If nothing else, the recent three-day talks between experts from Pakistan and India, organised by the Pakistan Indus Water Commission (IWC), over the issues raised by the design of the Kishanganga dam in India – and by four projects on the Chenab river – has made it perfectly clear to both sides that instead of going into unending and costly international arbitrations, they should find a middle way and work out their differences.

The run-of-the-river hydroelectric project on the Kishanganga river – which flows into the Jhelum river, a part of the transboundary Indus river basin – has been objected to by Pakistan many times. Under the terms of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty (IWT) between the two countries, Pakistan took the issue to an international arbitrator, who allowed India to build the project, but not to bring the water level in the reservoir below the minimum – what is technically called the dead storage level.

“We have knocked on the door of the Court of Arbitration and let me tell you it’s not an easy recourse; the judicial procedures are painful and at the end of it you get just a fraction of the fruit you were been expecting,” Mirza Asif Baig, Pakistan’s commissioner of the Indus Water Commission told thethirdpole.net soon after the August 24-26 talks in Lahore.

Terming the talks “concrete” and “some movement forward”, Baig said Pakistan had raised certain objections to the dam’s technical aspects of design like “deep gated spillway, excessive pondage and height of free board” which India has agreed to look into. “The talks seem to be on a sound footing. Both sides had done their homework and appreciated each other’s point of view,” he added.

The two teams will meet again in two months in New Delhi, after Pakistan has undertaken two visits to hydropower projects Miyar and Kishanganga in India. The commissioner said the Pakistan team was going “to witness first-hand the genuineness of the situation and the constraints and justifications put forward by India.”

The design of the Kishanganga dam to be built in India upstream of the Neelum-Jhelum project in Pakistan – both on the same river, called Neelum in Pakistan and Kishanganga in India – have been a bone of contention between the two countries after India began construction in 2008.

“The interaction has been long and over the years designs for both projects have been modified,” said Baig, who has been involved in the bilateral meetings as advisor since 2000. The dispute over the 330 megawatt Kishanganga power plant – some 160 kilmetres upstream of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan administered Kashmir – has arisen over the way the two governments interpret the Indus Water Treaty, which provides a legal framework and guidelines for sharing waters of the Indus basin. The use of the eastern rivers (Sutlej, Beas and Ravi) has been allocated to India, while Pakistan is entitled to unrestricted use of the western rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab). India is also allowed certain uses on the Western Rivers such as for hydropower, domestic use, specified agricultural use and non-consumptive use.

By diverting water from one tributary of the river to another (which will change the course of Neelum river by 100 kilometres), Pakistan says India violates the treaty; on the other hand, India maintains the diversion is well within the provisions of the treaty.

According to the treaty, India is allowed some storage for hydropower projects and development of agriculture on the western rivers as well. The treaty limits the ability of India to control or interfere with waters of the western rivers by specifying certain limitation on the designs of the projects.

Many in Pakistan contend that India’s hydroelectric project would greatly reduce water flow in the Neelum river and affect Pakistan’s 969 megawatt Neelum-Jhelum project.

Asked about this, Baig said, “Yes it will, but only to the extent that Pakistan will get between 15 to 20% less water and (this will) not affect the generation of power by more than 10%.” The diversion will reduce water inflow in the Neelum river in Pakistan but this diverted water will flow back to Pakistan through Wullar lake and subsequently Jhelum river. So there will be no reduction in flow downstream of the confluence of Jhelum and Neelum rivers at Muzaffarabad.

The changed course of the Neelum may affect the biodiversity of the Neelum valley, say environmentalists. “Diversion will wreak havoc on the environment of the valley,” said Sardar Javaid Ayub, the head of the Azad Jammu & Kashmir wildlife and fisheries department to the English daily Dawn. “Temperatures in the upper reaches of the river fell to sub-zero in winter and in case of diversion, a 20-25 kilometre stretch of the river would be frozen and all aquatic life, micro and macro organisms would become extinct.”

But water specialist Daanish Mustafa disagreed. “There is considerable drainage within Pakistani Kashmir so it is unlikely the valley will dry up completely. In winter months of course it is inevitable that the flows will be a lot less than what they are in summer.”

While acknowledging that in winter the impact “may be pronounced”, Baig assured that as per the 2013 ruling of the arbitrator, it was mandatory upon India to maintain nine cubic metres per second (cumecs) of water in the Neelum at all times. Therefore, he did not see a severe adverse effect on biodiversity.

“Whenever water is disturbed upstream [in this case by India], it will affect downstream [Pakistan],” said Simi Kamal, another water expert. “There is a price to be paid and cost associated with such projects but if we can rise above the differences and sort them out in the spirit of cooperation, we can share the benefits of the river.”

Kamal is optimistic that all kinds of solutions are possible if only countries would move from “owning” to “sharing” natural resources. “The benefits of sharing are so much better,” she pointed out, suggesting that electricity generated by the Kishanganga power plant be shared between the two countries.

Other commentators in Pakistan also felt that cooperation was better than confrontation.

Compared to the extensive coverage of the August 24-26 talks in the Pakistani media, there was hardly any attention paid to it by their counterparts in India. The lone report quoted the Indian delegates as saying that the talks had ended inconclusively. Back in New Delhi, one delegate said he was confident that the matter would now be resolved bilaterally within the purview of the Indus Water Treaty.

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