India and Pakistan: watch out for water fights

June 22, 2008

Boy bathes with his pet monkey in Indus river in KarachiDefence analysts in South Asia have been saying for so long that India and Pakistan might solve their problems over Kashmir only to end up at war over water that I had almost become inured to the issue. That was until I read the following comment on an earlier blog about Gulf investors buying up farmland in Pakistan to offset food shortages at home:

“Tough challenges await the investors in this sector due to serious water and energy shortages that the country suffers from at the moment,” it reads. “For effective investment in the agriculture sector, the government must clear these impediments first.”

The comment prompted me to hunt around for evidence of growing tension between India and Pakistan over water, needed to irrigate the land to cope with food shortages and for hydroelectric power — an increasingly attractive alternative in view of high fuel prices.

A quick trawl turned up this overview in the asia sentinel: “Water is destined to be a determining factor in the regional conflicts of South Asia in the years to come, particularly between India and Pakistan,” it says. ”While the West is busy concentrating its efforts on securing a ready supply of oil, in South Asia the governments are slowly but surely waking up to the fact that in the not too distant future water is going to be equally, if not more, important to the survival of their people.”

More specifically, Ijaz Hussain in the Daily Times analyses a row between India and Pakistan over Indian plans to build a hydroelectric project – the Kishanganga dam — on a river on its side of divided Kashmir. Pakistan fears the project will disrupt its own plans to build a hydroelectric dam on the same river on its side of Kashmir.

India and Pakistan have successfully regulated their use of the rivers they share in divided Kashmir through the Indus Waters Treaty  (see full pdf document here), signed in 1960 under the auspices of the World Bank. It is the only agreement to have been fully implemented by India and Pakistan; it held through two full-scale wars in 1965 and 1971 and survived a period of intense antagonism which began with the nuclear tests in 1998 and ended with a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir in late 2003. 

How well will it hold up in the current global crisis over food shortages and high oil prices? Relations between India and Pakistan are better than they have been for years, yet the challenges they face in providing food and electricity for their people and their industries are greater than ever.

The Dal lake in Srinagar, KashmirI shall return to this subject and would appreciate comments offering links or ideas about how far water is going to replace Kashmir as the main irritant between India and Pakistan.

In the meantime, here is an observation to be going on with. The Stimson Center, in a history of the Indus Waters Treaty, attributes the success of the World Bank in brokering the deal to its insistence that the “functional” aspects of sharing water resources for mutual benefit must be separated from the political aspects of the India-Pakistan relationship.

Yet when Indian Power Minister Jairam Ramesh spoke of the row over the Kishanganga dam earlier this month he said: ”This is an issue with geo-strategic and foreign policy implications. The prime minister would have to give it a thought.”

Did he misspeak? Or were his words about the geo-strategic implications of water a sign of things to come?

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