As new dams in JK ‘violate’ Indus Water Treaty, is a ‘water war’ inevitable?

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After India and Pakistan locked horns over the controversial Kishanganga Power Project at the World Bank, eight new storage dams coming up in Jammu and Kashmir have threatened to renew tension in the bilateral relations. Amid the potential war on water, the environment of the region is taking a huge hit.

Much water has flown in Kashmir since 1905, when it got its first run-of the-river scheme 4-MW Mohra Hydroelectric Plant.

113 years later, with Mohra listed as a protected site, the state has witnessed a boom of hydropower projects with the aim to ‘promote economy’ and ‘create sustainable revenue for the state’.

But observers have been long warning that the boom is actually a doom for the region’s environment, and has pushed the two nuke-neighbours closer on the confrontational front.

As one of the key political issues between the two hostile nations, water was distributed between India and Pakistan through the Indus Water Treaty (IWT), signed in Karachi on September 19, 1960, and brokered by the World Bank.

Mohra Power Project. (Photo: Indian Express)

However, in the times of nationalists and strongmen, the historic pacts are often being violated and thrown to the wind.

In September 2016, Indian premier Narendra Modi threatened to scrap the IWT amid heightened tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, saying, ‘Blood and water cannot flow together.

The treaty divided the water between the two nations into eastern and western rivers. India has control over three eastern rivers — the Beas, the Ravi and the Sutlej, with the mean flow of 33 million acre-feet (MAF). Pakistan has control over the water flowing in the three western rivers — the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum, with the mean flow of 80 MAF.

As the treaty gave Pakistan access to more water, the panel had decided that India should be given access to use a part of this water as “non-consumptive”.

The term, however, did not define what all it includes — not at least the construction of water dams. This ambiguity, Islamabad often decries, has been emboldening New Delhi to violate the treaty for many years now.

ALSO READ: ‘Recognize your responsibility’, Pakistan tells World Bank as India completes Kishanganga project

Since 1990s, almost two dozen small and large hydropower houses with dams have emerged on different western tributaries in violation to the IWT. These hydropower projects are slowly proving to be environmental disasters for Jammu and Kashmir.

The experts have been long warning that the drilling and blasting process for these projects is mainly depleting the condition of streams and springs in the region.

But despite all these detrimental impacts by hydropower projects, New Delhi is now planning to construct eight more hydroelectricity projects with a total installed capacity of 6,352 MW at a projected cost of INR 567 billion (USD 9 billion).

In the Chenab basin itself, these projects are being planned to produce hydropower through the “run-off-the-river” technique, in which a river’s water is not held back in a reservoir, but diverted through a tunnel, after which it turns turbines to generate electricity before flowing back into the river.

From left: Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Pakistan’s President General Ayub Khan signing the Indus Water Treaty in presence of a World Bank representative in 1960.

Already housing number of working hydropower projects, Chenab will now get seven more, including Sawalkote (1,856 MW), Kirthai I (390 MW), Kirthai II (930 MW), Pakal Dul (1,000 MW), Kwar (540 MW), Kiru (624 MW) and Bursar (800 MW). While the multi-purpose Ujh project (212 MW) is coming up in the Ravi basin.

The combined installed capacity of these projects is believed to be around double the current installed hydropower generation capacity (3,220 MW) in the state.

The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the Sawalkote project in Ramban and Udhampur districts terms it a run-of-the-river, which is misleading.

“The EIA executive summary claims that Sawalkote is a run of the river scheme, but this claim is totally wrong and misleading considering that it involves 192.5 metre high dam, 1,159 hectare reservoir with 530 million cubic metres of storage capacity and a massive power house close to the toe of the dam,” a group of concerned citizens wrote in a letter to Jammu and Kashmir State Pollution Control Board (JKSPCB).

“How can such a project be called run of the river project? This is clearly wrong and a misleading claim,” the letter notes. The citizens have also expressed concern over the changes in land requirements, submergence of area and the number of families affected.

In the EIA, it was anticipated that 900 hectares would be submerged due to the project and the total land requirement for it would be 1,099 hectare.

But both the submergence area and the land required for the project has been increased by 29% and 23% respectively. It has now gone up to 1,158.75 hectares and 1,401.35 hectares respectively in the final report.

Interestingly, while the world is moving towards solar-based technology, India still supports hydropower as key to sustainable economy in Kashmir.

These new eight projects have already threatened to unleash an ecological disaster in the state. And as per various experts, this may also show an inverse relationship between installed capacity and expected revenues.

Kishanganga Power Project.

These projects are feared to obstruct the natural flow, pressure and volume of water, hamper the natural shape and channel of the basin and distort the physical properties such as riffles, pools, bars in the river and floodplains, which support aquatic species, like fish.

Fish enters the dam and swims under a gate, where there is a rapid decompression and water surge. Then sudden and rapid change in the velocity often exceeds the speed and fish are not able to control their own swimming. They end up striking with objects, walls or other fish, leading to their death.

“The volume of water has reduced drastically, and now catching fish has become quite arduous,” says Akbar, a resident of Bagtoor village of Gurez, a witness to the radical changes that Kishanganga project has unleashed in the region. “The fields even go dry at times.”

His community of farmers were initially made to believe that the said project will bring development in their area. “But we are yet to see any,” he says. “All we have witnessed is destruction and interference in our lives.”

ALSO READ: A ‘cursed’ powerhouse: How Kishanganga ruined Dardistan

People have often come out in protest against these projects but all in vain. Currently, the controversial Bursar Hydropower project is threatening to fan new tensions in the region.

The 289 metre-high dam coming up in Kishtwar is submerging dozens of villages, including agricultural fields and forests. Despite the EIA report terming the area as highly seismic, a storage scheme on river Marusudar is coming up with an installed capacity of 800 MW.

But as the government planners are overlooking environment for economy, the hydropower obsession is now threatening to spark off the water war in the region. In its wake, the state of Jammu and Kashmir might plunge further into turmoil.


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