Rhetoric grows heated in water dispute between India, Pakistan

Pakistani children play in the Chenab, which rises in India. Radicals say India is diverting water; India calls the claims "preposterous."
Pakistani children play in the Chenab, which rises in India. Radicals say India is diverting water; India calls the claims "preposterous." (B.k. Bangash/associated Press)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 28, 2010

LAHORE, PAKISTAN -- The latest standoff between India and Pakistan features familiar elements: perceived Indian injustices, calls to arms by Pakistani extremists. But this dispute centers on something different: water.

Militant organizations traditionally focused on liberating Indian-held Kashmir have adopted water as a rallying cry, accusing India of strangling upstream rivers to desiccate downstream farms in Pakistan's dry agricultural heartland. This spring, a religious leader suspected of links to the 2008 Mumbai attacks led a protest here of thousands of farmers driving tractors and carrying signs warning: "Water Flows or Blood." The cleric, Hafiz Sayeed, recently told worshipers that India was guilty of "water terrorism."

India and Pakistan have pledged to improve relations. But Sayeed's water rhetoric, echoed in shrill headlines on both sides of the border, encapsulates two issues that threaten those fragile peace efforts -- an Indian dam project on the shared Indus River and Pakistan's reluctance to crack down on Sayeed.

It also signals the expanding ambitions of Punjab-based militant groups such as the banned Lashkar-i-Taiba, founded by Sayeed, through an issue that touches millions who live off Pakistan's increasingly arid land.

Pakistan's water supply is dwindling because of climate change, outdated farming techniques and an exploding population. Now Pakistan says India is exacerbating its woes by violating the treaty that for 50 years has governed use of water originating in Kashmir.

India denies the charge, and its ambassador to Pakistan recently called the water theft allegations "preposterous." International water experts say that there is little evidence India is diverting water from Pakistan but that Pakistan is right to feel vulnerable because its water is downstream of India's.

Washington has pressured the two nations to settle their differences. India and Pakistan have fought three major wars, and the conflict has kept much of Pakistan's army focused eastward, not on Islamist insurgents. India wants Pakistan to target India-focused militants, and it is outraged that Sayeed -- whose sermons often call for jihad against India -- remains free. India blamed the Mumbai attacks on Lashkar-i-Taiba.

Yet even as the nations' civilian leaders were building bridges, Pakistan's military underscored the perceived Indian threat last month with large-scale military exercises near the border. With the Kashmir liberation struggle waning in Pakistan's public consciousness, some analysts say Sayeed's use of the water issue demonstrates his long-standing links to Pakistan's powerful security establishment, elements of which do not favor peacemaking.

"Hafiz Sayeed is trying to echo the establishment's line," said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of security studies at Qaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad. "The government is trying to shift the focus of Kashmir as part of a jihadist thing . . . to an existential issue."

Hydroelectric projects

Politics aside, experts say, Pakistan's water situation is reaching crisis proportions. As the population has grown over six decades, per-capita water availability has dropped by more than two-thirds. About 90 percent of the water is used for agriculture, making it an economic lifeline but leaving little for human consumption.

Inefficient irrigation and drainage techniques have degraded soil and worsened shortages, forcing many small farmers to pump for groundwater. A severe electricity crisis means most rely on diesel-powered pumps, but fuel prices are rising, said M. Ibrahim Mughal, head of Agri Forum, a farmers' advocacy group.

"You can't do agriculture without water," he said. "What will happen? Hunger."

The Indus Waters Treaty, which India and Pakistan signed in 1960, gave each country unfettered access to three rivers and limited rights to the other nation's rivers. A joint commission oversees the treaty, which water experts say has worked fairly well.

Cooperation has frayed as water has grown scarcer and India has stepped up new hydroelectric projects in Kashmir. Those plans have raised alarm in Pakistan, where newspapers and politicians regularly accuse India of secret designs to weaken its enemy by diverting water. Pakistan's Indus Water Commissioner, Jamaat Ali Shah, said his country believes that one proposed Indian dam on the Kishanganga, an Indus tributary, violates the treaty by making Pakistan's own plans for a hydroelectric project downstream unworkable.

"Candidness and transparency should be there. It is not," Shah said.

In a speech last month, India's ambassador to Pakistan, Sharat Sabharwal, said Pakistan has not detailed its complaints. Pakistan's water problems are attributable to factors including climatic conditions, he said, and blaming India was meant to "inflame public passions."

'Water declaration'

That is exactly what Sayeed is trying to do, according to Yahya Mujahid, a spokesman for the radical cleric's Islamic charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The charity, which the United States and India call a front for Lashkar-i-Taiba, recently sponsored the farmer protest and released a "water declaration" alleging that India had "virtually declared war on Pakistan by unlawfully constructing dams and diverting Pakistani rivers."

Lashkar-i-Taiba has taken its fight against India beyond the disputed terrain of Kashmir to stage attacks in Afghanistan and work with militant organizations in Pakistan's northwest. But Sayeed has typically sought to uphold the group's Kashmir-focused reputation, making water a bit of a departure. Mujahid said Sayeed is helping desperate farmers pressure the government to solve their problems, not inciting jihad. But peace talks are unlikely to help, he said.

The dispute has hard-liners in both countries predicting war, alarming observers who say what should be a technical issue has veered into dangerous terrain.

John Briscoe, a Harvard professor and former World Bank water specialist in Pakistan and India, said allegations of India's "water robbery" are unfounded. But because India could influence river flows into Pakistan, he said, the wisest solution would be for India to initiate talks and perhaps call for a permanent neutral party to implement the treaty.

"On the Indian side, the last thing I would want to come into India-Pakistan relations is an issue as visceral as water," Briscoe said. But, he added, "it's all about politics and political will."

Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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