Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Indus-II could reinforce the basis for a lasting solution to the J&K question by helping transform relationships across the LOC and reinventing it as a bridge rather than merely as a boundary-in-the-making.

Political Fuss Over The Indus

The Indus Water Treaty is a triumph and must be worked into the Indo-Pakistan peace process to ensure stability and insure against climate change.

By B G Verghese

The Tribune, 24, 25 May, 2005

Political Fuss Over Indus-I

The Indus Water Treaty must rank among the triumphs of the United Nations system since it was signed in 1960. However, with President Musharraf having taken a U-turn on the ideological (“unfinished business”) aspect of the J&K question, does he want to demonstrate relentless pursuit of the “core” issue by charging India with threatening Pakistan’s lifeline by violating the Treaty and developing strategic capability to hurt it by drying up the Chenab and Jhelum or flooding them!

India’s rights on the three Western Rivers are clearly set out in the Treaty. All existing uses in J&K were protected. Over and beyond that, India was permitted to develop 1.34 m acres of additional irrigation in J&K, against which only 642,477 acres has been achieved. Further, India is allowed 3.60 MAF of storage, categorized sector-wise under the headings of general conservation, power and flood storage and by main and tributary rivers. India is well below the permissible limits in every sector and category of usage and has built practically no “storage” as opposed to run-of-the-river “pondage”.

The Treaty binds India to inform or consult Pakistan on planned withdrawals and works on the Western rivers and to ensure no harm or derogation of its water rights. There have been 27 occasions when such information has been passed or consultations organised and the record shows that Pakistan has raised objections in virtually every case, even with regard to micro-hydro plants. Though dressed up as design or engineering queries, the objective has been political and the motivation to delay if not deny progress that primarily benefits J&K.

India is entitled to almost the entire waters of the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. Yet it releases over 3 MAF (mostly flood waters) down the Sutlej and Ravi to Pakistan on account of the Sutlej-Yamuna Link dispute and the fact that the Indira Gandhi (Rajasthan) Canal is yet to be completed.

Baglihar is a run-of-the-river peaking project on the Chenab, 110 km from the Pakistan border. It has an installed capacity of 450 MW and a gross storage of 396 million cubic metres of water of which the live pondage will be no more than 37.5 m cu m (or 46,570 acre-feet) which is to be returned to the river in strict accordance with Treaty stipulations. The balance is dead storage for trapping silt. Construction is well advanced and the first power unit should start generating by 2007. With the addition of more turbines and minimal additional works, Baglihar-II will subsequently generate another 450 MW during three or four monsoon months.

Pakistan was informed in 1992 that India planned to go ahead with Baglihar and work commenced in 2000. Objections were really pressed only recently and actually specified in January 2005. The six objections then listed variously related to pondage, gated spillways, under sluices and the level of the intake channel. But the punch line has been that the dam can store/release a sufficient quantum of water to dry up or flood the river in Pakistan for several days.

These fears are fanciful. The fallacy lies in adding dead storage to live pondage and assuming mala fide intent that would primarily, and first, adversely affect the Indian villages along the Chenab valley and the Salal Dam lower down. Indeed, any “flood waters” would dissipate before they reached the border. The argument that every dam can be used as a strategic weapon is perverse reasoning.

Pakistan insisted on resort to a Neutral Expert unless India agreed to suspend construction. However, the Treaty does not provide for a work-stoppage and India accordingly declined to do so, especially in view of the fact that it agreed to a temporary halt to construction of the Tulbul Project, which has since languished unresolved for 17 years.

The Jhelum was traditionally used for navigation and floating timber but the river has silted. The Tulbul Project was accordingly designed to retard the Jhelum flood within the banks of the Wulur Lake through which the river passes. Instead of emptying rapidly with the recession of the floods, a control structure at the Lake’s exit would retard depletion of a natural pondage of some 300,000 acre feet of water through October to May. This would reduce silt flows downstream to the benefit of both the Uri and Mangla projects in India and Pakistan and augment their power output. However, Pakistan argues that Tulbul would be a “storage dam” and is therefore barred by the Treaty.

Turn to Kishenganga/ Neelum, a tributary of the Jhelum. Rising near Gurez, the river flows through J&K and then crosses the LOC to enter POK as the Neelum before falling into the Jhelum near Muzaffarabad. The Indian Project envisages a 75 m high concrete dam at Gurez at about 8000 feet to store 140,000 MAF of water and divert some flows southwards through a 23 km tunnel into the Madmati Nala, which empties into the Wulur Lake through which the Jhelum flows. Given a head of about 600 m, an installed capacity of 330 MW is planned. The sizeable displacement and environmental impacts, however, raise sensitive issues that will have to be internally addressed.

India communicated its intention of going ahead with the Kishenganga project in June 1992 and Pakistan responded soon after, listing three objections. The first is that inter-tributary diversions are barred and that water drawn from a given tributary must be returned to that same river. The second is that existing Pakistani uses must be protected and India’s Kishenganga Project will deprive it of 27 per cent of the river’s natural flows, thereby doing injury to its existing 133,000 ha of irrigation in the Neelum Valley and a 900 MW Neelum-Jhelum hydro station on which construction is in progress at Nowshera. The third objection relates to certain design features.

The Indian response is that the Treaty unambiguously provides that “Where a plant is located on a tributary of the Jhelum on which Pakistan has an agricultural use or hydro-electric use, the water released below the plant may be delivered, if necessary, into another Tributary but only to the extent that the then existing agricultural use or hydro-electric use by Pakistan on the former Tributary would not be adversely affected”. This suggests that inter-tributary diversions in the Jhelum basin are permitted and that only “the then existing” agricultural and hydro-electric uses shall be protected.

Pakistan has to substantiate and not merely assert 133,000 ha of irrigation in the Neelum Valley. And how far has construction of the Nowshera hydro-electric plant proceeded and what are its specifications? Planned utilization would imply a future rather than an existing use. Would the same argument apply to a planned diversion by India on which work has recently commenced?  In any event, the Neelum catchment below the Kishenganga dam river receives several influents that make the discharge at Nowshera many times larger than the mean flows at Gurez. The Indus Commissioners have decided on further meetings and site inspections. This will hopefully clarify issues.

Peace Promise of Indus-II

It has throughout been India’s position that it has scrupulously abided by the Indus Treaty and should any genuine problem be pointed out by Pakistan, it would be prepared to make suitable modifications. Yet India will need to build storages to utilise the irrigation potential permitted under the Treaty. J&K also has considerable hydro potential that should be exploited for the benefit of the State and the country as a whole. These will stimulate development and employment in J&K and help open up remote areas by providing connectivity.

The Indus Commission may undertake at the request of either Commissioner a tour of inspection of such works or sites as may be considered necessary for ascertaining relevant facts. This provision might appropriately be invoked as developments taking place or planned in the Northern Areas (NA) and POK require better understanding.

Bitter inter-provincial discords have come in the way of Pakistan building further Indus storages. The Kalabagh dam (gross storage of 7.9 MAF) has been stalled for years by NWFP and Sind. A run-of-the-river Ghazi Barotha hydro project came on stream in June 2004, but the Bhasha-Daimer storage dam on the Chitral-NA border has run into opposition at the feasibility stage.

The Mangla dam on the Jhelum had a gross storage of 4.5 MAF but heavy siltation has reduced its capacity. Pakistan accordingly contracted a Chinese firm in June 2004 to raise the height of the dam by 30 feet to store an additional 2.88 MAF of water. This will also yield 12 per cent more energy. The project will displace 44,000 persons and is due to be completed by September 2007.

Failure to pay adequate compensation and provide alternative connectivity for villagers displaced and divided by the Mangla lake in the 1960s led to a mass exodus of marginalized Mirpuris to the UK. Divided families on the Indian side must now hope that the resettlement and compensation package this time around does not lead to a further exodus.

What has triggered far greater anxiety is the investigation by Pakistan’s WAPDA of a giant dam on the Indus at Katzara, downstream of Skardu. According to the Jang newspaper and its English stable-mate, The News, the 35 MAF Skardu Dam is likely to submerge the entire Skardu bowl and Shigar Valley leading up to K2, displacing a population of around 300,000. Fatehullah Khan, former Chairman of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), and the chair of WAPDA’s Technical Committee on Water Resources, reportedly believe that the Skardu project could be more than a substitute for the Kalabagh and Bhasha dams and an answer to Pakistan’s long term water requirements.

However, this will all but drown and obliterate the finest in Balti culture and heritage and displace possibly half the Balti population in the NA. This cannot be good news for the Indian Baltis in Kargil district. The Balwaristan nationalists are up in arms as are Pakistani conservationists and sections of the security community who fear the dam would submerge strategic roads, airfields and military supply lines in the region.

The Skardu Dam may never move beyond the drawing board. But India should want to know more about it – and other POK/NA projects - and could seek the necessary information and site visits if possible to ascertain the facts and assess the situation. Where would these 300,000 Baltis go? Such questions need to be asked and answered, whether through the Indus Treaty mechanism or otherwise. There has already been much demographic change in the politically closed Northern Areas to the detriment of the local Shia, Ismaili and Sufi communities.

There is another and more rational way for Pakistan to seek water security. It finds mention in the Indus Treaty itself. Article VII on Future Cooperation points to a “common interest in the optimum development of the Rivers” and calls upon both sides “to cooperate, by mutual consent, to the fullest possible extent ….in undertaking engineering works in the Rivers”.  The 1960 Treaty has served its purpose but leaves behind a possibly large untapped potential in the upper catchments of the three Western Rivers that are allocated to Pakistan but are under Indian control.

This potential needs to be thoroughly surveyed and could thereafter be harnessed through joint investment, construction, management and control. Pakistan cannot continue to deny India its limited entitlement in the Western rivers and also freeze all further development if it wants to grasp what could be a far larger prize by way of additional storage, flood moderation and hydro-power which both could share. India too could benefit from cooperative drainage arrangements in the middle and lower Indus basins. Were this to happen, Pakistan would not have even to think of grotesque schemes such as the Skardu dam that spells doom to a proud civilization.

Article XII of the Treaty provides that its provisions “may from time to time be modified by a duly ratified Treaty concluded for that purpose between the two Governments”. Thus an Indus-II could be constructed on the foundations of Indus-I.

Equally pertinent is the fact that, with climate change, glaciers are in retreat both in the Karakoram, one of the most glaciated regions in the world that has the largest glaciers outside Antarctica, as well as on the Tibetan Plateau, which is where the Indus and Sutlej rise. The Plateau is underlain by “tjale” or permafrost that shows signs of thawing. This suggests that enhanced glacier melt and thawing permafrost could increase flows in the Indus basin for some decades before declining sharply over the ensuing decades as the body of ice shrinks. This may be accompanied by shifts in rainfall patterns with a possibility of episodic bursts of precipitation in some areas. The uncertainty underlines the need for maximizing conservation storage within the limits of prudence and sustainability. Climate change will not respect boundaries and both Pakistan and Northwest India, as wards of the Indus, therefore have a common interest in concerting action for the common good.

Indus-II needs to be fed into the current peace process as a means both of defusing current political strains over Indus-I and insuring against climate change? It could reinforce the basis for a lasting solution to the J&K question by helping transform relationships across the LOC and reinventing it as a bridge rather than merely as a boundary-in-the-making.

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