Kashmir's Raging Rivers
Can India and Pakistan overcome decades of mistrust to save the Indus Waters Treaty?
The stakes are high for Kashmiris as well. A recent study in the journal Science concluded that the eventual reduced flow of meltwater from glaciers and snowfields threatens the food security of close to 30 million people living in the Indus basin. Many Kashmiri farmers have switched from grain production to less-thirsty horticulture in recent years due to the increasingly uncertain availability of water at critical times in the growing season.
Rising local resentment is the second factor jeopardizing the IWT. Kashmiri perspectives have never had a prominent voice in IWT-related discussions. Their frustration stems in part from the way the treaty limits the construction of new irrigation works and storage facilities for hydropower on the Indian side of the three western rivers (the ones granted to Pakistan for unrestricted use). But Kashmiris are also unhappy with the Indian government's decision to retain control over most of the existing hydro plants in their state, thus depriving the local government and economy of a critical source of revenue.
Any wider effort to industrialize Jammu and Kashmir's economy will depend on greater exploitation of the state's hydropower potential. The state potentially has up to 15,000 megawatts of exploitable hydropower, less than 10 percent of which has been tapped. But India hasn't allowed the state to access international financing to develop and operate more power plants on its rivers. It "is non-negotiable for us that … Kashmir will have to have control of its power resources," says Arjimand Hussain Talib, a Kashmiri newspaper columnist working on a book about Kashmir's water politics.
The state government recently hired an international consultant to do a thorough study of the economic losses incurred by Jammu and Kashmir due to restrictions on hydropower and agricultural development imposed by the treaty. Past speculative estimates have put the number around $1.5 billion per year. More detailed and credible numbers could give Kashmiris more leverage to wrest financial compensation from New Delhi.
Talib predicts that ongoing talks between India and Pakistan will ultimately result in "a kind of joint collaborative approach to the basin's management." This might take the form of a new successor agreement to the IWT, as some analysts call for. A more likely scenario than total renegotiation, according to Talib, would be India and Pakistan signing an "extension agreement." In this event, the countries would extend the IWT in a separate, complementary treaty to include joint planning and oversight in the early stages of infrastructure projects on the six rivers—even across Kashmir's militarized Line of Control.
This vision echoes a proposal Lilienthal floated sixty years ago. "The whole Indus system must be … designed, built and operated as a unit," Lilienthal argued, to benefit both India and Pakistan optimally. This objective, he insisted, "cannot be achieved by the countries working separately; the river pays no attention to partition."
Can the logic of enlightened self-interest—that is, a joint-management approach to the Indus waters—trump decades of mutual distrust?
Correction, Aug. 8, 2011: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the Kashmir Valley as a "city" instead of a region. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Jonathan Mingle is currently at work on a book about black carbon pollution.
Photograph of the Indus River by Manpreet Romana/AFP/Getty Images