Nuclear war over water?

Source:  Tribune Published in Current Affairs on Saturday, March 18, 2017

How does one react when confronted with more than one side of the same story? Ashfaq.

Mahmood, an expert on energy and water issues, declares that if India continues to “strangulate” Pakistan’s water flow, there can be a nuclear war. The two neighbours have more than 500 bombs in their ‘basements’ that can be deployed should India refuse to come to the negotiating table or go for a third party arbitration. Ashfaq Mahmood, who has served as federal secretary in ministries of Water and Power, Planning and Development and was heading the Energy Wing of the Planning Commission until 2008, gives concrete examples on how India has been violating the Indus Waters Treaty. Brokered by the World Bank, the treaty was signed in Karachi on September 19, 1960 by Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru and President of Pakistan Ayub Khan.

But a former bureaucrat who is considered an authority on agriculture tells a common friend that it’s not India but Pakistan who allows water to flow into the sea because it is unable to conserve the water by failing to build small dams. “India says that while it uses water to make electricity by building dams like the Baglihar and Kishanganga, it always put the water back in the rivers that flow into Pakistan.”

At an event organised by the Oxbridge Society (alumni of Oxford and Cambridge universities) in Islamabad titled: “Hydro-Diplomacy between Pakistan and India to prevent war between two nuclear states — role of World Bank, US, China, Europe and other countries,” Ashfaq Mahmood warned of India walking away from the Indus Waters Treaty due to its belligerence. “People in India are stealing our water by diverting it through the construction of dams. The water table in Lahore has been reduced as water is being pumped on the Indian side of Punjab. Our lands are going dry as farmers depend on ground water,” he says.

So what is the solution? Not war but a third party arbitration as stipulated in the Treaty. But the current Indian rhetoric is most unhelpful. Statements like ‘water and blood can’t flow together,’ or ‘India will abrogate the Indus Waters Treaty’ need to be toned down. “Let’s step back and try to change the mindset of both the countries,’ says Mr Mahmood. “The war hysteria is polluting the minds of people… it needs to be addressed by the international community.” He says that were a nuclear war to break out, it will not only wipe us all out, but its effects will be far-reaching. So, it’s time the World Bank took a fresh look and acted as an honest broker; not one favouring India as it has done in the past.

Irshadullah Khan, the secretary general of the Oxbridge Society, thinks the time for hydro-diplomacy is long over. “We should abrogate all treaties with India. It only understands the stick. Indian Prime Minister Modi wants to make Pakistan a desert.” This may well end in a nuclear war where “500 most powerful bombs can go off swallowing up the whole world. Modi needs to be restrained immediately. Our intelligence agencies like the ISI and the MI must reach out to their counterparts in America and Europe to explain what a dangerous game India is playing that can lead to a nuclear conflagration.”

Here is one more view forwarded by a Pakistani-American who thinks and cares for Pakistan deeply. According to him, the news media and the public believe that India is stealing Pakistan’s water from the three western rivers, Jhelum, Chenab and Indus. “Is India violating the Treaty?” he asks and then answers: “Depends on who you ask.” The Indians obviously deny it, while in Pakistan the opposite viewpoint is held. “India claims that they are correctly using their rights based on their rights based on the treaty by building dams for power generation and for irrigation.” He says that Pakistan for the 50-plus years has not planned for the coming water scarcity while India was building dam after dam.”

What then must Pakistan do to prevent going totally dry?

The obvious short-term solution is to work out the river water problems with India, failing which, focused episodic military steps can be taken to force the issue with them, he says.

But for a long-term solution, we need sustainable water conservation and flood control practices. “In one word, the answer is water conservation of the flood waters.”

Every year a significant amount of water is lost to the sea. Snow melt and the monsoon rains come in summer which leads to flooding. “This water needs to be saved which means that it should infiltrate the subsoil and replenish the ground water supplies. This can only be done by building hundreds of thousands of water reservoirs of all sizes everywhere,” he says. This is a dire emergency which is unforeseen by the people as well as the leaders.

In America, the federal government provides states like Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota, engineering know-how to the farmers and ranchers at the local level who build small earthen / rock dams everywhere. There are literally hundreds of thousands of such small dams where the financing, labour and materials are provided by the locals to build such structures for their own benefit. This stored water continuously seeps through and replenishes water of the sub-soil aquifers from where the water can be used in dryer years. “In Pakistan, the rampant use of sub-soil water for agriculture through tube wells has led to the water levels dropping fast while there is no replenishing to speak of. An urgent water reservoir building programme is needed.”

On a personal level, he has tried to speak about his proposals with government officials in Islamabad and K-P but it appears that everyone is suffering from an “ostrich syndrome.” He says, “I do not have the words to describe how critical this issue is. Our salvation lies in harnessing of the flood waters through building hundreds of thousands of small dams with the help of the government and the locals.”

Is anyone listening?


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Written by Anjum Niaz