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Water security the new front in Kashmir struggle between India, Pakistan

The tension between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has its traditional roots in territorial disputes and wars but the need to secure natural resources is threatening to add a new dimension to the conflict.

Indian soldiers take positions at the scene of a gun battle in Jammu, India

India and Pakistan could start a conflict over Kashmir's water

The origins of the friction over Kashmir can be traced to the end of British colonial rule in 1947 and the partition which followed. Once the splitting of the subcontinent had created the newly independent states of India and Pakistan, the fighting for Kashmir began. When Kashmir's Hindu leader turned to India for protection as Pakistani forces advanced on the city of Srinagar, the ensuing fight for control over the Muslim-majority state ignited the first Indo-Pakistani war.

The 1947-48 conflict divided Kashmir with Pakistan taking control of what Islamabad calls Azad (Free) Kashmir and the adjacent Northern Areas while India remained in control of two-thirds of the state. The Karachi Agreement of 1949 may have established a cease-fire line between divided lands but further conflicts over the disputed territories followed, leading to the establishing of the Line of Control (LoC) in 1972.

Since then, this line has been continually contested with both the nuclear-armed neighbors claiming the right to full control of Kashmir, a situation which has led to a perpetual state of instability and security along the LoC. The two countries have come close to war on numerous occasions since the LoC was established. India continues to accuse Pakistan of using proxy armies and militias in Kashmir to fight a 20-year-old insurgency against Indian rule that has left more than 47,000 people dead by an official count while Pakistan believes India is oppressing the Kashmiri people.

"Pakistan believes, essentially, that the people of Kashmir should be allowed to vote in a plebiscite over whether to join India or Pakistan," Dr. Gareth Price, head of the Asia Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House, told Deutsche Welle. "A UN resolution said that this plebiscite should occur, but India says that the Simla Agreement of 1972 means that the plebiscite does not need to take place."

With the land a continuing source of tension between the two nations, a new front in the conflict could be developing over another natural resource: water.

Kashmir's rivers the new source of tension

A general view over the Indus valley near Hunza

India looks to harness the power of Kashmir's rivers

The rivers that flow through Kashmir provide a fresh water supply to a billion people in India and Pakistan. In India, the water supply flowing from the Himalayan glaciers provides vital irrigation for its agricultural sector while providing its rivers with water used in the country's religious ceremonies and practices. In Pakistan, the water helps keep critically important farm land irrigated in parts of the country which are delicately balanced on the edge of extreme poverty and famine.

India's increasing prominence as a harnesser of the water's potential is a cause for concern in Pakistan as its power-starved rival moves to secure its own supply, not only for agricultural purposes but also as a source of electricity.

The flow of water is vital to sate India's need for electricity to power its industry and economy. Reports state that only 40 percent of the Indian population are hooked up to the power grid. Despite signing up to the Indus Water Treaty which is supposed to limit development on three rivers flowing into Pakistan, ensuring more water for those downstream, India is currently pursuing 33 hydroelectric power projects on the Indus in an attempt to meet demand.

Pakistan fears Indian control over crucial water source

Paddy transplantation work in progress at village Udranna in Bhaderwah in Jammu and Kashmir

Pakistan's agriculture relies heavily on its irrigation system

Pakistan claims that the projects affect river flows into its territory while violating the treaty and the Pakistanis are becoming increasingly angry over what they see at India's control of their rivers and water supplies. There are also fears that India's control of the water supply could be used as a weapon, with supplies to Pakistan's agricultural heartland at the mercy of India's aggressive dam-building plans.

Pakistan's ability to grow its own food depends on its vast irrigation system derived from the rivers running through Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and the heart of its agriculture industry.

If India's plans to expand its hydroelectric capacity reach fruition, it could have the power to switch off the supply and plunge Pakistan into a famine-inducing drought. Experts say that if India builds all its planned projects, it could have the capacity of withholding up to four weeks of river flow - and if timed to coincide with Pakistan's critical dry season, this would be enough to wreck an entire planting season.

"Using water to apply pressure would be very controversial," said Dr. Gareth Price. "There is a clearer Indian focus on resolving domestic causes of discontent within Kashmir, through job creation for instance. But relations between India and Pakistan have been strained since the November 2008 Mumbai attacks and show little sign of abating."

Read more on the dispute over water

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