War or peace on the Indus?
Anyone foolish enough to write on war or peace in the Indus needs to first banish a set of immediate suspicions. I am neither Indian nor Pakistani. I am a South African who has worked on water issues in the subcontinent for 35 years and who has lived in Bangladesh (in the 1970s) and Delhi (in the 2000s). In 2006 I published, with fine Indian colleagues, an Oxford University Press book titled India's Water Economy: Facing a Turbulent Future and, with fine Pakistani colleagues, one titled Pakistan's Water Economy: Running Dry.
I was the Senior Water Advisor for the World Bank who dealt with the appointment of the Neutral Expert on the Baglihar case. My last assignment at the World Bank (relevant, as described later) was as Country Director for Brazil. I am now a mere university professor, and speak in the name of no one but myself.
I have deep affection for the people of both India and Pakistan, and am dismayed by what I see as a looming train wreck on the Indus, with disastrous consequences for both countries. I will outline why there is no objective conflict of interests between the countries over the waters of the IndusBasin, make some observations of the need for a change in public discourse, and suggest how the drivers of the train can put on the brakes before it is too late.
Is there an inherent conflict between India and Pakistan?
The simple answer is no. The Indus Waters Treaty allocates the water of the three western rivers to Pakistan, but allows India to tap the considerable hydropower potential of the Chenab and Jhelum before the rivers enter Pakistan.
The qualification is that this use of hydropower is not to affect either the quantity of water reaching Pakistan or to interfere with the natural timing of those flows. Since hydropower does not consume water, the only issue is timing. And timing is a very big issue, because agriculture in the Pakistani plains depends not only on how much water comes, but that it comes in critical periods during the planting season. The reality is that India could tap virtually all of the available power without negatively affecting the timing of flows to which Pakistan is entitled.
Is the Indus Treaty a stable basis for cooperation?
If Pakistan and India had normal, trustful relations, there would be a mutually-verified monitoring process which would assure that there is no change in the flows going into Pakistan. (In an even more ideal world, India could increase low-flows during the critical planting season, with significant benefit to Pakistani farmers and with very small impacts on power generation in India.) Because the relationship was not normal when the treaty was negotiated, Pakistan would agree only if limitations on India's capacity to manipulate the timing of flows was hardwired into the treaty. This was done by limiting the amount of "live storage" (the storage that matters for changing the timing of flows) in each and every hydropower dam that India would construct on the two rivers.
While this made sense given knowledge in 1960, over time it became clear that this restriction gave rise to a major problem. The physical restrictions meant that gates for flushing silt out of the dams could not be built, thus ensuring that any dam in India would rapidly fill with the silt pouring off the young Himalayas.
This was a critical issue at stake in the Baglihar case. Pakistan (reasonably) said that the gates being installed were in violation of the specifications of the treaty. India (equally reasonably) argued that it would be wrong to build a dam knowing it would soon fill with silt. The finding of the Neutral Expert was essentially a reinterpretation of the Treaty, saying that the physical limitations no longer made sense. While the finding was reasonable in the case of Baglihar, it left Pakistan without the mechanism – limited live storage – which was its only (albeit weak) protection against upstream manipulation of flows in India. This vulnerability was driven home when India chose to fill Baglihar exactly at the time when it would impose maximum harm on farmers in downstream Pakistan.
If Baglihar was the only dam being built by India on the Chenab and Jhelum, this would be a limited problem. But following Baglihar is a veritable caravan of Indian projects – Kishanganga, Sawalkot, Pakuldul, Bursar, Dal Huste, Gyspa… The cumulative live storage will be large, giving India an unquestioned capacity to have major impact on the timing of flows into Pakistan. (Using Baglihar as a reference, simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, suggest that once it has constructed all of the planned hydropower plants on the Chenab, India will have an ability to effect major damage on Pakistan. First, there is the one-time effect of filling the new dams. If done during the wet season this would have little effect on Pakistan. But if done during the critical low-flow period, there would be a large one-time effect (as was the case when India filled Baglihar). Second, there is the permanent threat which would be a consequence of substantial cumulative live storage which could store about one month's worth of low-season flow on the Chenab. If, God forbid, India so chose, it could use this cumulative live storage to impose major reductions on water availability in Pakistan during the critical planting season.
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