Pact under pressure

Published: Wednesday 30 April 2003

-- (Credit: EMKAY)A controversy over the design of the Baglihar hydroelectric project on Chenab river in Jammu and Kashmir is threatening to plunge the already strained ties between India and Pakistan into crisis. The row has put the 43-year-old bilateral Indus Water Treaty (iwt) to its severest test to date. After the failure of the February talks in Islamabad, Pakistan is now planning to seek India's concurrence for the appointment of a neutral expert under the aegis of the World Bank to resolve the tangle over the 450 mega watt dam.

International arbitration is the last resort envisaged under the iwt. If Pakistan carries out its threat, it would be the first time in the history of the treaty that the two countries would not have been able to bilaterally resolve a dispute. Officials in Pakistan's ministry of water and power say Islamabad is opting for World Bank mediation, as it is also the guarantor of the treaty. "In case India disagrees with our proposal, we retain the right to seek arbitration by the International Court of Justice," one official said.

But India's Union water resources ministry says that no communication has been received from Pakistan. "Their apprehensions have no basis and our construction parameters are as per the treaty," a ministry official said, further adding that India has not violated any provision.

Under the iwt signed in 1960, Pakistan has unrestricted rights over the western tributaries of the Indus River System -- the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus. India has similar rights over eastern tributaries -- the Beas, Sutlej and Ravi. "The treaty allows India to use the waters of western rivers for power generation only through run-of-the-river installations without diverting their flow or effecting any change in size or direction," claims S J A Shah, Pakistan's commissioner for Indus Waters.

The Baglihar project, proposed in 1999, is expected to provide much-needed power to Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan contends that the dam would deprive the country of 7000 cusecs of water per day. It has problems with the dam's design, maintaining that the gate structure would divert the flow of the Chenab from Pakistani territory. India says these fears are unfounded.

Observers feel the objections being raised are more political in nature than technical. The Baglihar dam has limited storage capacity and thus would have little impact on the flow of the river. Moreover, the apprehension that India may control the water to either restrict its flow or flood the plains of Pakistan is also misplaced, since the distance between the dam and the Indo-Pak border is substantial.

The controversy has raised fears that the iwt, which has survived two wars and bitter diplomatic wrangles, may fall apart. "This treaty has allowed the two countries to share their water resources and not use them as a weapon. We have to save this treaty for the peoples of the two countries whose economic mainstay is agriculture. Let us not fall prey to political rivalries and diplomatic impasses," says Mushtaq Gadi, a water rights activist in Pakistan.

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