“India is not stealing water”

In conversation: Pakistani water expert Arshad H Abbasi


Trithesh Nandan | June 4, 2012

Water is the driving force of all nature, said Leonardo da Vinci. But in case of the strained India-Pakistan ties, the exact opposite is true: it has been the stalling force. With a cloud of distrust always hovering above, even the best intentions have been misconstrued and hostilities alleged.

Take the case of Tulbul navigation project (what Pakistan refers to as the Wullar barrage). In the mid-1980s, India started building a dam on the Jhelum river to help make it navigable throughout the year, but had to suspend work after Pakistan complained that the Jhelum’s currents would be slowed in its territory, and that the work violated a water-sharing pact. Nine rounds of secretary-level talks have been held since the project was stalled, followed by five more meetings in 1998, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 between the two countries. The latest one resumed on March 27 in New Delhi in the presence of a 13-member delegation from Pakistan led by water and power secretary Imtiaz Kazi.

The 1960 Indus Water Treaty governs the use of the water flowing down the rivers which course though both the countries. As per the accord, India has ‘unrestricted’ use of water from three rivers in the east – the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi. Pakistan has ‘unrestricted’ use of the water of the western rivers – the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum. Pakistan accuses India of violating the treaty by reducing the flow of water down the rivers it was awarded use of. Pakistan also objects to India’s Baglihar hydropower and water storage project on the river Chenab. India denies any unfair diversion of Pakistan’s water.

While some Indian analysts maintain that Pakistani complaints are aimed more at diverting attention within Pakistan from the internal water row, the chorus of India stealing water from the western rivers is increasing in Pakistan by the day.

In an interview with Trithesh Nandan, Pakistani water expert Arshad H Abbasi strikes a different chord. He says emphatically that India is not stealing water, and that the problem of water scarcity in Pakistan is more due to its mismanagement. Abbasi is senior advisor, water & renewable energy, with the Islamabad-based think tank Sustainable Development Policy Institute. He says it is not terrorism, Kashmir or even boundary dispute but water and environment issues that need an urgent attention from both the sides. Edited excerpts…

In the last three-four years, water issues between the rival nations have grown bigger than ever. Your comments.
I always want to make a point on this issue. Please don’t mix rivalry with water. Around 60-70 percent of population in Pakistan is dependent on water from Indus basin rivers. An ordinary person is least bothered about issues between India and Pakistan. But he is concerned about his own water woes. In the last few years, the flow of the Chenab is fluctuating. The issue started with the Baglihar dam on the Chenab. Pakistan protested its construction. It raised the question of design. The Indus Water Treaty has also specifications on design. India raised (and rightly so) the issue of sedimentation. Since 1992, the sedimentation has increased manifold. Because of the sedimentation, India says that it changed the design.

Pakistan complained about the Baglihar dam to the World Bank and in response an independent arbitration was set up. On several counts, it rejected Pakistan’s claims.
Before Pakistan went to the independent arbitrator, India gave an assurance that it will reduce the height of the dam but Pakistan refused and went to the World Bank. The verdict came in 2007, upholding only a few objections raised by Pakistan like pondage capacity to be reduced by 13.5 percent, height of dam structure be reduced by 1.5 metres and power intake tunnels be raised by 3 metres, thereby limiting some flow control capabilities of the earlier design.

But Pakistan was not satisfied with the verdict. As an independent analyst, how do you see the decision?
The decision was the best given by a neutral panel. A larger section in Pakistan still feels other way round. It is a matter of understanding. The larger voice, which opposes the decision, does not know the subject very well.

People in Pakistan say that India is stopping the flow of the western rivers by constructing more than dozen dams.
My point is different. The water flow of the Chenab and Jhelum has been drastically reduced, because of a reduction in monsoon rainfall in the watershed of the Chenab. However, India should also look into why it is constructing so many dams.

So in your view, India should not be accused of stopping the flow?
So far, to my knowledge, India is not stealing water. It does not have the capacity to steal water. There is certainly a reduced flow, so there is anxiety on the Pakistani side. You know we are living in a state of hostility. Accusations are the natural fallout.

I have a basic question for both the countries: why don’t you take help of technology to track the water flow of the Indus basin rivers? This will help remove the mistrust between the two countries. But both the countries won’t agree to the use of such technology because of a mental block. The officials sitting in the Indus Water Treaty Commission on both the sides are so much pressurised that they can’t go beyond the treaty.

Then why has the flow of the rivers reduced?
That’s more due to environmental impact. The 65-year-old hostility has taken a toll on the environment, which can be seen in the Kashmir valley. Our rivers are drying. I have been advocating serious dialogue between India and Pakistan on the environmental issues. Environmental disasters don’t follow international borders. 

Both the countries also need to work on joint watershed management. An environmental impact assessment is the best instrument to assess the possible negative impact that a proposed project may have on the environment, together with the water flow in the rivers.

What is Pakistan’s objection to the Kishanganga project?
In this case, India argues that it will divert the water of Kishanganga (Neelum in Pakistan) to join the Jhelum river, which also flows through Pakistan – and that therefore the water will ultimately reach Pakistan. Due to the construction of the Kishanganga project, water will be diverted from the Neelum and a 90-km stretch of the river that 6,00,000 people depend on for agriculture and fisheries will dry up. But why divert water from the Neelum valley then? It will impact the whole environment. If you see studies done on Farakka barrage (on the India-Bangladesh border), it had the worst effect on water and environment. 

What is the water scenario in Pakistan?
There is gross mismanagement of water in Pakistan. Recently, the Lahore high court pulled up the government on this issue. The governments have paid lip service when it comes to conservation of water. I started a project on rainwater harvesting in Pakistan but people questioned it. “How can rainwater be used for drinking purpose,” they asked. There were a few rainwater harvesting projects during the British rule. But they don’t exist anymore.

Did the government show any interest in your project?
It is a low-cost water conserving project. It is not a mega project so the government has not taken it up. There should be strong accountability. Pakistan does not have enough reservoirs or dams to store water.

Tell us about one success story from Pakistan in this sector.
It was stopping the New Murree project. As soon as the project was initiated by former president Pervez Musharraf, I made a vigorous campaign against the project. Had the project completed, the area would have faced serious environmental disaster. The supreme court took suo motu action and chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry gave a judgment against the president. Development projects are often planned without considering human and environmental aspects and subsequently such development process results into disastrous consequences for both people and environment.

But due to my opposition, I suffered a lot. I was also forced to resign from the post of director of the planning commission. If you take a closer look, it is basically due to the government’s inefficiency that Pakistan is facing energy, water and electricity crises.

While Pakistan blames India for its water problem, a closer look suggests that its industries mainly textile and sugar waste a lot of water.
All the industries are closed now. They have been closed due to cheap Chinese products coming to Pakistan. Nobody even complains about it because we are a friendly nation to China. Also, when you get electricity for two hours, how can industry survive?




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