Pakistan: Dammed If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

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“India is shrinking the flow of water into Pakistan,” said Pakistan’s Chief Justice Saqib Nisar on Saturday, renewing a ban on showing Indian TV shows and Bollywood films on Pakistani television. “They are trying to [obstruct the construction] of our dam and we cannot even close their [television] channels?”
On the face of it, this is a decision that invites ridicule. Let us suppose for a moment that India really is stealing Pakistan’s water. How does banning Indian content from Pakistani television hurt India back?
The Pakistani public loves Bollywood films and Indian TV shows: despite their religious differences, these are two closely related cultures. The Pakistani channels pay very little or nothing for the Indian content, but the ban will deprive Pakistanis of stuff they really like. It’s self-defeating and stupid – but the quarrel behind it is deadly serious. The planned Diamer-Bhasha dam on the upper course of the Indus River will be the third-largest in the world if and when it is completed, and the 4,500 megawatts of electricity it produces would almost double Pakistan’s hydro power. That would help a lot in a country so short of generating capacity that it has ‘electricity riots’.
The big dam has become more urgent, as Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan pointed out recently, because without it there may be a serious shortage of water for irrigation by 2025, leading to drought-like conditions in most of the country. But construction on the dam has still not begun because the money is not there.
Pakistan’s previous big dams have all depended on huge investments by international organisations like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This time they are not forthcoming, because the projected dam would be in the part of Kashmir province that is controlled by Pakistan but still claimed by India.
Pakistan seized the northern part of Kashmir when the British-ruled Indian empire was partitioned in 1947, while India grabbed the southern part including the densely populated Vale of Kashmir. For all practical purposes the Kashmiri border is permanent, but India’s persistent claim on the northern part scares international capital away.
That’s what made Chief Justice Saqib Nisar so cross. It’s also why Prime Minister Imran Khan has launched a campaign seeking contributions from Pakistanis at home and abroad in order to get the dam started. The renewed ban on Indian TV and film is really a way of getting the Pakistani public’s attention for this campaign.
Like everything else about this dispute, the appeal for voluntary contributions is mostly symbolic: you can’t raise the $12 billion needed to build the dam that way. What is not symbolic is the 2025 deadline for more water storage capacity to avoid a collapse in food production in Pakistan.
It’s not clear from the public debate in Pakistan how much of this expected water shortage is due to climate change, and how much to the relentless growth of Pakistan’s population. (Pakistan has one of the highest birth rates outside of Africa, twice as high as India or Bangladesh.)
Back in 1951, shortly after Pakistan was created, the country’s 34 million people had 5,300 cubic metres of water per capita available to them. The rivers still contain the same amount of water, but there are now 210 million Pakistanis, so there is only 1,000 cubic metres per capita – and falling. The population is still growing fast, and climate change is coming.
The future of the Indus river system’s six tributaries in a warming world is to flood for a decade or two while the glaciers that feed them melt, and then to dwindle in volume when the glaciers are gone. Five of those six tributaries (though not the one the Diamer-Bhasha dam would be built on) cross Indian territory before they enter Pakistan.
The 1960 treaty that shares out the Indus system’s water between the two countries never foresaw that the flow might drop drastically. It just said that India could take out a fixed volume of water for irrigation and other purposes before letting the rest flow onwards to Pakistan.
If the flow should drop drastically due to climate change, therefore, India would still be entitled by treaty to take the same amount of water as before from those five tributaries, even though that would leave little for Pakistan. If India did that, however, Pakistan would start to starve, because 85 percent of its food production depends on irrigation from the Indus system.
It’s hard to believe that an India which was also facing food shortages – a predicted 25 percent loss in food production at 2 degrees Celsius higher average global temperature – would voluntarily give up water it is entitled to by treaty. It’s equally hard to believe that Pakistan would let its own people starve without threatening war with India.
Both of these countries have nuclear weapons. Their problem-solving abilities, as currently displayed, do not inspire confidence.