Blood in Kashmir’s Water

Water is destined to be a determining factor in the regional conflicts of South Asia in the years to come, particularly between India and Pakistan. Unquestionably one of the most crucial of environmental resources, this essential ingredient for human life is growing so scarce in some areas globally that if current trends continue, two-thirds of humanity will suffer "moderate to severe water stress" within 30 years, according to a comprehensive assessment of freshwater resources by the United Nations.

Nowhere is this truer, however, than in the parched regions of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where overpopulation, poverty and scarce resources make the competition more acute. In a remarkably even-handed paper published in a recent issue of the Journal of International Affairs, Saleem H. Ali, associate professor of Environmental Policy and Planning, at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources of the University of Vermont in the US, identifies the lack of environmental cooperation in bilateral and multilateral relations as the root cause of a potential conflict "between two nuclear neighbours, India and Pakistan, predicated in a history of religious rivalries and post-colonial demarcation."

The Pakistani scholar urges India and Pakistan to put aside their mutual distrust to reconfigure the riparian issues for lasting piece in the region, their inveterate, decades-old antagonism notwithstanding, and concentrate on a matter of equal importance to their survival of each country. Ali praises the World Bank’s “instrumental role in its negotiation during the height of the Cold War to bring the two countries to the negotiating table with the Indus Water Treaty after bilateral negotiations failed. The outcome of this historic treaty was the unrestricted use by India of the three eastern rivers, the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas and complete control of the three western rivers, the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus by Pakistan.

The rivers all have their origin in the bitterly disputed region of Kashmir. And thus, theoretically whoever controls Kashmir controls the rivers, a fact conveniently forgotten for years as Pakistan and India tested each other’s mettle in a series of wars. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Hussain Suhrwardy, in 1958 pointed to the geographical importance of Kashmir when he emphasized the importance of the six rivers of the Indus Basin.

"Most of them rise in Kashmir. One of the reasons why, therefore, that Kashmir is so important for us is this water, these waters which irrigate our lands," Suhrwardy said at the time. He proved himself a prophet. The only other international statesman who thought along the same lines was the British Premier, Anthony Eden, who believed that the resolution of the water dispute would reduce the tension over Kashmir, hence the Indus Water Treaty.

India denied the link between Kashmir and the water issue, however, a denial that has contributed to the growing resentment between the two countries, and an amazing one given reality. The head of the Indus flows through the valley corridor that connects Indian and Pakistani-held Kashmir.

Further south India has been engaged in a running dispute with Bangladesh over the Farakka Barrage over the River Ganges since 1973. This project involved a dam built on the Ganges in West Bengal, about 10 kilometers from the Bangladesh border. Bangladeshi objections that the project would seriously affect the country’s water supply have proved correct. Falling water levels below the dam have raised salinity levels, affecting fisheries and hindering navigation. Falling soil moisture levels have also also led to desertification.

Ali firmly believes that "environmental factors can play a pivotal role since they help link various issues such as economic development and security." He points out that, "states that are ecologically vulnerable to extreme climatic events, such as Bangladesh, are recognizing that poor environmental planning in coastal areas can have devastating economic impacts".

"I have long been criticizing the brazenly reactionary promotion of water disputes among Indian states by the political parties in power,” said Surajit Guha, the former deputy-director general of the Geological Survey of India and one of India’s top hydrologists “It may not be confined within the Indian territory. The Farakka impasse is a clear evidence of this. Have you seen European countries through which the mighty River Danube flows engaging themselves in dispute over sharing of water during the last one hundred years? I do not know why water is increasingly politicized when most of the peoples of SAARC region are deprived of access to safe and potable water.”

While the west is busy concentrating its efforts on securing a ready supply of oil, in South Asia the governments are slowly but surely waking up to the fact that in the not too distant future water is going to be equally, if not more important to the survival of their people.