Modi Should Not Play Politics With the Indus When the Basin Faces Ecological Problems

The region’s river dolphins and mangrove forests are suffering as India and Pakistan plan projects to maximise their water usage.

South Asian river dolphin, found in the Indus basin. Credit: Youtube screenshot

South Asian river dolphin, found in the Indus basin. Credit: Youtube screenshot

While making a speech in poll-bound Punjab, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “the fields of our farmers must have adequate water. Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan… [the] government will do everything to give enough water to our farmers”. He then went on to say, “we formed a task force on [the matter of the] Indus Water Treaty (IWT) to ensure [that the] farmers of Punjab and other states get each drop of water due to them”. This task force was formed after tensions between India and Pakistan escalated in the aftermath of the Uri attack.  The government has since taken steps to maximise its use of the water drawn from the three western rivers – Indus, Jhelum and Chenab – included in the treaty. In order to achieve this, the government will accelerate its implementation of a plan to provide irrigation for 1.3 million acres of land, as allowed under the treaty. It will also renew efforts to harness hydroelectric power from the rivers, which have the potential to produce 18,600 MW in Jammu and Kashmir.

India and Pakistan’s planned water usage

According to India’s Water Resource Information System website, the utilisable quantity of the Indus basin’s surface water in India is 46,000 MCM, out of which the water resource ministry’s report states that the current live storage capacity is 16568.43 MCM. The same report also states that there are 70 existing or ongoing major and medium irrigation projects, half of which are in Jammu and Kashmir. Additionally, at present, the basin has 55 hydro-electric projects, 39 dams, 13 barrages, 18 weirs, 18 major and 43 medium command areas and canal networks.

Although, the above-stated information was in a chapter titled ‘Surface Water Resources’, the report made no mention of surface water biodiversity. In fact, most of the speeches, articles and reports which present figures on the unharnessed potential of hydropower or irrigation projects say nothing about the corresponding potential of ecological harm or biodiversity loss.

Pakistan also suffers from a similar problem. So intense is the network of dams, reservoirs, barrages and canals in the country that the amount of freshwater that flows from the Indus into its delta has steadily dwindled and now struggles to meet even the minimal quantity needed for the region. When the IWT was signed, the Indus’ freshwater flow amounted to 150 million acre-feet (MAF) per year, then it fell to 20 MAF in 1991 and was then further reduced to 10 MAF under the 1991 inter-provincial water accord.

The problem of anthropogenic intervention

Undoubtedly the states are not acting in a vacuum. Agriculture is a water intensive activity in both the states and with falling groundwater levels the demand for surface water irrigation is increasing and has to be met through river water. The increasing population, coupled with rapidly developing urban centres that is resulting in a rise in domestic water consumption is also concerning. Add to this the skyrocketing demand for energy and the urge to ‘harness the hydroelectric potential’ appears highly lucrative.

The core problem is not the anthropogenic intervention in itself, but how those interventions have been, and are still, being made. Himanshu Kulkarni and Mihir Shah, who authored an article titled ‘Punjab Water Syndrome’, observed that “Punjab water syndrome can be seen as a classic case study of the consequences of the engineering-construction-extraction-centred approach, based on control over nature, which has dominated India’s water resource development since Independence.” Academicians such as Daanish Mustafa and Majed Akhter, who write on hydro-politics in Pakistan, have also noted that the state machinery believes that “megaprojects are a solution for the state’s water woes”, “water gets wasted by being allowed to flow out to the sea” and “political meddling on purely engineering issues are unnecessary”. Clearly, a one-dimensional engineering-centred approach appears to be the hallmark of water governance in India as well as Pakistan.

Public figures such as Ashish Nandy and Vandana Shiva have alluded to the violence of science in the past and those references need to be recalled here. Shiva has argued that while science offers ‘technological’ fixes for social and political problems, it always delinks itself from the new ones it creates in their place. This de-linkage elevates science above society’s level. Nandy has argued that this protection of science from social criticism is achieved by creating a division between science and technology. This frame of thought continues to persist even now and so one technological failure is replaced by yet another technological solution without anyone asking basic questions about the process or its impact. This proliferation of technological solutions creates a smog that obscures the ecological impacts of such projects.

The neglected ecological issues in the Indus basin

Given the ecological neglect under both governments, I present here three issues related to the Indus and its larger ecosystem to shed more light on the ecological condition of the Indus waters.

Indus River dolphins which were once common throughout the Indus river system, primarily in Pakistan, have become the second most threatened river dolphin species in the world. The fragmentation of their habitat is widely attributed to the construction of numerous dams and barrages on these rivers. Over the years, extensive fishing and water pollution have added to the dolphins’ misery and now they can only be found in a very narrow zone in Pakistan, with some rare sightings in Indian Punjab.

The region’s wetlands have been considered an important part of the complex river ecosystem for providing the habitat to support the region’s biodiversity, assisting in flood control, mitigating climate change and so on. The wetlands in Kashmir used to be interlinked and connected with the Jhelum river and were instrumental for storing excess water and preventing floods. However, over the last century half of the water bodies in and around Srinagar have disappeared. Urban planners‘ treatment of wetlands as wastelands and their disregard for the hydrological stability the wetlands provide has not only impacted the region’s biodiversity but has also contributed to higher instances of inundation, a compelling example being the 2014 Kashmir floods.

Mangrove forests have played a critical role in providing a habitat to support the rich biodiversity of the area and subsistence to local communities. However, as a result of the fall in freshwater flows due to the damming of rivers and other practices of diverting water, these have been severely damaged. The area occupied by the mangrove forests continues to decline, with the current rate of disappearance being 2% per annum, making the forests a critically endangered ecosystem. One immediate result of this is the visible increase in seawater intrusion, which has eroded the rich plant diversity of the forests.

Policymakers need to understand that the environment has an intrinsic value for which it needs to be preserved. More importantly, it has immense instrumental value as it maintains ecological balance and is a source of livelihood for local communities. While the challenges emerging for the polity and society in the form of an agricultural crisis, low food security, water scarcity and climate change are daunting, prioritising engineering solutions over solutions that emerge from other critical viewpoints might only prove useful in the short run. Both India and Pakistan urgently need to reorient the institutional structure of water governance in both countries and instead seek integrated and holistic solutions to such problems. In this light, Modi’s comment about water usage really ought to ring alarm bells for those concerned about the environment in the Indus basin.

Raj Kaithwar is a research associate on a joint project of the South Asian University and WWF Pakistan on transboundary water governance between India and Pakistan.