Murky watersWater geopolitics in South Asia is no more just an undercurrent; it could already be shaping regional order
When Afghanistan inaugurated its delayed-by-decades Salma dam last year, press coverage about it in India and Pakistan was at odds with each other. While the Indian media “celebrated” the completion of the India-funded $290 million infrastructure, some sections of the Pakistani press had reservations.
“India will not forget you or turn away,” the Indian Express newspaper quoted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as saying during the inauguration, together with his Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani’s “Your friendship is our honour; your dreams are our duty.”
Although the 42MW dam would not directly affect Pakistan as it would Iran and Turkmenistan, some sections of the Pakistani media interpreted it as growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Coinciding with the news of the inauguration of the Salma dam, some of them published what they said were plans of further dam building by India in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan’s authorities with the help of Indian experts have completed the feasibilities and detailed engineering of 12 hydro-power projects with capacity to generate 1,177MW of electricity to be built on the river Kabul,” Pakistani newspaper The News reported. “If the 12 projects get completed, they will store 4.7 million acre feet of water squeezing the flow in the river reaching Pakistan.”
Indus Water Treaty
While increasing Indian involvement in Afghanistan’s water resources was becoming a matter of concern for Pakistan, its water relations with New Delhi plummeted further after India “threatened” to withdraw from the Indus Water Treaty in the wake of the Uri attack in September.
“Blood and water cannot flow together,” Modi said in a meeting he called to discuss moves against Pakistan for “backing the militant attack” that left 19 Indian soldiers dead—an allegation that Islamabad denies.
Some sections of the Indian media suggested that the idea of abandoning the Indus Water Treaty was to deprive Pakistan of the water from the Indus basin and put pressure on it.
The treaty survived the crisis, but it has been in very choppy waters since then. The two nuclear rivals have not held the routine meeting of the Indus Water Commission as New Delhi has sought to maximise the use of water it has been entitled to under the treaty.
“The ball has started rolling and we will see some results soon, most of them will be about building new storages in the basin,” one top official with India’s water resources ministry told me for a report I did for the BBC last December.
Criticised for mismanaging its scarce water resources, Pakistan already has issues with existing Indian projects on the three western rivers of the Indus basin. Imagine what can happen if India builds new dams and other structures on them.
While Islamabad was living with the “dual discomfort” of what was happening in Afghanistan and with the Indus treaty, Beijing came in to provide cushion. The two countries decided to make water security a part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a framework that will see a whopping $54 billion Chinese investment in energy and infrastructure building in Pakistan.
“The decision to exploit full hydel potential of Pakistan was taken during the sixth meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee (JCC) of the CPEC which was held in Beijing,” the Express Tribune reported in December. “For development of hydroelectric projects on the Indus River, particularly construction of the Diamer-Bhasha dam, the JCC constituted a group,” the newspaper quoted Pakistan’s Planning and Development Minister Ahsan Iqbal as saying.
Before that, in September, China blocked a tributary of the Yarlung Zangbo river (known as the Bramhaputra in India) as part of its most expensive hydro project.
The Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua not just reported that, but also went on to quote the project head who said the water was diverted for irrigation. It is not too often that Chinese officials say such things on the record.
This happened when the dispute over the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan had peaked after the Uri attack. There have been fresh reports that the headwaters of the Yellow river, Yangtze and the Lancang in Tibet are drying up.
“Because of the degradation of the river systems and reduced flows in recent years, more and more survey teams have been able to reach the headwaters, including some adventure tourists and science teams,” the Thirdpole.net quoted Chinese geologist Professor Yang Yong as saying. “Seasonal dry-outs don’t just affect the evenness of river flow, the amount of water flowing from the Lancang reserve, and the ecosystem’s ability to store water. They also lead to the drying out of marshes and wetlands and the degradation of pastures.”
The situation in the headwaters of the Indus and the Brahmaputra in Tibet has been reported to be not as serious, so far. But with the changing climate, it is not a matter of if but when. And when that happens, there will be far-reaching geopolitical consequences in the region.
It is that bigger picture that should concern water resource-rich Nepal—even though it does not presently appear on the scene.
Khadka is a BBC journalist based in London