Kashmir, a region disputed by two nuclear powers: India and Pakistan. The territorial war has turned into a conflict not only for the land but also over water resources.
The Indian Kashmir is experiencing one of the highest levels of exposure to violence of the last twenty years. For months, popular demonstrations for independence from India have been crushed bloodily by the police, and curfew is often imposed to maintain public order. Clashes have escalated between the troops of the two nuclear powers along the ‘line of control’, which marks the buffer zone that divides Kashmir into Pakistani and Indian-ruled zones.
In recent years, the dispute over land has also become a water war. The Indus river and its tributaries, which originate in this region, not only form an important river system for the agricultural economy of India and Pakistan, but also a relevant source of energy. India especially has firmly focused on the development of the hydroelectric sector with the government aiming to cover 40 percent of the domestic energy needs by building dams along the entire Himalayan ridge.
The dams built by India have long been one of the main points of contention between the rival neighbors, along with the disputed region of Kashmir itself. Pakistan, whose agriculture-dominated economy is heavily reliant on the Indus and its tributaries, fears that upstream dams allow India to manipulate the flows of water. Many in Pakistan accuse New Delhi of wantonly exacerbating the country’s dire water shortages, choking its agricultural production and ruining livelihoods.
A U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee report in 2011 said that the cumulative effect of multiple hydroelectric projects on the rivers Jhelum, Sutlej and Chenab (among the major tributaries of the Indus) could give India the ability to store enough water to limit Pakistan’s supply at crucial moments in the growing season. While no single legal or diplomatic tussle will rupture the fragile relations between the countries, the cumulative effect of a series of standoffs could cause tensions to boil over. Furthermore, global warming also contributes to exacerbate the situation and in fact, a recent Dutch study found that by 2050, shrinking glaciers are predicted to reduce the flows of the Indus by 8%.
The process of building dams
The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) brokered by the World Bank (WB) in 1960, provided for the division of the rivers between India and Pakistan. The eastern rivers, Sutlej and Beasand Ravi were allocated to India, the western rivers, Jhelum, Chenab and Indus, were allotted to Pakistan. But with India preparing ambitious irrigation project plans, it was possible to see how, by the 1990s, Kashmir’s hydrological importance had once again become a serious issue. Currently, India is in the process of building dams on the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers (both of which originate in Kashmir).
The Indus Water Treaty allows India to harness the hydropower potential of the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers, as long as it does not reduce or delay the supply to Pakistan. India therefore maintains that its projects are in compliance with the treaty and sees no conflict with Pakistan on these issues. India says its use of upstream water is strictly in line with the 1960 agreement. And the India’s Commissioner for Indus waters, G. Aranganathan, has assured that India will not reduce the supply of water to Pakistan. However the fact that, as the upstream riparian on all five of the main Indus tributaries that flow into Pakistan, India has the strategically advantageous position with regards to control of the flow of water, has continued to annoy Pakistan.
In 2010 farmers of the Pakistani Punjap, led by Hafiz Saeed, alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, demonstrated against the Indian water ‘terrorism’. But also Hami Gul, former head of Pakistani intelligence, has urged the Government to “blow up the Indian dams”. Some newspapers then, riding the wave of public resentment warn India: ‘water can cause a new war, this time it would be a nuclear one’.
Pakistan does not seem willing to give in to provocations of extremists, but so far diplomacy has not helped much. Repeated appeals to international institutions on alleged violations of the IWT have all been rejected up to now. The hydroelectric plant that is designed to divert water from the Kishanganga River to a power plant in the Jhelum River basin was temporarily halted by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration in October 2011, due to Pakistan’s protest about its effect on the flow of the Kishanganga River (called the Jhelum River in Pakistan); but in February 2013, the Hague ruled that India could divert a minimum amount of water for power generation. The dam should become operational in the coming months.
However the construction of the Kishanganga hydropower plant has aroused strong criticism in India itself. The dam was built in the remote region of Gurez, a few kilometres from the ‘line of control’. From there, the waters of the Kishanganga are supposed to be channelled into underground tunnels that lead into the plant located upstream of the village of Kralpora, 5 kilometres north of the town of Bandipora, near Lake Wular.
The work might cause flooding that would wipe out dozens of villages, including those of the Dard-Shina people, an ancient ethnic group. Moving this community from the villages of Gurez to the camps set up at Srinagar could lead to the extinction of an ancient culture. The last descendants of Aryans, who populated the Gurez, belong in fact to this ethnic group. They speak Shina, the language from which Sanskrit is believed to derive.
The area at risk of flooding is also home to valuable archaeological sites such as Chilas, where hundreds of rock inscriptions in Kharoshthi, Brahmi, Hebrew and Tibetan were discovered, or the site of Kanzalwan, where the last Buddhist Council is believed to have taken place.
Relaunching the domestic hydroelectric production
More than fifty years have passed now, since in 1963, Jawaharlal Nehru, historic leader of Indian independence, inaugurated the Bhakhra dam, the first Indian colossal hydroelectric plant on the Sutlej River which was presented to people as ‘a temple of modern India’.
In Nehru’s projects the dams were supposed to bring running water to Indian families, provide water for irrigation of land and power for industry. Since then, more than 5 thousand hydroelectric plants have been built. As a consequence more than 60 million people have been forced to move and thousands of hectares of forest have been razed to the ground.
Apart from the immense damage that the dams have caused to ecosystems and to the Himalayas people, the Indian hydroelectric industry certainly does not stand out for its efficiency: 90 percent of the hydroelectric plants do not produce the amount of energy they were expected to. Over the past 20 years, while the sector has grown at an annual average of about 5 percent, the rate of return fell by a quarter. The plants often remain inoperational, during both the monsoon season, due to sediment accumulation, and the dry season, due to the low water flow. In addition, most of the energy obtained in the production centres in the Himalayas is dispersed along the transmission lines on the way to the points of consumption – the Indian megalopolis.
However, inefficiency, environmental devastation, massive campaigns of forced displacement, these apparent contradictions of this form of ‘clean’ energy production, do not seem to call into question this sector of industry that can boast a solid financial and political support which is provided not only by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, but also by several international banks and private investors (including, Siemens, Kaerner, Abb, Escher Wyss, Bhel). Narendra Modi, sworn in as new Prime Minister, in May 2014, was immediately engaged in a diplomatic tour aimed at relaunching the domestic hydroelectric production (four new plants in Kashmir alone) and abroad (especially in neighbouring Nepal and Bhutan).
India is also trying to obtain that the large hydro plants are recognised as renewable energy sources (so far only small hydro installations that can produce power up to 25-MW are included in the renewable energy sources) in order to get access to those funds and international benefits planned for ‘green’ energy. Not even the threat of a nuclear war seems to be frightening enough to stop the powerful hydropower lobby. (K.L.)