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Vicious anti-India propaganda in Pakistan on Water issues

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • March 29, 2010

    Pakistani politicians, officials and media are in the grip of a vicious anti-India propaganda on water issues. General Ashfaq Kayani has stated that India will remain the focus of Pakistani military doctrine so long as Pakistan has unresolved issues with India. He included water and Kashmir among the unresolved issues. In its recent strategic dialogue with the United States, Pakistan also sought to involve the US in the resolution of India-Pakistan water issue.

    The debate in Pakistan on India-Pakistan water issues has heated up. Water is being projected as an existential issue. India is being blamed for the water crisis in Pakistan. The key points of the debate are that India is violating the Indus Water Treaty, and that it is stealing Pakistan’s waters and turning Pakistan into a desert. An interesting nuance in the debate is that the water issue is even more important than the Kashmir issue. The talk of “water war” with India that could expand into a nuclear war is quite common. The following is a sampling of some recent comments made in the Pakistani media:

    • Dawn quoted the former Foreign Minister Sardar Asif Ali as saying that “if India continues to deny Pakistan its due share, it can lead to a war between the two countries.” (18 January 2010)
    • In a similar vein, PML(Q) Chief Chaudhary Sujat Hussain said that the water crisis between Pakistan and India could become more serious than terrorism and can result in a war (Dawn, 18 January 2010).
    • Majid Nizami, Chief Editor of Nawi Waqt group of newspapers, said that “Pakistan can become a desert within the next 10 to 15 years. We should show upright posture or otherwise prepare for a nuclear war.” (Dawn, 18 January 2010).
    • Politicians are ratcheting up the rhetoric. Members of the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution to deny India trade transit facility until the resolution of the Kashmir dispute and issues related to water distribution (Dawn, 27 January 2010).
    • Member of the Punjab Assembly Warris Khalo said that India would “remain an enemy” until the Kashmir dispute and water issues are resolved. (Dawn 27 January 2010).
    • Palwasha Khan, Member of National Assembly, accused India of perpetrating “water terrorism” against Pakistan and said that “experts foresee war over the water issue in the future and any war in this region would be no less than a nuclear war.” (Daily Times 17 February 2010).
    • In a recent debate in Pakistan’s National Assembly, several members urged the government to impress on New Delhi “not to use” Pakistan’s share of water (Daily Times, 25 February 2010).
    • Dr. Manzur Ejaz, a commentator, writing in Daily Times (3 March 2010) warned that “unless Pakistan was assured on the supply of water, it will never abandon the proxies that can keep India on its toes by destabilizing Kashmir.” He further added: “for Pakistan the territory of Kashmir may not be as important as the water issue.”

    At the official level too, Pakistan is raising the salience of the water issue in India-Pakistan relations. Salman Bashir, Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary, was quoted by Dawn (26 February 2010) as saying that Pakistan had handed over some documents to the Indian side during the Foreign Secretary level talks with the hope that India would consider resolving the water issue within the Indus Basin Water Treaty. He added that India had been informed about its violation of the Indus Water Treaty, storage of water, India’s plans to build more dams, the Kishanganga Hydel project, pollution in the sources of water and glacier melt. Salman Bashir said, “Water is a very important issue for us and Pakistan wants constructive engagement with India.” (Dawn, 26 February 2010.)

    President Zardari has, in the past, raised the water issue several times. In an op-ed article in Washington Post (28 January 2009), he wrote that the water crisis in Pakistan was directly linked to relations with India and if this was not resolved, it could fuel extremism and terrorism. Zardari had also taken up the water issue with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in 2008 and complained that India’s diversion of water from the Chenab river was causing agricultural losses in several districts in Pakistan. Pakistan, according to media reports, has demanded compensation from India for the loss of agriculture due to diversion of waters.

    The notable aspect about the Pakistani debate over water is that it is highly jingoistic and uninformed. The Indus Water Treaty of 1960 governs the sharing of waters between India and Pakistan. The Treaty, signed with the help of World Bank mediation, apportions the water between India and Pakistan. A significant feature of the Treaty was that it apportioned 80 per cent of the water of the Indus River Basin to Pakistan and only 20 per cent to India. This fact is never highlighted in the Pakistani discourse on the Indus Water Treaty. Pakistanis also conveniently ignore the fact that the Treaty gives India the right to construct run-of-the-river dams on the Western rivers (Indus, Chenab and Jhelum) as well as construction of 3.6 Million Acre Feet (MAF) of storage facilities. India has not yet constructed any storage dam on these rivers despite the fact that the Treaty permits it. This point is also overlooked in the Pakistani media. Nor has India used the full potential of irrigation from the Western Rivers as permitted under the Treaty.

    The Pakistani debate is silent on the fact that even though the Treaty gives India the right to use the waters of the Eastern Rivers (Ravi, Beas, Sutlej), Pakistan is getting free 2 MAF of water through these rivers because India has not been able to fully utilize the waters of these rivers. The poor state of water structure on the Indian side has allowed this water to flow into Pakistan free.

    A frequent Pakistani complaint is that India is “stealing” Pakistan’s water. But no evidence is given to support the allegation. Since India has not built any storage facilities, where would it store the water? Whatever water India takes from the Western rivers is for non-consumptive use allowed under the Treaty. The Pakistani Indus Commission is regularly supplied with the data on this score.

    The Pakistani side has complained of the reduced flows of water in the Western rivers. The fact that there are seasonal variations in the flow of water due to differences in monsoon and glacial melt is normally ignored in the Pakistani discourse. Jamaat Ali Shah, the Head of Pakistan’s Indus River Commission, has stated in an interview that India and Pakistan should “look beyond” the Treaty to discuss such issues as the impact of climate change on water resources. Unfortunately, the Treaty, which is a technical document, does not envisage discussion on climate change or environmental issues as these were not issues in 1960.

    Undoubtedly, climate change will emerge as a major factor affecting the health of glaciers and rivers in South Asia. India and Pakistan need to discuss these issues seriously. Instead, Pakistani politicians, media and military officers are fanning baseless anti-India rhetoric.

    The Pakistani media is also dishing out ill-informed opinions on the Neutral Expert’s determination on the Baglihar dam. It may be recalled that India constructed the Baglihar dam on river Chenab. The dam became operational in 2008. However, the commissioning of the dam was delayed by Pakistan as it took the issue of the dam’s design to the Neutral Expert provided for in the Indus Water Treaty. The Neutral Expert upheld the design parameters of the Baglihar dam, particularly those relating to the location of “spillways”, “pondage” and height. The Neutral Expert stated clearly that sediment control, which dictated the design parameters, was crucial to dam construction. He also upheld India’s view that the first objective of “pondage”, to which Pakistan had objected, was to regulate the flow of the river to meet consumer demand.

    Pakistan considers the waters of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum as “its waters”. Pakistani jihadist groups routinely link jihad with struggle over water in Kashmir. Hafeez Saeed, chief of the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayebba, has threatened jihad against India over water issues. The Pakistani media is silent on the fact that the people of Jammu and Kashmir regard the Indus Water Treaty as unfair since it places restrictions on the use of these waters. Thus, on one hand Pakistanis support the “freedom struggle” in Kashmir, while on the other they would deprive Kashmiris of the use of water in the Western rivers.

    The Kishanganga hydroelectric project is the next point of contention likely to sour India-Pakistan relations. The Kishanganga river is a tributary of the Jhelum. It originates in Jammu & Kashmir, enters Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) after Gurej, flows along the Line of Control (LoC) as the Neelum river and joins the Jhelum at Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India is planning to build a hydroelectric project on this river. It will be a run-of-the river project which will require diverting the water of the Kishanganga river through an underground tunnel. Pakistan has objected to the Kishanganga hydroelectric project. It is contemplating taking the issue to the Court of Arbitration and the Neutral Expert in accordance with the terms of the Indus Water Treaty. India is confident that it has a valid case on the Kishanganga project.

    There appears to be a deliberate attempt in Pakistan to use the water issue to inflame public opinion against India. This appears to be a part of the larger design of the Pakistani military to drive home to Western interlocutors the continued salience of India in Pakistan’s security calculus. Though Pakistan is facing the prospect of destabilization due to radicalization of its society, the Pakistan Army continues to project India as the number one threat. The water issue is being used to divert attention from 26/11 and the larger issue of terrorism, which India regards as the main issue between India and Pakistan.

    The views expressed here are his own.