seems to be rightly based more on technicalities than the incendiary politics of the subcontinent.

india Updated:

The verdict on the India-Pakistan dispute over the Baglihar power project seems to be rightly based more on technicalities than the incendiary politics of the subcontinent. The World Bank-appointed neutral expert, Richard Lafitte, seems to have made the best possible evaluation of a thorny issue that has plagued relations between the two countries for over 20 years. To recall: India is building the disputed 450-megawatt Baglihar dam on the Chenab river, which flows from Kashmir into Pakistan. Islamabad’s chief objection was the dam’s design, which Pakistan claimed violated the 1960 Indus Water Treaty brokered by the World Bank (WB).

In 2005, the WB appointed Raymond Lafitte, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, to resolve the Baglihar imbroglio, making both Islamabad and New Delhi bound by Prof Lafitte’s decision.

The way his verdict has gone down so well with both sides is an encouraging precedent as far as independent arbitration of international transboundary water disputes are concerned. For monitoring, enforcement and conflict resolution mechanisms are usually absent in a large percentage of similar treaties. Both countries have reportedly hailed the verdict that, among other changes, prescribes
a 1.5 m reduction in the dam’s height, while endorsing India’s insistence on gated spillways (outlets at the dam’s bottom to flush out silt).

Pakistan’s argument that the 1960 treaty didn’t permit this probably had more to do with its mistrust of India’s intentions — that at some point, once it acquires the capacity to store water, India could withhold it during shortage and
release it during excess — than any real technical flaws in the project. In other words, Baglihar is unlikely to give India any undue leverage to flood the Punjab plains.

Prof Lafitte rightly rejected this saying that current technology, unlike in 1960, would ensure proper use of the water without any risk. As far as India is concerned, the verdict is clearly welcome since it doesn’t really call for any major changes in the dam’s structural design. This couldn’t have happened sooner considering that the completion of the power project would be a huge relief for electricity-starved Jammu and Kashmir.