Sunday, November 20, 2011

A growing rivalry between India, Pakistan and China over the region’s great rivers may be threatening South Asia’s peace.

Photograph of Baglihar Dam on river Chenab in ...
Image via Wikipedia
Baglihar Dam across Chenab river in Doba distr...
Image via Wikipedia

SONAULLAH PHAPHO has spent half a century picking a living from Wular lake high in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Today he is lucky if he scoops a fish or two out of the soupy mess. Push a boat into the knee-deep lake and the mud raises a stink of sewage. A century ago Wular and its surrounding marshes covered more than 217 square kilometres (84 square miles), making it one of Asia's larger freshwater lakes. Now, thanks to silt and encroachment, the extraction of water by nearby towns and tree planting on the shore, it measures only 87 sq km and is shrinking.

Compared with much of South Asia, Kashmir, a disputed territory in northern India, has many rivers and relatively few people. But even here fresh water is running short. To see how contentious this can be, drive half a day south to where the Baglihar dam (shown above) is rising up. An enormous wall bisects the valley, dressing it in white spray, and three huge jets of water blast from its sluices.

Half complete, the dam is already a local wonder that tourists gape at. It generates 450MW for the starved energy grid of Jammu and Kashmir. Once the scheme fully tames the water, by steering it through a tunnel blasted into the mountain, the grid will gain another 450MW.

The river swirls away, white-crested and silt-laden, racing to the nearby border with Pakistan. But there Baglihar is a source of bitterness. Pakistanis cite it as typical of an intensifying Indian threat to their existence, a conspiracy to divert, withhold or misuse precious water that is rightfully theirs. Officials in Islamabad and diplomats abroad are primed to grumble about it. Pakistan's most powerful man, the head of the armed forces, General Ashfaq Kayani, cites water to justify his "India-centric" military stance.

Others take it further. "Water is the latest battle cry for jihadis," says B.G. Verghese, an Indian writer. "They shout that water must flow, or blood must flow." Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistani terror group, likes to threaten to blow up India's dams. Last year a Pakistani extremist, Abdur Rehman Makki, told a rally that if India were to "block Pakistan's waters, we will let loose a river of blood."

Assorted hardliners cheer them on. A blood-curdling editorial in Nawa-i-Waqt, a Pakistani newspaper, warned in April that "Pakistan should convey to India that a war is possible on the issue of water and this time war will be a nuclear one."

Upstream such outbursts are usually dismissed as proof that troubled Pakistan is, as ever, spoiling for a fight. Water is merely the latest excuse. India is not misbehaving, says Mr Verghese placidly. It fails to take all it is entitled to from cross-border rivers in Kashmir. Run-of-the-river dams like Baglihar consume nothing, since water must flow to run turbines. Such a dam, he says, merely briefly delays a river.
{Read the full article Economist}

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