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India commences work on $2bn Sawalkot Dam to use Water as a Weapon on Pakistan

Work on a $2bn hydroelectric power project at Sawalkot is all set to begin this year on the Chenab river in Jammu and Kashmir. The Chenab is part of the ‘western rivers’ of the Indus system over whose waters Pakistan “shall receive … unrestricted use” and “which India is under obligation to let flow” under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 (IWT). Interference in the flows is permitted for specified uses, including hydroelectric projects. This 1,856 megawatt dam has received clearance from the Indian environment ministry’s ‘Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects’. Exercising its right under the IWT to the maximum and with the objective of eliminating the power-deficient status of Jammu, the Indian government has announced the need to expedite the project.

The Sawalkot project was approved at a meeting held on February 20, 2017. Numerous other hydroelectric projects in Jammu and Kashmir have been proposed by India, all of which faced objection from Pakistan due to the adverse impact it might have on that country. Significantly, the push for the latest project in Jammu seems to have come after India lost 18 soldiers to an armed attack by four Pakistani militants in Uri last September. Does this mean India may now be using water as a weapon against Pakistan? Pakistan is highly dependent on the water from the Indus and its tributaries for its agricultural and domestic purposes. Islamabad fears the Sawalkot dam will reduce the amount of water that flows through this water-stressed country.

After the Uti attack, what emerged from a meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi held regarding the IWT was very clear when he said, “Blood and water cannot flow in the same direction”. Modi’s statement indicates that India is sending a signal to Pakistan by making more use of the western rivers – namely Indus, Jhelum and Chenab – that were primarily under the control of Pakistan. The eastern rivers have anyway been apportioned under India’s control as per the IWT. The 57-year-old treaty has been maintained by residual goodwill by the two countries. Continued terrorist activities emerging from Pakistan obviously strain the goodwill.

The water politics doesn’t end there. The Tulbul navigation project – a 439-feet-long, 40-feet-wide barrage to be constructed on the Jhelum river which would aid easy transport of commodities from Srinagar and Baramula – was suspended when Pakistan claimed it was a violation of the IWT. Following the Uri attacks, the Indian government is also reviewing the Tulbul project with the aim of resuming work on it. Islamabad says the flow of water into the Jhelum would be controlled by India and could result in droughts or floods in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. In a worst case scenario, Pakistani analysts say multitudes of people will be affected due to the shortage of food, and productivity will be extremely low, with water-intensive crops like rice and cotton being deprived of water.

Though consistent with the IWT, the Salal and Baglihar dams on the Chenab river are believed to have had a detrimental impact on Pakistan and now, with the setting up of the Sawalkot dam, India seems to be adding to Pakistan’s apprehensions.

As per the IWT, despite Pakistan’s exclusive control over the western rivers, India can use the water from these rivers for domestic, non-consumptive, agriculture and hydropower-generation purposes. With the treaty permitting India to use 3.6 million acres for storage facilities, an option that India has not used until now, Pakistan cannot prevent the construction of the Sawalkot dam.

That doesn’t mean there is no scope for debate. The IWT is to be applied and interpreted in line with customary international laws, which lays down a fundamental rule: If there is a development project that may cause significant harm to another country, there is a duty to prevent or at least mitigate such harm. According to the World Commission on Dams, “The end of any dam project must result in sustainable development of human welfare, that is, it must be economically viable, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable”. This seems to give Pakistan a reasonable claim to inhibit the construction activity, so as to protect its people from the acute water shortage that may well follow from the Sawalkot dam. In the past, Pakistan has time and again raised objections to India’s proposal for the Sawalkot project. In spite of this, India aims now to expedite it.

Environmental activists have also voiced their concern over the construction of the dam, which would be tantamount to ecological destruction. There will be a massive displacement of population and the land needed for the dam will sweep away large areas of forest cover. Moreover, the Sawalkot dam is close to the Himalayan Boundary Thrust Zone, where a number of earthquakes have been recorded.

India seems intent to take on Pakistan in this water feud, disregarding the magnitude of the impact it could have on its historic enemy. The late John Briscoe, a water resources expert at Harvard University, suggested a way forward to settle this constant water feud between the two countries. He said that India, being an upper riparian state that has all the cards in its hands, must be the one to bring about a difference. According to Briscoe, India must be more open minded and understanding towards the existential crisis faced by its water-starved neighbour. The government of India should show a generosity of spirit that is integral to being a great power and a good neighbour.

Avenging the loss faced by the Indian army in the terrorist-perpetrated Uri attacks by building dams and using water to retaliate against a large civilian population seems an unusually harsh response. Both countries must deal with disputes related to the Indus by delinking themselves from historic grievances and from other Kashmir-related issues. In Briscoe’s words, “It is a sign of statesmanship, not weakness, to acknowledge the past and then move beyond it.”

The Permanent Indus Commission comprising officials from India and Pakistan is meeting in Lahore this week. That is as good a forum as any for the two sides to find an amicable resolution to this problem.


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