Indus Waters Treaty must change for environment, not to choke Pakistan’s lifeline

The pact must bring riparian nations China and Afghanistan on board amid changing climatic conditions.

Ten days after the dastardly terrorist attack at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, much water has flown down the Indus. The Indus Water Treaty 1960 (IWT) that governs the water-sharing arrangement between India and Pakistan has suddenly hogged all the limelight with scores of people demanding its abrogation to choke Pakistan thirsty.

Under this treaty, India and Pakistan share the waters – Pakistan uses almost 80 per cent of the water from the basin – of six rivers that flow through India towards Pakistan. Of these, India has complete rights over Sutlej, Beas and Ravi, while Pakistan uses Chenab, Jhelum and Indus.

On Monday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was briefed about the options India can exercise vis-a-vis the IWT following which it was declared that India will be dramatically reconfiguring the usage of its share of the waters in an as-yet unexplored manner.

Apart from steps to increase/expedite its water storage infrastructure and carrying out “non-consumptive” use for its as-yet grossly under-utilised, under-exploited share as per the treaty, an inter-ministerial group will look into India’s rights on its share.

Without going into the technical details, grand as it may sound, and legally valid too, fact remains that the provisions for utilisation of our own water share are likely to take many years to materialise.The inter-ministerial group can do a better and faster job.

Time for a relook

To start with, the 1960 vintage treaty falls short on several counts. Shakil A Romshoo, professor and head of the department of Earth Sciences at Kashmir University,advocates a relook at the Indus Water Treaty from the climate change perspective and maintaining ecological flow – points which are not part of the original agreement. The treaty talks of distribution of water only between India and Pakistan, but nothing about maintaining environmental flows.

India happens to be the middle riparian state for the transboundary Indus river system. The Indus drainage basin stretches over 1.1 million sqkm area across Afghanistan (9 per cent), China (8 per cent), India (38 per cent) and Pakistan (46 per cent).

While India and Pakistan remain the largest stakeholders due to the size and volume of the waters and vis-à-vis their usage, Afghanistan (a small area due to Kabul river) and China – as Indus and Sutlej originate in Tibet – too are part of the basin. The river system in the basin includes: Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Swat, Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Shigar, Shyok, Indus, Shingo, Astor, Jhelum, Chenab and Kabul.

The Indus Basin Knowledge Platform correctly unfolds the Indus basin scenario,: “The Indus Basin epitomises a grand challenge due to its high poverty rates, high groundwater extraction, increased environmental degradation and risk of floods and droughts due to climate change.”

Stating the direct impact of climate change on water, the intergovernmental panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has already warned in its report that changes in precipitation in a warming world will not be uniform. The intensified hydrological cycles will see fewer rainy days, but more intense rainfall on those days.

This directly leads to floods, something similar to what Kashmir Valley witnessed in September 2014. Since 2010, Pakistan has had a number of alarming floods causing huge loss of life and damage to agriculture land/property.

Beyond the India-Pakistan binary

With such extreme climatic events predicted to occur in greater frequency, it makes more sense to take a holistic look at the entire basin. Going beyond the geo-political strategic conditions, it becomes imperative to look at the whole basin through changing climatic exigencies, which will mean the involvement of Afghanistan and China.

Glaciers in the Kashmir Himalayas and Karakoram ranges contribute to the majority of water flow in the basin while the contribution from China (Tibet) and Afghanistan is far less. But involving China becomes important also because of the gaping hole – a dark zone when it comes to knowledge about geographical and climatic conditions in the Tibet Autonomous Region from where both Indus and Sutlej originate, even though not many are aware about the exact developments taking place in the region.

The many stakeholders of Indus River System
The many stakeholders of Indus River System

China has managed to keep a lot of secrets there. In fact, there is lack of transparent mechanism on data sharing. Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network for Dams, River and People explains: “In June 2000, Siang area in Arunachal Pradesh experienced exponential rise in water level. Similarly, in August 2000, Sutlej river area in Himachal Pradesh experienced exponential rise in water level. In both cases, there was no record of heavy rainfall. So where did that water come from? China totally declined any hand in it.”

He points us to a medium-scale dam on Indus, which China built without informing the downstream users, near Demchok in Ladakh. As per a report in the April 2010 issue of Journal of Defence Studies, the dam was located by Alice Alibinia, a British journalist and author of Empires of the Indus , while tracking the source of the Indus in Tibet.

China has huge economic interests in the region due to the Northern Route of the proposed China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) falling in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.

What the CPEC means for two riparian countries. Photo credit: The Express Tribune
What the CPEC means for two riparian countries. Photo credit: The Express Tribune

So, on one hand, the actual portion of Indus (both the river and the basin) is very less in Tibet, on the other, China indirectly gets a say in the much larger area – including the Ladakh ranges of Aksai Chin occupied by China and the PoK portion of Karakoram.

Remember, the Indus – starting in Tibet – after passing through Ladakh travels through Gilgit and Baltistan in PoK, and then flows through the Pakistani plains before finally draining into the sea near Thattha in Pakistan. China also conducts a lot of military activity in the Ngari area of the Tibet Autonomous Region, where it has also been promoting large-scale tourism in the Kailash Mansarovar region, an area that lies directly northeast of Himachal Pradesh and where Sutlej too originates.

Given the geo-political situation in the region, bringing China and Afghanistan on board sounds a far-fetched idea for many. The reasons are obvious. An expert at a recent dialogue on the Indus basin described the four countries of the river system as a “Matrix of Paired Opposites”. Hostile: Afghanistan-Pakistan, India-Pakistan; Friendly: China-Pakistan, India-Afghanistan; Neutral: Afghanistan-China. Of these, India and China are convergent on global issues, but divergent on regional issues.

It may indeed seem a far-fetched idea at this juncture – and China has not shown any interest in any kind of data sharing, and refused as yet any bilateral treaty with India vis-à-vis the rivers shared by the two countries. But considering the fast-changing climatic conditions, a collective data set (including data about precipitation – snowfall/rainfall, melting of snow, soil erosion, dams and storages on rivers and other spatial and temporal weather aspects) for the much-needed water balance in the region is missing. Work is in progress at many levels, but the efforts are isolated and scattered.

The Indus Water Treaty does not have an exit clause, but there are provisions for making changes that are mutually agreeable. While Pakistan may not agree to change the provisions as it gains a massive 80 per cent share of the water as per the treaty, Indus is the country’s lifeline – it will have to sooner or later take into consideration the changing climatic conditions and hence a need for a comprehensive arrangement.

Perhaps, India – as a middle riparian country – can act as a bridge between the upper and lower riparian countries.

This story was first published by DailyO portal of the India Today group on September 28, 2016. It can be read here

Arunachal hydropower project halted to save black-necked cranes

The decision by the National Green Tribunal is likely to lead to more comprehensive impact assessment studies for other hydropower projects proposed in the Brahmaputra basin

Black-necked cranes on the Naymjang Chu riverbed near Zemithang village of Pangchen valley in Tawang district. [image by Lham Tsering]
Black-necked cranes on the Naymjang Chu riverbed near Zemithang village of Pangchen valley in Tawang district. [image by Lham Tsering]

Hopes have resurfaced on saving the nesting grounds of endangered black-necked cranes in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh after the National Green Tribunal in April suspended the environmental clearance given to the proposed 780 MW hydropower project in Tawang district. The decision also indicates that other hydropower projects proposed in the sensitive region– part of the transboundary Brahmaputra river basin which straddles China, India and Bangladesh –might have to carry out cumulative impact assessment studies.

As many as 13 large hydropower projects with a total installed capacity of 2,900 MW have been proposed in Tawang district in western Arunachal Pradesh. The district has two main rivers, the Tawang Chhu and the Naymjang Chhu that together have 10 main tributaries. These two rivers meet each other before exiting the district in a southwesterly direction.

The barrage for the 780 MW Naymjang Chhu hydropower project is proposed to be located near Zemithang village in Pangchen valley, about 90 kilometres northwest of Tawang district headquarters. It is near the international border, with Bhutan to the west and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China to the north. The location of the barrage coincides with the nesting site of the endangered black-necked cranes. The tribunal was critical of the fact that the environmental clearance made no mention that the project will have an adverse impact on the habitat of the black-necked crane.

These birds migrate from Tibet during the winter and lay eggs on the riverbed. They are classified as vulnerable in the list of endangered species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and figure in India’s schedule I list under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of India of 1972.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, which runs a conservation project in the area, the Pangchen valley is one of the few places in India that is a wintering habitat for the black-necked crane. These birds, a flagship species in the Himalayan high-altitude wetlands, are found only in Bhutan, India and China. Already affected by climate change – their nesting habitats require river levels to be stable and low during the winter – such disturbance to their habitat would have heavy consequences.

Naymjang Chhu - 6

In 2007, the government signed a slew of agreements to build hydropower projects. The state-owned National Hydro Power Corporation Ltd would construct some of these projects and private firms will build the others. The proposals ran into a wall of protests by the Monpa, an indigenous tribe with a population of some 50,000 in Arunachal Pradesh. The Monpa constitute about 97% of Tawang’s population. After initial protests at different places, eight lamas (Buddhist monks) and two villagers came together to lead the social movement and formed the Save Mon Region Federation (SMRF). They started creating awareness across the district, protested at public hearings and approached the green tribunal to challenge the environmental clearance given to the Naymjang Chhu project.
SMRF has members and volunteers from all villages likely to be affected by hydropower projects. They get information from the government using the Right To Information Act, and hold meetings and protest rallies. “The establishment tried to break our movement. Bribes were offered, members were lathi-charged and I was sent to jail,” said lama Lobsang Gyatso, general secretary of SMRF. See: Two anti dam activists killed by police in Arunachal.

Questioning hydropower rationale

The Tawang district has a total of 31 mini- and micro- hydropower projects. Most of them are either dysfunctional or running below capacity because of poor maintenance or changing river flow. “We are not outright against all projects. But first let these (existing) projects run smoothly. Then, of the 13 planned, we can go for at least one, less than 100 MW project, and see the impact,” Gyatso said. “Given the fragile seismic zone, there needs to be checks and balances.”

The protesters say that the entire district’s power requirement, including those needed by the army and paramilitary forces, who have a substantial presence, is currently less than 10 MW. The aim is to eventually export the power to others states, but Tawang currently is not connected to the central grid. As many as 80% of the 378 villages and hamlets in the district do not have electricity, official data from 2013-14 show.

In fact, as electricity prices have come down and solar power has become more cost-effective, a number of private firms have backed out of their agreements to build hydropower projects. The uneven rain patterns over the last few years, attributed partially to climate change, have also led to low efficiency of hydropower dams, bringing into doubt the economic logic of investing in large dams. See: Private dam builders back out of Brahmaputra dams.

Inadequate ecological studies

The federal environment ministry in New Delhi had asked the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU) to conduct environmental and cumulative impact assessments for the Tawang Basin. Arunachal Pradesh’s chief conservator of forests C.D. Singh admits that Naymjang Chhu was not part of the cumulative impact assessment for the Tawang basin.

Tawang is a hilly district with deep gorges, beautiful valleys and lofty mountains. There is limited land for farming or grazing. The local villagers and activists feel threatened by the possible damage due to tunnelling for transporting water from the barrage to the power house. The proposed tunnel locations run right below the most fertile stretches of the agricultural land and some of the more populated villages. Local villagers have given a no-objection certificate (NOC) – mandated by law for all new projects–for the New Melling (90 MW) and Mago Chhu (95 MW) hydropower plants. In these cases, little grazing land and no agricultural land would be affected, and the project sites are far from human habitation.

“Why isn’t the government going ahead with these two projects where the people have no objections? Why is the government pushing the (Naymjang Chhu) project to be run by NHPC which will directly affect 75 villages?” asked Tashi Lama, another activist monk.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) points out how the argument that the Naymjang Chhu is not part of the Tawang basin is faulty. “Tawang and Naymjang Chhu rivers meet downstream and hence the basins are the same. All projects on Naymjang Chhu should to be included in the cumulative impact assessment for Tawang,” he said.

Way forward after the green judgement

While suspending the environmental clearance granted on 19 April 2011, the National Green Tribunal asked for a fresh appraisal of the project, and a separate study by the central environment ministry to determine the flow requirement for protection of the black-necked crane and for their conservation by the Wildlife Institute of India headquartered in Dehradun in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

There has been no official reaction from either the state government’s forest department or the federal environment ministry after the tribunal’s decision. The people in Tawang district are jubilant but cautious.

In the meantime, the SMRF and its volunteers have conducted meetings in two villages, Kharman and Kyaleteng, near the proposed barrage site and one at Kumba, a village near the proposed powerhouse. The villagers passed a resolution to not allow the project in their areas. The state government’s pollution control department too is likely to conduct a fresh public hearing, the date for which has not yet been announced.

“We suspect the company might go to the Supreme Court. If it does, we are ready to take our fight there too,” Gyatso said. “This is just one project. We are fighting for the entire district.”

This story was first published by The Third and can be read here