Story Publication logo July 29, 2009

The Kashmir Question


Media file: 782.jpg

The majority of India's water sources are polluted. A lack of access to safe water contributes to a...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors
Media file: kashmirsml.jpg

Victory in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has decided, will require stability in Pakistan. Seeking help in the fight against militants along the Afghanistan border, Washington has sought to de-escalate the simmering tensions between India and Pakistan so Islamabad can redeploy troops from its eastern border to the lawless mountain regions in the west. But putting an end to 60 years of mistrust is a tall order, as Obama's "Af-Pak" envoy Richard C. Holbrooke was reminded again last week during his fourth visit to the troubled region. And now, an emerging environmental threat is complicating the political dialogue: water.

Just last week, Pakistani intelligence officials complained that India has blocked off the rivers flowing into the country through Kashmir—an allegation, reports The Washington Post, that will make it harder to draw down troops from the Indian border even as the Pakistani army prepares for a major offensive against a powerful Taliban leader entrenched in its western westernmost region. Control of the rivers that run through the region has always been a potential source of conflict between the countries and, while the Indus Waters Treaty has long prompted both fears of a much-hyped nuclear water war, as well as optimism about the potential to solve such disputes through negotiations, water remains a strategic hurdle and potential spoiler to any peace process.

For many, resolving the decades-old Kashmir dispute is critical to stabilizing relations between the nuclear rivals, an acknowledgment President Obama made during his campaign for the presidency. "The most important thing we're going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan, is actually deal with Pakistan," Obama told MSNBC in an interview last October. "We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants."

The idea didn't seem so far fetched a few years ago when then-president General Pervez Musharraf was involved, as Steve Coll recently reported in The New Yorker, in back-channel negotiations for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute.

Tariq Hassan, a Harvard-educated Pakistani lawyer I spoke to in May, was involved in the movement to restore the country's Supreme Court chief justice—whose firing precipitated Musharraf's own ouster last year—and met with India's ambassador and other officials who, he says, were surprisingly affectionate toward the Pakistani general. "They were all singing praises for Musharraf," Hassan recalled. For Hassan, it was an indication that Musharraf had indeed been committed to resolving the Kashmir dispute.

In years past, says Hassan, American presidents have avoided getting involved in the thorny politics of the Kashmir issue. Encouraged by Obama's initial willingness to engage leaders on the issue, Hassan was disappointed by his subsequent decision to stay clear. "To be able to resolve issues between Pakistan and India, Kashmir is the central issue," Hassan maintains. "That's the crux of the problem with India—we don't have any problems with them anymore. But the issue that won't go away there is water."

Politicians from both sides, and many in the international community, have tried for decades to depoliticize the significance of water in the Kashmir dispute in hopes of finding common ground to share the critical resource. But, as Pakistani analyst Khalid Rahman told me, "in Pakistan, there is an informed perception that the Kashmir issue is a water issue and that India has been successful at separating it from the water issue and Pakistan should not have agreed to it."

Water is a soapbox issue for politicians in both countries and, according to B.G. Verghese, a former adviser to the Indian prime minister, one that Pakistani politicians have adeptly exploited in the international arena as a pretext for their claims to Kashmir. Ongoing negotiations over the Indus Waters Treaty, he says, are often gummed up by Pakistani objections. "Pakistan has no obligation (under the treaty) except to cry foul at every stage," he says, "which sadly is something that it has done."

But it's also a dwindling resource that will be harder to share as the populations in both countries grow while the per-capita water supply plummets. Some growth models predict that by 2025, India's population will grow to triple what it was—and Pakistan's population to six times what it was—when the Indus treaty was signed in 1960.

And even the status quo breeds problems.The terms of the treaty cuts Kashmiris out of the deal, placing strict limits on Kashmir's ability to build its own hydropower plants and siphoning off much the power produced along its rivers at cheap rates to provide for Indians and Pakistanis. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Defense found that the region's economic development has been stifled under these terms and the deal may even contribute to the militant recruitment of young Kashmiris. As it stands, the control of the areas that form the river basins is central to ensuring water supply from the rivers—a central hurdle to the negotiation of any final agreement. "Even if we give them the land, they've got a resource that because of the Indus water treaty itself has increased the stakes for Pakistan," says Hassan. "It's a security concern."

According to The Final Settlement, a 2005 book by the Indian think tank Strategic Foresight Group, which outlined the issues that such a deal would have to include, a main obstacle will be how to divide the Indus waters equitably. Every one of Pakistan's diplomatic overtures in recent years, the book said, referred to water as a core concern. Because the region is uniquely susceptible to changes in its water supply—and because its booming populations, already facing food and power shortages, are heavily dependent on agriculture—violent conflict over water is "inevitable" as its water situation worsens, the report says.

It also raised the prediction that upstream diversions of water to benefit Pakistani elites in Punjab will provoke a sectarian civil war with the downstream province of Sindh.

For Verghese, Pakistan's problems are the result of an identity crisis. "What is Pakistan," he asks. "This is the question they have to come to grips with. Unless they do this, the only cementing bond is anti-India." With a nationalist movement being waged in Baluchistan, and an anti-Taliban offensive raging in the country's northwestern mountains that has spurred reprisal attacks in major cities, the fissures in Pakistani society are indeed startlingly apparent.

For his part, Hassan agrees that water will be potentially volatile element in a complicated national equation. "God forbid there's another interprovincial issue," he says. "But that could be tomorrow. "We do know it's a depleting resource. But how long do we have? We don't know.



yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
navy halftone illustration of a boy carrying two heavy buckets


Water and Sanitation

Water and Sanitation

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues