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Water wars

September 2, 2010

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 waterImage: AP

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 riversImage: picture-alliance / dpa

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 systemImage: UNI

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

Militants seize on fears over India's hydroelectricity plans

A member of Lashkar in the Bajur tribal region on the border with Afghanistan
Islamist militants are using the water row to stoke angerImage: AP

This is the message being espoused by the Islamist militant groups who have seized on the water dispute to stoke fears that Pakistan's larger, stronger neighbor is becoming increasingly more powerful. Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the organization accused of the 2008 Mumbai attacks which left over 168 people dead, have been reminding Pakistanis that India once stopped the water in Punjab back in 1948. If it has been done once, it can be done again.

However, Dr. Christain Wagner, a Kashmir expert from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, believes the militants are using the issue out of desperation.

"Accusing India of using water control as a weapon is pure propaganda," Dr. Wagner said. "Since the Indus treaty was signed, India and Pakistan have fought three wars and not once did India use water control as a weapon even though they could have."

"The militants want Kashmir back on the global agenda and the water issue is the latest attempt to do so after using the referendum issue and the right to self-determination," he added. "The militants don't really have a point when they accuse India of stealing water because the water issue is the one and only area which is regulated by both Pakistan and India through the Indus treaty."

"The militants are finding it hard to keep up the pressure on Kashmir," he added. "Kashmir has had a self-appointed state government for a while now; there is less militant support there and Pakistan has been under increasing pressure to reduce its support to the militants there. This is why the water issue has come up because the militants know that it is one subject that Pakistanis in Kashmir will get angry about."

Kashmiri anger of India's domination of rivers

Kashmiri muslims shout anti-Indian slogans outskirts of kashmiri capital Srinagar
The militant strategy of stirring anger in Kashmir is workingImage: DW

They appear to be right. There is anger in Kashmir and the Kashmiris believe they have every reason to be angry. The Indian central government has put heavy restrictions on Kashmiri projects linked to the rivers running through the state, leaving India to reap the benefits of the hydroelectricity as the people of Kashmir watch potential revenues flow by. Militant groups have been eager to stoke the anti-India fires in this context too - and it takes little to stir up trouble and insurrection in the divided state.

"Until the recent flooding there water supplies along the Indus were low; several Islamist groups in Pakistan claimed that this was because India was constructing dams in Kashmir that could store water flowing into Pakistan," Dr. Gareth Price said.

"Under the Indus Water Treaty, India is not allowed to build dams with water storage capacity on several rivers, but India claims it needs to clear out silt which in effect gives it the capacity to store water. In Kashmir itself, India claims that external militants are stirring up trouble, but most observers believe that the recent deteriorating situation in Kashmir stems from Kashmiris themselves."

Contrary to what the recent catastrophic floods may suggest, Pakistan teeters on the verge of becoming a "water scarce" nation, as defined by the United Nations. Once the current disaster passes and Pakistan begins to rebuild, experts believe that this situation could lead to increased fears and tensions based on the assumption that India is moving to dominate the region's water supplies. Concerned observers believe that regional trouble-makers will begin exploiting these fears for their own agenda.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge