February 2005 News

Pakistan Stirs Troubled Waters

8 February 2005
Asia Times Online
Seema Sirohi

Washington DC: Pakistan's decision to ask the World Bank to intervene in a water dispute with India is being seen as a political move that is likely to result in a prolonged legal battle and further slow the momentum in the peace process. Islamabad recently asked the World Bank to appoint a 'neutral expert' to settle differences over a dam India is building on the Chenab River, one of five rivers governed by the Indus Water Treaty of 1960. The treaty, which survived two wars and numerous provocations on the Indo-Pakistan border, is in danger of becoming a political volcano at a time when the two countries are committed to a comprehensive dialogue conducted both officially and through many exchanges of writers, painters and other cultural ambassadors. The dispute has forced World Bank president James D Wolfensohn, who is currently visiting Pakistan, into the middle of subcontinental politics, a position he is unlikely to enjoy. Besides toasting his many successes, Pakistani officials are expected to press Wolfensohn to hasten the process of appointing a 'neutral expert' to look into India's decision to build the Baglihar Dam on the Chenab, which Pakistan claims violates the treaty. The World Bank has clarified that it is a 'signatory' to the treaty, not a guarantor, implying that if Pakistan is looking for an activist to champion its cause, the Bank is not the one. 'It is a primarily a bank and its aim is not to get into regional politics. But since it is a signatory to the treaty, it can't wriggle out of what is in black and white,' said one World Bank official. 'It will do everything by the book but it is not in the business of telling the neutral expert what he must do.' Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Jehangir Karamat, submitted a formal request on January 18 to the World Bank to appoint a neutral expert and followed it up on January 28 with supporting documents to show that bilateral discussions have not yielded the desired results and have been exhausted, from Islamabad's point of view. But not so from New Delhi's viewpoint. Indian diplomats smell politics, desperation and a determination to up the ante even when the facts are not in Islamabad's favor. Karamat's march to the World Bank is seen by Indian officials as provocative and an attempt to 'internationalize' the issue. They insist that the differences are 'technical' and can be settled bilaterally with further talks - if only Pakistan would approach the meetings with an open mind. While India has sought to deal with the issue through technical experts, Pakistan's posture appears to be driven by its Foreign Office with an eye to gaining diplomatic advantage. 'It is a Pavlovian response because Pakistan has raised objections to all river projects India has undertaken in the past,' an Indian official said. 'We have resolved their objections through the Permanent Indus Commission for 27 projects but they still maintain those objections on the agenda when the commissioners meet.' After the failure of the last round of talks on the Baglihar project in New Delhi, Pakistani diplomats decided to turn up the heat by going to the World Bank. Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman, Masood Khan, said the Baglihar Dam 'will severely reduce water supplies to Pakistan and will adversely affect some of our fertile agriculture lands'. The Bank, caught in a bind, has reacted in an extremely careful manner. In a statement, the World Bank said it was reviewing the documents submitted by Pakistan before deciding whether it was time to appoint a neutral expert. There are several legal steps before the Bank can step in and from the nuanced statement it was made clear that the Bank is not keen to jump into the middle of India and Pakistan, where every move is fraught with political consequences. 'The treaty does not envisage a role for the World Bank in the determination of any issues which might be brought before a Neutral Expert. The Bank will not participate in any discussion or exchange beyond its role in the process of appointing a Neutral Expert,' the statement said. The Bank clarified that while it will appoint a neutral expert - a responsibility it must shoulder under the treaty - it will do so only after determining whether Pakistan has tried to resolve the 'question' through the Permanent Indus Commission, a body empowered by the treaty as the first port of call. If the 'question' is not resolved there, it is considered a 'difference' and referred to a neutral expert to be appointed by the two countries. If they can't agree on an expert, the Bank will appoint one in consultation with both India and Pakistan. The controversy stems from India's decision to begin construction on the Baglihar Dam in 2000 after announcing the project in 1992. Pakistan objected to the design, saying the dam can rob it of 7,000 cusecs - cubic feet per second - of water a day, a charge India denies. Indian engineers say that the dam is in compliance with the treaty articles and the amount of water to be stored is within the limits specified by the treaty. The 450- megawatt project is being built on the Chenab, one of the five rivers that originate in India and are subject to the 1960 treaty brokered by the World Bank. Under the treaty, India has rights over the waters of the Ravi, Sutlej and Beas rivers, while Pakistan has rights over the waters of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum. Murmurs in Pakistan suggest that the treaty must be reopened because some perceive that it gives India an undue advantage over the precious resource. Islamabad has begun to cast the sharing of waters increasingly as a 'strategic' issue with far wider implications than envisaged earlier. The treaty says India can build reservoirs on the rivers for capacities specified by the treaty after informing Pakistan. The water can be used 'for any purpose including generation of electric energy'. The dispute is over whether India is storing and plans to 'store' water for a period longer than specified in the treaty. Pakistan's objections are based on possible future scenarios, including war. Fears that India could reduce the flow or flood areas of Pakistan because the dam is at a certain height are not founded in reality, say Indian officials who find such objections nothing but 'political gamesmanship', since India has not blocked water to Pakistan even during wartime. After the 1971 war, Pakistan raised objections to India's decision to build the Salal hydroelectric project in the mid-1970s but India successfully addressed the objections under the Indus Commission. The project was as big as the Baglihar project but Pakistan didn't feel the need to go to the World Bank. World Bank officials are studying the documents and are expected to announce their decision soon. If the neutral expert is unable to resolve the 'difference', it will be considered a 'dispute' and go to a court of arbitration. Seema Sirohi is a Washington-based correspondent.

 

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