India Spars with Pakistan, China over Water
Kashmir has for decades been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan over which the two countries have fought wars. Now, with both sides desperate for more water from population and industrialization pressures, hydroelectric projects on either side of the 550 km Line of Control are putting added pressure on an already volatile situation.
While India has been protesting the hydro projects being built in what it calls "illegally occupied territory," Pakistan fears floods or drought in its low-lying areas due to blocking of river systems including the massive Indus and its tributaries, which have immense potential to generate hydroelectricity.
Water tension between the two countries is at least 50 years old. The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, signed by then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Pakistani President Mohammad Ayub Kahn with the World Bank a third signatory, sought to solve the disputes. The treaty was a considerable diplomatic achievement considering that the two countries were on the verge of war over Kashmir. Under the agreement, the two share the enormous Indus water system and its series of tributaries, with Pakistan gaining exclusive use of the Jhelum and the Chenab, which flow west. India was granted use of the Ravi, Beas and Sutlej, which flow east.
According to the treaty, only one dam could be built in the Jammu and Kashmir Valley. Nonetheless both have begun construction, with India's National Hydroelectric Power Company building a 330-megawatt dam, the Kishinganga project, on the Jhelum River in the Gurez Valley, which was allotted to Pakistan under the 1960 treaty. India is about two-thirds of the way finished with the dam, with completion expected in 2016. India is also building the 450-megawatt Baglihar hydro electric project on the Chenab River, which flows from Jammu and Kashmir into Pakistan. On Oct. 7, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Jammu and Kashmir to launch the project.
Pakistan's Water and Power Development Authority has begun construction on its own project, the Neelum-Jehlum project 70 km away. Although Pakistan's project began later, with completion expected in 2017, it has hired two Chinese companies, China International Water and Electric Engineering (CWE) and the CGGC-CMEC Consortium, in an attempt to speed up progress and finish it before India finishes the Kishinganga project. The MoU was reportedly signed in August during Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's Beijing visit.
Pakistan has approached the World Bank to request appointment of a neutral expert to resolve the dispute if bilateral efforts fail, as stipulated in the Indus Water Treaty.
Given rising tensions across a number of fronts including dominion of the far eastern Arunachal Pradesh state, which China calls Southern Tibet, Delhi is concerned about China's deepening role in Pakistan's hydro projects in particular and infrastructure projects in general. Last year the Chinese government blocked a US$60 million Asian Development Bank loan to India for flood management, water supply and sanitation in the Arunachal Pradesh area. India's foreign ministry has said that China has been informed of New Delhi's apprehensions and has asked Beijing to consider the long term view of Indian-Chinese relations and cease activities in Pakistan Kashmir.
China, however, has persisted with its plans, couching its words in diplomatic niceties. The Chinese foreign ministry has been quoted as saying: "The Kashmir issue is a matter left over from history. It should be settled properly through dialogue and consultation between India and Pakistan, and China's position has been consistent."
The Chinese have considerable experience in building dams due to massive developments such as the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River. India fears that the involvement of efficient Chinese companies will extend to other spheres such as better roads and connectivity, which could offer a military advantage to Pakistan, such as rapid troop movements.
China's presence in the region has become a touchy issue with India, whether it is winning energy blocks in Myanmar, looking at gas in Bangladesh or setting up ports and naval bases in Sri Lanka, Myanmar or Pakistan and buttressing its navy to patrol the waters of the Indian Ocean. Apart from hydro, Pakistani and Chinese companies have signed many agreements in thermal and renewable energy projects, highways, irrigation and fisheries and mobile networks. China is closely involved with Pakistan's missile and nuclear program as well.
Late last year, India also reacted strongly to reports that the Chinese are building a dam over the Brahmaputra River, or the Tsangpo as it is called in the 1,700 km Chinese stretch. The reports have touted it as the world's largest dam, with 26 turbines. The Tsangpo Canyon is believed to be the deepest in the world and is about 150 km long before the river enters Arunachal Pradesh and eventually becomes the Brahmaputra.
As with the rest of the gigantic water system that serves both countries, the Brahmaputra is the lifeline of the Northeastern states of India, West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Tibetan plateau gives rise to the biggest river system by far in the world. Water from the region flows to 11 different countries via 10 major rivers, bringing fresh water to as much as 50 percent of the world's population. Though China has denied any such plans as "unnecessary, unfeasible and unscientific," and completely lacking government backing, New Delhi is not taking chances and has said that it would like to verify the claims independently.
There was a possibility that Pakistan and India could be more accommodating to each other's requirements, but the suspicions post the November Mumbai terror strikes in 2008 have spoilt any such scenario. In the poisonous atmosphere between India and Pakistan, Kashmir has become a convenient arena for finger pointing and gaining points in the eyes of the western world.
Pakistan has been playing up alleged "human rights violations by security forces" in Indian Kashmir in foreign forums for long to gain the sympathy of America and the military and civilian aid that follows. A bit of the jihadi terror against India has been fuelled by such assertions.
India, which has in the past defended its position in Kashmir, including holding of free and fair elections, has opted for a more aggressive posture in the recent past, highlighting the lack of basic development, absence of democratic rights in Pakistan Kashmir and the proliferation of terrorist training hideouts in the region.
The option of hot pursuit or Indian troops taking out terror dugouts in Pakistan Kashmir was hotly debated in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. The people of Kashmir, on both sides, meanwhile continue to be caught in the cross fire even as the fear of terror and violence has decimated the once thriving tourism sector in Indian Kashmir.
Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com
This story has been corrected to agree with a reader's point over the Baglihar water project.