Every now and again, one reads an editorial that stops the reader in his tracks.
On 8 December, with the headline "War Inevitable To Tackle Indian Water Aggression," Pakistan’s Urdu-language Nawa-e Waqt, issued such a screed.
Nawa-e Waqt bluntly commented on India’s Kashmiri water polices and Islamabad’s failure up to now to stop New Delhi’s efforts to construct hydroelectric dams in Kashmir, “India should be forcibly prevented from constructing these dams. If it fails to constrain itself, we should not hesitate in launching nuclear war because there is no solution except this.”
Potential nuclear war over water rights – such sentiments ought to light up switchboards from New Delhi to Washington.
Needless to say, the fact that both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers is cause for concern.
Nawa-e Waqt is a privately owned, widely read conservative Pakistani Islamic daily with a circulation around 125,000 and is heavily critical of the U.S. and India. To put Nawa-e Waqt’s circulation in context, consider that the conservative Washington Times has a current estimated circulation of 50,000.
So, what has the editorial board of the Nawa-e Waqt so excited?
Indian dam building in the disputed area of Kashmir. Compared with much of South Asia, Kashmir has many rivers and relatively few people.
Bashir Ahmad, a geologist in Srinagar, Kashmir commented grimly about the Indians’ future intentions, “They will switch the Indus off to make Pakistan solely dependent on India. It’s going to be a water bomb.” A more dispassionate report by America’s Senate last February offered still a similar assessment, noting, “The cumulative effect of (the dam) projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season” before concluding that dams are a source of “significant bilateral tension.”
How many dams and hydroelectric reports? The Senate report counted 33 hydroelectric projects in the border area, a number that Pakistani analysts nearly double to 60, which according to the state’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, will add an extra 3,000 megawatts to the national power grid by 2019.
Pakistan’s vulnerability is underwritten by the fact that, like Egypt it exists around a single great river, although the Indus is nearly twice the Nile’s size when it reaches the sea. The Indus provides water to over 80 percent of Pakistan’s 54 million acres of irrigated land, via a canal system largely built by the British.
A further potential diplomatic tar-pit is that Afghanistan plans to build 12 dams on the Kabul river with a combined storage capacity of 4.7 million acre-feet, which Pakistan frets will further diminish the Indus water supply, quite aside from the fact that Indian support for these dams will increase India's hydro-influence in the region.
The Kabul River Basin (KRB) is the most important river basin in Afghanistan and contains half the country's urban population, including the city of Kabul. While New Delhi has not directly confirmed its support for the facilities, the proposed hydroelectric projects represent one of India’s largest assistance interests, with $1.3 billion invested in infrastructure projects.
So, is there any way out before the missiles fly?
The 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan can not only assist in easing tension, but provide a template for developing an Afghan-Pakistani agreement on the Kabul river. The treaty, which has survived three wars, explicitly outlines how both India and Pakistan can use cross-border rivers and deals in particular with the tributaries flowing from Kashmir to form the Indus.
The IWT is considered one of the world's most successful trans-boundary water treaties, as it addresses specific water allocation issues and provides unique design requirements for run-of-the-river dams, which ensure the steady flow of water and guarantee power generation through hydro-electricity. The IWT also provides a mechanism for consultation and arbitration should questions, disagreements, or disputes arise.
All foreign governments interested in avoiding further military conflict in South Asia should impress upon both New Delhi and Islamabad the ongoing value of their 51 year-old water agreement and urge them to resolve their conflicts within its framework.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com