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Deadlock in Pakistan-India water talks


News Analysis |

No headway has been made in talks on usage and distribution of water between India and Pakistan. The talks began two days ago in Lahore when the Indian Delegation visited Pakistan.

The visiting delegation was headed by its Commissioner, PK Saxena while his Pakistani counterpart was interim Commissioner Syed Meher Ali Shah. The issue that was to be discussed was the construction of the Paka Dul and Lower Kalnai dams on the river Chenab.

The Paka Dul is set to have an installed capacity of 1000 MW and is being built on river Marusadar, a tributary of the river Chenab in district Kishtwar of Indian Occupied Kashmir. The dam to store water would be of 167 meters high, 10 km in length with four powerhouses each of 250 MW. The Lower Kalnai dam is also a hydropower project with a capacity of 48 MW. Its height will be 40 meters with a tunnel for diversion of water to be of 4.25 kilometers in length.

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The problem with these dams is that they are being built on the river Chenab or its tributaries. The use of this river, along with the Indus and Jhelum was accorded for exclusive to Pakistan under the Indus Water Treaty, albeit under some conditions. Under Article VIII of this treaty, permanent Indus Water Commissions were established in both countries to discuss and resolve any ongoing matters that fall within the purview of the IWT. The Pakistani Commission, led by Mr. Shah conveyed to the Indian delegation that the dams being built are not legal, as per the IWT.

At first, Mr. Saxena reportedly said that his team would convey Pakistan’s concerns to the Indian government. This is not the first time in recent years that there have been strong differences between the two neighbors over the distribution of water under the IWT. Over a decade, the matter of the Baglihar dam, a run of the river project built on the river Chenab, made the news. A neutral expert was approached under article IX, annexure F of the IWT by both parties for arbitration to give an expert determination. Three out of four objections raised by Pakistan were accepted in what Islamabad termed “a victory”. New Delhi, too, however, claimed it hadn’t lost the verdict.

Similarly, the Kishanganga dam on the Neelum river was also objected to by Pakistan. In this case, the matter was taken up to the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The partial award of the PCA said, ”India may accordingly divert water from the Kishenganga/Neelum River Hydro-Electric Plant…in such a way as to maintain a minimum flow of water in the…river.” The issue of the Paka Dul dam got media attention in 2012 as well. Pakistan raised its objections but to no avail apparently. In the water talks held this week, the Indian side shows no sign of abutting. As things stand, the dam may well go through like the previous ones did. Merely raising objections don’t seem to be achieving a lot.

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Why is the water issue becoming more and more significant now? And secondly, why is it that Pakistan always seems to be playing victim to Indian designs to control the flow of water in the country? In the talks this week, the India delegation reportedly rebuffed Pakistan’s claims that the building of Paka Dul and Lower Kalnai was illegal, arguing that Islamabad has not built even a single dam of the size of Mangla or Tarbela after the IWT came into force. The Pakistani Indus water Commission seems to have been headed by an interim Commissioner. Previously, a bureaucrat has led the Commission on an ad hoc basis. Why not appoint an expert in International law to represent Pakistan when delegations from our neighbor come to visit?

The issue of water has become highly significant in recent years because the reality of climate change has been acknowledged worldwide. Developing countries are most vulnerable to it since they often have a strong agricultural component in their economies. And agriculture necessitates a reliable supply of water which is threatened by climate change. Both India and Pakistan depend on the river Ganges and the Indus for their survival, respectively, since both rivers go through virtually the entire lengths of the two countries. India has a huge number of diverse ethnolinguistic groups. Water insecurity can exacerbate feelings of discrimination and prejudice among the masses. In Pakistan, there is some level of mistrust between the provinces over how water is distributed, particularly between Punjab and Sindh.

There is no question that water security is a matter of survival for the nations of South Asia. The problem is that we keep referring to the Indus Water Treaty to resolve 21st-century issues. The IWT has been one of the most successful treaties in modern history. The permanent Indus water commission used to meet even during war times. However, it was not equipped to deal with the ever-increasing threat of climate change. The IWT treats this matter only cursorily, stating under Article IV (10) that ‘each party declares its intention to prevent, as far as practicable, undue pollution’. The treaty was made with the latest scientific understanding of all underlying issues but only for its time. Half a century has passed. Maybe it is time to revise certain provisions in the treaty.

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The United Nations Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of Watercourses was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on May 21st, 1997 but neither Pakistan nor India is party to it. The Convention places particular emphasis on ‘taking into account the problems affecting many international watercourses resulting from among other things, increasing demands and pollution,’ and on the ‘use, development and protection of an international watercourse in an equitable and reasonable manner’. Article 6 of the Convention deals with water conservation and populations dependent on international watercourses for habitat and survival. Both Islamabad and New Delhi can work together under the auspices of this Convention to revise the Indus Water Treaty and incorporate provisions concerned with climate change. The IWT has served both countries well during the past 50 years. In the next few decades at least, developing countries are going to have to deal with the threat of a changing climate. It is not only logical that the treaty is the update but perhaps necessary.

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