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Pak militants take up water issue

world Updated: May 29, 2010 00:53 IST
Pakistani extremists

The latest standoff between India and Pakistan features familiar elements: perceived Indian injustices, calls to arms by Pakistani extremists. But this dispute centres on something different: Water.

Militant organisations which traditionally focused on Kashmir have adopted water as a rallying cry, accusing India of strangling upstream rivers to desiccate downstream farms in Pakistan’s dry .

This spring, a religious leader suspected of links to the 2008 Mumbai attacks led a protest here of thousands of farmers driving tractors and carrying signs warning: “Water Flows or Blood.” The cleric, Hafiz Saeed, recently told worshipers that India was guilty of “water terrorism.”

India and Pakistan have pledged to improve relations.

But Saeed’s water rhetoric, echoed in shrill headlines on both sides of the border, encapsulates two issues that threaten those fragile peace efforts — an Indian dam project on the Indus River and Pakistan’s reluctance to crack down on Saeed.

It also signals the expanding ambitions of Punjab-based militant groups such as the banned Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, founded by Saeed, through an issue that touches millions who live off Pakistan’s increasingly arid land.

Pakistan’s water supply is dwindling because of climate change, outdated farming techniques and an exploding population. Now Pakistan says India is exacerbating its woes by violating the treaty that for 50 years has governed use of water originating in Kashmir.

India denies the charge, and its ambassador to Pakistan recently called the water theft allegations “preposterous.”

International water experts say that there is little evidence India is diverting water from Pakistan but that Pakistan is right to feel vulnerable because its water is downstream of India’s.

Washington has pressured the two nations to settle their differences. India wants Pakistan to target India-focused militants, and it is outraged that Saeed — whose sermons often call for jihad against India — remains free.

In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post