Bashir A. Malik

Every year, April 1 brings to mind a bitter memory of what India did to starve millions of people in the Pakistani province of Punjab 64 years ago. It was the first salvo of the Indian water war against the infant State of Pakistan; the news shocked the nation. All protests, pleas and appeals by Pakistan fell on deaf ears of the disciples of Mahatma Gandhi’s gospel of peace and non-violence.

April 1, 1948, was no traditional April Fools’ Day for Pakistan’s Punjab. Rather it was a bleak day, when India suddenly closed the canals carrying water to West Punjab. Water is, undoubtedly, aab-e-hayat (water of life) for a largely arid and agrarian country like Pakistan with scanty and uncertain rainfall. Well anyway, back then hundreds of thousands of acres of standing wheat crops were badly affected. There was no water, even for drinking in the regions underlain by brackish groundwater. The main source of income of millions of poor people, including the newly settled refugees, who had migrated from India, was in jeopardy.

The unfair partition of united Punjab in 1947, which was manipulated by the Nehru-Mountbatten nexus, unjustly cut across the rivers and canal network. This left the headworks of some Pakistani Punjab canals in Indian Punjab. Thus, New Delhi stopped the supply of water to Pakistan from the canals flowing from India. It was in blatant violation of the Punjab Partition Committee’s unanimous agreement of July 1947.

On May 3, 1948, a Pakistani delegation went to New Delhi to plead with India to restore its water share in the canals. But it was like the water on duck’s tail. On May 4, India pulled another weapon out of its arsenal. A statement was put before the leader of the Pakistani delegation and he was “asked to sign it without changing a word or a comma - a condition for restoring the flow of water.” It meant - sign or starve! So, the agreement was signed under extreme duress to save the lives of millions of Pakistanis.

However, this was not the end of the story, rather the beginning of a prolonged water dispute. A series of Indo-Pak talks were held under good offices of the World Bank in Washington DC in 1950s, culminating in the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. It divided the Indus Rivers territorially. India was given the Sutlej, Beas and Ravi (eastern) rivers for its use; whereas, the Chenab, Jhelum and Indus (western) rivers were left for Pakistan. The treaty also allowed the construction of Mangla and Tarbela Dams on the Jhelum and Indus rivers.

The Indus plain irrigated by vast year round canal networks, particularly Punjab, was known as the bread basket of the country. Alas no more! The basket is empty and the mouths to feed aplenty! Unfortunately, this happened because of:

Firstly, the crippling water and power crisis, primarily due to the loss of water from the eastern rivers to India.

Secondly, the decrease in storage capacity of both Mangla and Tarbela reservoirs by siltation.

Thirdly, no large storage dam was built by Pakistan afterwards.

The Kalabagh Dam (KBD) was to be built by 1996. The construction was to begin in 1987 when it was stalled by regional politics of water. According to media reports, its construction was opposed by certain lobbies in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is said to be sponsored by a neighbouring country. In the meanwhile, the demand for water supply increased due to population growth, i.e. from 76 million in 1976 to 180 million today. Whereas, water availability fell from 40 to 50 percent short of demand; similar was the shortfall in power. Hence, this led to food and water scarcity, as well as unending loadshedding.

Moreover, the water flow from the western rivers into Pakistan is under serious threat by India’s dam building spree, thereon in blatant violation of the treaty in occupied Jammu and Kashmir. A US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report unveiled a shocking fact that India plans to build 190 dams on western rivers, ostensibly for hydropower plants to generate 33,000MW. All the dams - with 33 only on the Indus - are scheduled to be completed in six years; by 2017. The report also observed: “The conflict between Pakistan and India over water resources is serious enough to lead to a war is indisputable.”

What to speak of 190 dams, even a fraction, say fifth of their number, could be deadly for the safety and security of Pakistan. By cumulative impoundment of their storages at a crucial crop cycle say during the wheat sowing period - mid-September to end November - could leave millions of acres of land unsown, resulting in widespread famines and starvation in Punjab and Sindh. On the other hand, the simultaneous release of stored waters at the peak of floods in summer could cause more devastation in Punjab and Sindh than experienced in 2010. Either way, these dams could be a recipe for starvation and/or destruction in Pakistan.

Against this backdrop, the Indian policymakers seem to possess the mindset of their ancient guru Chanakya (like Machiavelli). Having achieved full control of the waters of western rivers, there may be little or no water flow downstream, even for drinking in Pakistan what to speak of irrigation. In such a situation, River Kabul flowing in from Afghanistan was the only source of relief for a small part of the country. But it also became a target of the Indian hegemony. New Delhi is financing and building 12 dams on River Kabul disregarding Pakistan’s historic water rights.

India would, thus, have under its control not only the waters of Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus, but also Kabul. It would be in a position to starve and strangulate Pakistan at will. In other words, because of these evil designs of the Indians, Pakistan is but a “Karbala” in the waiting.

n    The writer is an engineer and former chief technical advisor, United Nations and World Bank.