Politics of Dams

‘Whisky is for drinking; water is for fighting over.’ This maxim of Mark Twain can rightly be put into the context of water conflicts between India and Pakistan. Therefore, it is need of the hour to assess Indian decision to construct dams over the rivers of Indus Basin.

Today, plethora of research is available, revealing negative impact of the construction of large dams. Not only are the poor whose living depends on the river usually affected by the construction of large dams but also the ecosystem of the basin. According to the World Commission on Dams (WCD), [t]he end of any dam project must result in sustainable improvement of human welfare, that is, it must be economically viable, socially equitable and environmentally sustainable.

No doubt, dams play an important role in managing and applying water resources for various uses like agriculture, industrial and domestic use, and flood control and hydropower generation. Water debates between India and Pakistan, however, are more intricate and do not inhibit with in the domain of just water-sharing wherein underlying cause of various conflict, especially water conflict, is the fundamental absence of trust between the two countries. According to a report by the Institute of Peace in the US, “disagreement on the Baglihar dam project was not merely over technical specifications but was largely driven by Pakistan’s security concerns India’s intentions to hold/restrict water during low-flow winter months and release excess water during high-flow summer months, was feared to cause flooding in that region of Pakistan.” In this sense, any action by India attracts suspicion in Pakistan, and vice-versa.

Now, India’s plans to construct dams and reservoirs in the aftermath of the Uri attacks need to be seriously examined. If only the environmental or ecological cost of building dams is observed, the Indian forays into earlier dam constructions aren’t very promising for the region. For instance, the Sri Sailam dam across the river Krishna in Andhra Pradesh caused the submergence of some 106,925 acres of land across 117 villages in the region. Moreover, almost 27,000 families were displaced because of dam construction. In a similar way, “the Ukai dam across the river Tapi in Gujarat displaced 52,000 people; the Pong dam in Himachal Pradesh displaced nearly one lakh people; and the Bhakra dam displaced over 2,100 families.” Displacement, evacuation and submergence are the negative externalities of constructing large dams by India and the same trend is going on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

Furthermore, it is well recognised that most of the water conflicts between India and Pakistan are, in reality, conflicts over dams. For instance the Baglihar dam, constructed on river Chenab in J&K and completed in 2008, has been a contentious issue between India and Pakistan due to its design and storage capacity. Similarly, the Kishanganga dam on river Jhelum is mired in controversy because of its river diversion plans. Now, just for the sake of argument even if Pakistan let Indian build Kishanganga and Ratle dam, it cannot ignore topographic impacts on the region, putting water security issue aside for a moment. Therefore, a pre-requisite to initiating construction of dams and reservoirs in J&K is to gather ample understanding of its topography. Also, it is important to recognize that the state at present does not have an adequate infrastructure (canals) to store water, which could potentially cause flooding in the state if water flow to Pakistan is restricted by India.

Hence, though Pakistan and India concluded the much-delayed water talks in the US capital, raising hopes that they would avoid further tensions over an issue that has far-reaching consequences for both; nevertheless, Pakistan should keep in mind all the above considerations before letting India execute plans of constructing dams over rivers in the Indus basin as this might aggravate political tensions between India and Pakistan.

Article originally published in Express Tribune, August 28, 2017.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy.

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