"India benefited more from the Indus Water Treaty"

-- Interview with Dr Daanish Mustafa, a distinguished water resources expert

Dr Daanish Mustafa, a distinguished water resources expert, blames Pakistan’s policymakers for our current water woes. Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London, Daanish Mustafa was born in Lahore in 1969. He did his O Levels from Saint Mary’s Academy, Rawalpindi, and A Levels from Aitchison College, Lahore, before proceeding to the United States for higher education. Mustafa returned to Pakistan after doing his BA in Geography from Middlebury College, Vermont, and worked for the development sector for two years. He subsequently did his MA in Geography from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA, in 1995; and his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, in 2000.

The topic of his PhD dissertation was ‘Irrigation and Flood Management in Central Punjab’. Mustafa was a visiting assistant professor of Geography at George Mason University, Fairfax, USA, and then an assistant professor of Geography at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, USA, before joining the Department of Geography at King’s College in 2006. His research interests have been at the intersection of water resources, hazards and development geography. He also maintains an interest in researching geographies of violence and terror, particularly in Pakistan, from a social theoretical perspective. The News on Sunday interviewed Dr Danish Mustafa during his recent visit to Pakistan.

The News on Sunday: What motivated you to become a geographer?

Dr Daanish Mustafa: I owe my initial interest in geography to Mrs Saleema Aziz, who taught me the subject at Army Burn Hall College, Abbottabad. When I went to the United States to do my BA, I tried my hands at different subjects, but ultimately decided in favour of geography. Later, while working with the development sector in Pakistan, I felt for the first time that I think differently from others, particularly economists, as a geographer. I realised that what I had learnt was valuable and that I needed to get a higher degree in Geography, so I again went to the United States to do my MA and subsequently my PhD in Geography.

TNS: What are the major water issues of Pakistan and how these are linked with hazards and vulnerability?

DM: We find an underlying political current when we analyse Pakistan’s sub-national scale water issues. A major problem is the prevalent discourse in Pakistan that what is in the interest of Punjab is ‘national interest’; while what is in the interest of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh is ‘provincialism’. In the context of water, Pakistan’s most important sub-national scale issue is the lack of voice for the smaller provinces and dismissiveness towards their voices. Then there is Kalabagh Dam, which has become the trademark of sub-national scale water issues. If you are a Sunni Muslim, you are in favour of Kalabagh Dam; if you are a traitor, you are against Kalabagh Dam. There is hyperbole from both sides with one claiming that there would be disaster if Kalabagh Dam was not built while the other claiming that there would be disaster if it was built. This results in a stalemate because the doors of discussion are closed.

Another major issue is the dearth of formally trained water professionals in Pakistan. The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) neither has a hydrologist nor a process geo-morphologist despite the fact that Indus River has one of the highest silt loads in the world.

TNS: What was the vision behind the Indus Waters Treaty?

DM: The friction between India and Pakistan over the sharing of water resources started within a year of their independence in 1947. American water expert David E. Lilienthal proposed the setting up of an authority to regulate Indus River waters, on the lines of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States, to permanently resolve the water disputes between the two countries. Pakistan believes the future of the country is linked with infrastructure development. The question was from where the money would come! The World Bank offered to finance infrastructure development in both India and Pakistan if they signed the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). Pakistan’s negotiators knew that the treaty was not in the country’s favour but they nonetheless accepted it because of the lure of huge investment and subsequent development. The hype around IWT is akin to what we are experiencing in the case of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor these days. The Ayub Khan regime signed the IWT in September 1960 after nine years of negotiations between India and Pakistan with the help of the World Bank, which is also a signatory.

There is no evidence that India has violated the IWT or that it is stealing Pakistan’s water. India’s water flow data is classified, not because of Pakistan but its inter-state water disputes.

TNS: In hindsight, who has benefited more from the IWT: India or Pakistan?

DM: Pakistan heavily depended on the three rivers (Beas, Ravi and Sutlej) that it gave to India in return for canals on Indus River and a dam on Jhelum River. By virtue of simple geography, technically India cannot make any use of the water from the three rivers (Chenab, Jhelum and Indus) that Pakistan got. So, on balance, India benefited more from the IWT. That is why the recent statements of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding the IWT are mere hogwash.

TNS: Is it true that India is stealing Pakistan’s water?

DM: There is not a shred of evidence that India has violated the IWT or that it is stealing Pakistan’s water. We should realise that India’s water flow data is classified, not because of Pakistan but its inter-state water disputes. We should also understand that Pakistan’s engineers and their Indian counterparts wrote Annexure D of the IWT that specifically outlines what can be done and what cannot be done on Indus River. India has to date not violated any of the clauses of the Annexure D.

TNS: Doesn’t India’s Baglihar Dam violate Annexure D of the IWT?

DM: The Baglihar Dam dispute was a case of sheer idiocy on part of Pakistan because the country’s future was put on stake in an attempt to fan hatred against India. The IWT neither bars India from building a dam on Indus River nor from building a pondage or wall with a dam to create a head for generating hydroelectricity and irrigating lands on a small scale. However, the treaty bars India from building movable gates because they would allow it to manipulate water storage. India took the position that Baglihar Dam was not economically and technically viable without movable gates because otherwise it would silt up in a few years. Pakistan’s position was that the movable gates should be built at a higher height than the one proposed by India, so that the latter’s capacity to manipulate water storage is minimised.

However, later Pakistan changed its stance by claiming that Baglihar Dam was a violation of the IWT and approached the World Bank for arbitration. Professor Raymond Lafitte, a neutral expert appointed by the World Bank, agreed with India’s position that the dam was not viable without movable gates. Though Lafitte allowed India to build movable gates on Baglihar Dam, he also asked it to raise their height as per Pakistan’s demand.

This was still a potentially catastrophic ruling for Pakistan because it would have set a precedent that economic and technical viability supersedes the criteria outlined in Annexure D of the IWT. As a result, all the limitations imposed on India’s water development under the Annexure D would have gone out of the window.

A stroke of luck saved Pakistan when Indian planned a hydroelectricity project on Kishanganga (Neelum) River. Pakistan showed concern that its Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Plant project would be jeopardised as a result and approached the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The court’s decision saved Pakistan from catastrophe since it rehabilitated the principle that Annexure D was still valid, and ruled that India’s position highlighting economic and technical viability does not supersede the lower riparian’s right to a viable water development project downstream.

TNS: What about the concern shared by many Pakistanis that India would flood Pakistan?

DM: India would definitely flood Pakistan and it would have to; if it does not, there would be more destruction. The reason is that each dam has a safe design capacity. The protocol of Pakistani dams is that they should be filled to the capacity on August 20, which now comes in the mid of the monsoon season because of climate change or changing monsoonal patterns. If Mangla Dam is filled to the capacity on August 20 and India releases water into Jhelum River, we would have no choice but to empty the dam. If a full dam is emptied, as it happened in 1992, it results in large-scale destruction.

Similarly, if the safe design capacity of an Indian dam like Pong Dam on Beas River or Bhakra Dam on Sutlej River is exceeded, Indian would have no choice but to empty the dam and release the water because otherwise they would lose it. In reality, if India releases water from Pong or Bhakra Dam, first its state of Punjab would be flooded. The first rule of irrigation in both India and Pakistan is that infrastructure should be saved at all costs because its loss results in even more destruction. The problem is also that the dams in the two countries are not meant for flood control, but hydroelectric generation and irrigation. Flood control demands that dams allocate adequate space to receive flood surges; while maximising hydroelectric or irrigation potential means that water level in dams is kept as high as possible.

TNS: Can Afghanistan stop the water flowing into Pakistan from Kabul River?

DM: We have to understand that Afghanistan cannot stop water from flowing into Pakistan until the former diverts it for irrigation purposes. The only area where Afghanistan can initiate a major irrigation scheme on Kabul River is Jalalabad Valley, which does not have enough land to raise alarm bells in Pakistan. Hydroelectricity generation by Afghanistan should not be our concern since the water would eventually reach Pakistan.

TNS: Do you think Kalabagh Dam is a feasible project? Are Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s objections valid?

DM: Punjab’s argument in favour of Kalabagh Dam as a conduit for electricity generation makes sense, except that Sindhis do not argue about this point; they argue about the off-take for the two new canals to be built on the Right and Left Bank. Punjabis should ask themselves why Sindhis have never opposed Bhasha Dam! Also, if Kalabagh Dam is meant for hydroelectricity generation, then why build canals for irrigation?

Another argument being presented by Punjab in favour of Kalabagh Dam that each year millions of acre feet water is wasted into the Arabian Sea is also flawed. The water is needed to sustain the marine life, fisheries and delta environments that provide livelihood to millions of people in Sindh. Punjab’s claim is based on the average annual inflow of water into the Arabian Sea, but this also includes flood years such as 1992 and 2010. In 90 per cent of the years, no extra water is released into the Arabian Sea. The benefits of Kalabagh Dam are highlighted but no honest discussion takes place about its cost.

When a dam is built, the groundwater table may rise. If the groundwater is saline, cultivable land becomes barren. Many dams across the globe have been abandoned because of this reason. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa fears that the groundwater table would rise because of Kalabagh Dam, causing the cultivable lands in Swabi and Mardan districts to become barren, though I am not sure if this claim is based on any hydrogeological study. Then there is the issue of displacement, so Khyber Pakhtunkhwa feels that Kalabagh Dam has more disadvantages than advantages.

"India benefited more from the Indus Water Treaty"