New Indian dam threatens to parch Pakistan

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A Pakistani man pushes a cart carrying water in jerry cans in a slum area of Karachi on October 25, 2017. Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum

Pakistan is bracing for a grave water crisis because of climate change and India’s tacit ‘control and management policy’ on the flow of water from the Himalaya-Karakorum mountain range into the Indus Valley.

A dispute over the 58-year-old Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan that the World Bank is trying to resolve has intensified after an US$864 million run-of-the-river Kishanganga hydroelectric plant was inaugurated by India to divert water from the Kishanganga River to the Jhelum River basin north of Bandipore in Jammu and Kashmir.

In 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a prophetic comment after an Uri militant attack that “blood and water cannot flow together.”

On Wednesday, the World Bank announced that talks with Pakistani officials did not culminate in an agreement on Pakistan’s water dispute with India. A four-member Pakistani delegation, which arrived in Washington a day after Modi inaugurated the Kishanganga dam in Kashmir, conveyed its concerns that the dam would reduce Pakistan’s share of the Indus waters and damage the ecosystem of the Neelum and Jhelum rivers.

The Indus water system flows through three western rivers – the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab – and three eastern rivers – the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi. India built the controversial Kishanganga dam on the Neelum, which is a tributary of the Jhelum River. The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty gives Pakistan exclusive use of the western rivers, while the eastern rivers go to India.

Experts on water and environmental issues warned that the scarcity of water posed a potential danger to Pakistan where no water policy exists to effectively tackle the imminent shortage. They claim India’s plan to control the water flow to Pakistan has worked, as Pakistan’s rivers recorded more than a 10 million acre feet (MAF) water drop since 2002. They also say India had the potential to store 287 MAF of water from its total resources of about 750 MAF per annum.

Pervaiz Amir, director of Pakistan Water Partnership (PWP), told Asia Times: “The Indian storage capacity is 30%, which they struggle to increase up to 50%, while Pakistan with 140 MAF of available water resources has a capacity to store only 7%, which is a real source of concern for policymakers.”

The PWP is the country partner of the Global Water Partnership-South Asia, which arranged a briefing at the Islamabad Press Club on the water crisis last month. Amir said he regretted the country had been without a water policy for seven decades, primarily because water has become a highly politicized subject in Pakistan.

The Kishanganga hydroelectric plant is not the only threat that could reduce the available water resources of the country. India is also working to line up funds for a dam on the Kabul river in Afghanistan.

“India had control of over 85% of the water that came from the Indian-side of Kashmir. Now, it was planning to further damage Pakistan’s water interests by financing a dam over the Kabul River which will reduce the flow from the western tributaries,” Sardar Muhammad Tariq, chief executive officer of PWP, told Asia Times.

“Our rivers have already shed over 10 MAF of water since 2002 – 111 billion cusecs (one cubic foot per second) of water was lost only in the past three floods – but successive governments failed to evolve a comprehensive long-term strategy to meet the country’s water needs,” Tariq said.

He suggested that more dams should be constructed in the country and work on the ongoing projects should be accelerated to create more storage capacity. Tariq highlighted the antiquated agricultural practices causing more than 40% of water wastage and suggested high-value low-water-use crops to minimize water usage.

Referring to Pakistan’s port city of Karachi, Amir said the India-based Centre for Science and Environment in its recent research identified 10 cities across the world facing ‘Day Zeroes,’ or severe water shortages, and that Karachi was one of them.

“Karachi needs integrated planning to take on the negative environmental impacts in the shape of heatwaves and tsunamis,” he said.

In 2015, more than 1,000 people died in Karachi from heatstroke. This week, as temperatures shot up to 46 degrees Celsius ahead of the peak summer season, more than 65 died of heatstroke.

The Hub dam fulfills 70% of the water demands of Karachi, but it is drying up due to aridity and drought-like seasons. If rain does not come soon, Karachi will be in for a chronic water crisis. The Water and Sewerage Board in Karachi barely meets 50% of the city’s total water requirement as the city’s population grows at 5% annually.

“We need to build a minimum of three desalination plants to overcome the water shortage in the city,” Amir said, adding that the large-scale theft of water also needs to be plugged to ward off pressure on existing water resources.

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