Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Monday, January 12, 2009

Race to the death over Kashmir waters

By M H Ahssan

India and Pakistan, in an expensive winner-takes-all race to tap the power of the Kishenganga river in Kashmir, are separately aiming to build large hydro-electric projects just 70 kilometers apart on the same fast-flowing water on their respective sides of the divided region.

India's Kishenganga hydro-power project, which the government last February priced at US$740 million, involves a 330-megawatt plant in the Gurez Valley. That is about a third the capacity of the 963MW Neelum-Jhelum project planned at an estimated cost of US$2.16 billion in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, the project name reflecting the change from Kishenganga to Neelum of the river's name as it crosses to the Pakistani side of the divided region.

According to the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) signed between the two countries in 1960, the country whose project is completed first will get the complete rights of this river. Despite the fear of losing billions of dollars and possible international embarrassment, both sides have taken up the gamble and speeded up construction work.

Changing climatic conditions add to the pathos of the race. Declining levels of snowfall and receding glaciers in the Himalayas are reducing the water level in most Kashmiri rivers.

Indian-administered Kashmir (IAK) sits at the head of major rivers feeding large parts of Pakistan. Sharing the water was a major problem after the two countries gained independence from Britain in 1947, until in the World Bank arbitrated between the two countries resulting in the signing of the IWT.

The pact grants India exclusive rights to the three major southern rivers of Ravi, Beas and Sutluj, while Pakistan has the rights to three large northern rivers that first flow through Indian-administered Kashmir - the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. The Jhelum and Kishenganga, by then known as the Neelum, join each other near Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

The treaty has withstood two wars and numerous other conflicts between the two countries, but now the situation seems to be changing. The growing economies of both countries and increased energy needs are compelling exploitation of the rivers to the last drop, even if that means violating the IWT. Pakistan, being the lower riparian state, faces the disadvantage of geography.

The Indian project involves building a dam and a 16-kilometer diversion channel, which will change the river's course by 100km. On completion of the project, the Kishenganga waters will join Wular lake and ultimately the river Jhelum, still within Indian-administered Kashmir, before flowing on to the Pakistan-administered side. The diversion will raise the lake's water level as well as add 52 cubic meters of water to the downstream 480MW Uri I and 240 MW Uri II hydroelectric project on Indian side.

Pakistan's hydro project, with an underground power station, will be built at Nauseri, near Muzaffarabad. Pakistan has signed up the help of Chinese companies, namely the CGGC-CMEC Consortium China, to build the project with the aim of beating India to completion and securing priority rights for the river.

Pakistan fears that once India's Kishenganga project is complete it will have a devastating effect on the PAK's own hydro-power plans, the local economy and on the ecology. The Indian project, according to Pakistan, will curb water flow to the Pakistani project by 30%, besides affecting the local flora and fauna due to diversion of water from its original course. Pakistan also alleges that the project will adversely affect 133,209 hectares of agricultural land in the Neelum Valley and the Muzaffarabad district.

India recognizes the stakes involved. Federal Minister of Power Jairam Ramesh, during a recent visit to Kashmir, called the Kishenganga project of geostrategic importance to India.

"This is an issue with geostrategic and foreign policy implications," Ramesh said. The power minister said even he was not competent enough to talk on this sensitive issue.

The countries are already at loggerheads over the Baghlihar hydroelectric power project. Built by damming the Chenab River in Indian-administered Kashmir, this project has been controversial since construction began in 1999. The first phase, involving about half the planned 900 MW capacity, was recently inaugurated by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The dispute peaked on August 20, 2008, when authorities in IAK issued a warning that the entire state would have acute power shortages for the next 48 hours, due to the filling of the Baghlihar dam. Water flow on the river was halted and power produced by a hydroelectric project downstream was almost stopped, causing the outages.

Pakistani monitoring agencies reportedly failed to check on this notification. Their officials pressed the panic button when levels on the Chenab plunged, threatening millions of hectares of standing crops. The river feeds water to 21 major canals and irrigates about 2.8 hectares of arable land in Pakistan.

Pakistan accused India of holding back large amounts of water for filling the 143-meter high, 317-meter wide dam, with a storage capacity of 15 billion cusecs, a standard measure. According to authorities in Pakistan, the Chenab's water flow more than halved to 22,200 cusecs from 55,000 cusecs.

Pakistan says this is a sheer violation of the Indus water treaty, by virtue of which Indian should not stem water flow below 55,000 cusecs. Pakistan insists that India compensate it for the loss of over 0.2 million acre feet (MAF), a measure of large volumes of water.

According to Pakistan, the dam will deprive the country of 321,000 MAF of water, adversely affecting 5.2 million hectare of irrigated land along the Chenab and Ravi rivers. "The water shortfall has severely affected 405 canals and 1,125 distributaries, leaving rice, wheat, sugarcane and fodder crops in many districts of Pakistan's Punjab and Sindh provinces to wither," said Babar Hassan Bharwana, Irrigation Secretary of Pakistan's Punjab province.

According to Pakistan Economy Watch (PEW), an economic think-tank, the Indian water stoppage has inflicted a loss of $1.5 billion on Pakistan with the prospect of damages growing by the day.

"Over five million acres [2 million hectare] of cotton and sugarcane are facing devastation and if closure of the Chenab continues, the winter crops, especially wheat, will be hit, which will have serious political and monetary consequences," said PEW president Murtaza Mughal.

Warning that the issue of water could trigger war between the two nuclear powers, he said: "India wanted to destabilize Pakistan and play havoc with the fate of poor farmers and common people." India has denied it stopped the water flow to Pakistan.

Pakistan feels that the Baglihar dam and every new project of a similar nature will add to India's arsenal of hydrological weapons. India plans to build nine hydro powerhouses on the Chenab to exploit its estimated potential of 16,000MW of electricity.

The Baglihar water row has a precedent dating to just after independence. According to Professor Shaista Tabassum of Karachi University, India stopped its canal waters from flowing into Pakistan on April 1, 1948, leaving about 5.5% of west Pakistan's planted area and nearly 8% of its cultivated area without irrigation at the start of the crucial summer season. The blockage bought the countries to the brink of war.

IAK has a total hydroelectric potential of 20,000MW and India is readying to exploit this in its entirety. The federal government in India meanwhile has effectively blocked moves by state authorities in IAK to construct large hydroelectric projects on its own, aware of the potential leverage these offer in the country's larger dealings with Pakistan.

The state government had earlier secured funding from various international financial institutions to construct hydroelectric projects, including the Kishenganga dam, but India refused to give counter guarantees, forcing the proposal to be handed over to a federal company, the National Hydro Power Corporation (NHPC).

NHPC, sometimes referred to as the East India Company of Kashmir for the imperial manner in which it exploits resources in the region, is strongly disliked as most of its income comes from its Kashmir-based power projects, while Kashmir itself reels in darkness.

NHPC owns three power projects in Kashmir, generating a total of 1,560MW of electricity. It is constructing seven more projects with a combined capacity of 2,797MW. Kashmir has a 12% stake in these projects, compared with the 50-50 partnerships formed for such projects in other states. Kashmir on its own has only managed to construct projects generating 750MW, far short of the demand for 2,000MW.

The Indus water treaty has been under strain following the accusation by all the three stakeholders of discriminatory attitudes.

The people of Kashmir are vehemently against this treaty, which according to them has made them a sacrificial goat. Kashmir annually looses 60 billion Indian rupees (US$1.3 billion) on account of the prohibitions of the IWT by virtue of which Kashmir cannot store water for generating electricity or for irrigation purposes.

All hydro-electric projects in IAK are costly and less efficient "run of the river" type, which do not alter the existing flow or water levels. An estimated 1.37 million hectares of land is also devoid of irrigation facilities in IAK due to restrictions imposed by the water treaty.

The Human Rights Society (HRS) of Pakistan last year filed a petition with the Islamabad High Court urging the government to submit a report on the disruption of river flow caused by Indian dams and their impact on local agriculture. HRS chairman Kowkab Iqbal claimed that India was constructing 62 water reservoirs, including the Baghlihar and Kishenganga dams, besides using 80% of the water in the Jhelum, creating a drought-like situation in Pakistan.

Pakistan's water availability has decreased to 1,200 cubic meters per person from 5,000 cubic meters in 1947 and is forecast to plunge to 800 cubic meters by 2020.

Such is the intensity of the water conflict that former Pakistan prime minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain warned that the water row will lead to all-out war between the two countries. He called for the immediate amendments of the Indus Water Treaty to make it relevant for present times.
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