India and Pakistan: a personal view of the water wars

March 29, 2010

 It was so long in the making,  so utterly predictable, that the news that Pakistan and India are now arguing over water carries with it the dull ache of inevitability.

When I was living in Delhi, which I left in 2004, a few analysts were already warning that the next war between Pakistan and India would be over water, rather than over Kashmir.  The mountain glaciers which fed the rivers which are the lifeline of both countries were melting, they said, and sooner or later India and Pakistan would blame each other for climate change. I did not take it that seriously at the time. Not even after seeing first hand how far the Siachen glacier – the world’s longest glacier – had receded.  

Nor indeed did it properly register after talking to an Indian sherpa who had led the first Indian military expedition to Siachen in 1978 in what India considers part of its own Ladakh region  At the time, Ladakh was much colder, he said, and the snow on the glacier came right down into the valley. It had receded in recent years because of global warming, exposing the black tracts of scree I had scrambled up during my trip there. “It was like a beautiful road coming right down from K2,”he said, , “black moraine on either side.” There was nothing, and nobody there.

From the records of the India Office of the British Library, I unearthed an account written by the American explorer Fanny Bullock-Workman of her own travels in Siachen in 1911-12 – so little consulted nowadays that the pages of her book began to come away in my hands.  She suggested that Siachen had been receding back in her days too,  so I was able to put the ebb and flow of the glacier down to natural changes in the climate.

Then a few years ago,  I made the drive from Srinagar in Kashmir to Leh in Ladakh and — dangerous as it is to extrapolate from one’s own experiences – saw the impact of global warming first hand.

It is a two-day drive from Srinagar to Leh, with a stopover in Kargil where India and Pakistan fought an intense border war in 1999. It is a spectacular drive, but also one of the most precipitous and most terrifying. By the time you are nearing Leh, you are looking forward to a comfortable hotel bed and a bowl of thick Tibetan soup.

Not long before we reached Leh, we discovered that the road bridge had been swept away by heavy floods rushing down from the mountain glaciers. I met a local Ladakhi journalist I knew who was, like me, stranded on the wrong side of the broken bridge. He took one look at me, and though I had not seen him for three years or so, he shook my hand and said two words: “global warming”.  Then, like all the other Ladakhis there, he disappeared over a precarious crossing which the locals had fashioned across the river — which involved walking across the upturned root of  a tree and then somehow making it from branch to branch across a raging glacial torrent to the other side.

I was too scared to make that crossing, and so spent the night sleeping in the car, and then much of the following day waiting for the Indian Army to reopen the road.  The Srinagar to Leh road is one of India’s most strategic. It is why they fought the Kargil war when Pakistani artillery began shelling it. I expected, wrongly, that they would repair it quickly.

The Indian Army took their time.  In one of those things that always happen in India, a dead body – presumably of someone who had drowned in the floods – lay out with us all night.  In another of “those things” — and anyone who has travelled in India knows this — there were no toilets. We were out in the high plateau Tibetan desert with, by that time, hundreds of Ladakhis crowding around at the other side of the broken bridge to see what was going on.

Not realising that the army was about to blow up the remnants of the bridge,  I wandered into a copse trying to find a private space. I still remember the heat on my face from the explosion. After that I have taken global warming more seriously.

So back to water wars.  On this blog, we have been discussing this for a while,  going right back to 2008. We also covered it here, here and here.

More details to follow. For now, let’s none of us pretend this is a new issue.

(Update – for anyone looking for a starting point on the water wars, I recommend this report which Strategic Foresight brought out in early 2005.)


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