Pakistan’s feuding provinces have at last agreed to share the precious waters of the mighty Indus River. But there is new doubt about whether the plan is politically realistic.
The agreement, announced in early April by Prime Minister Mohammad Nawaz Sharif, marked a major breakthrough in resolving an old dispute that has cost the country an estimated U$ 20 billion in lost agricultural production over the past two decades.
The Indus has its origins in far-western Tibet (near Mount Kailas), and its tributaries traverse Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh before entering Pakistan’s arid plains. It flows for about LOCO km across the fringes of the Thar desert to empty into the Arabian sea near the port city of Karachi.
The river was a cradle of the Indus Valley civilisation of 5,000 years ago. The ruins of the ancient cities of Harappa and Mohenjodaro attest to the level of political organisation and hydrological expertise that existed centuries ahead of their time.
After Pakistan’s independence in 1947, its provinces immediately started squabbling over the Indus, which to Pakistan is what the Nile is to Egypt. Punjab, the richest and most-populated province in the country, has taken full advantage of its upstream status to build dams and barrages across the Indus and to use the river’s bounty for irrigation. Downstream provinces — Sindh and Baluchistan—claim that they are being cheated of their share of the water. The North-West Frontier Province, which is upstream from the Punjab, complains that it is not allowed to build its own diversions.
PUNJAB AND THE REST
Under the agreement hammered out by Prime Minister Sharif, Punjab, Sindh, the NWFP and Baluchistan have agreed to share the Indus waters fairly. Punjab will get the largest volume of water, but will in return pull the plug on the controversial Kalabagh Dam it was to have built on the Indus (see Himal Sept/Oct 1990). The downstream provinces had contended that Kalabagh would have diverted an unacceptable share of water for irrigation in upstream Punjab.
The agreement is seen as a victory of Sharif, where his successive predecessors had failed. Key to the dispute was Punjab, and Sharif is a Punjabi from Lahore. He also used his Party’s political clout over the other provinces to drive through the agreement.
Announcing the accord. Sharif stated triumphantly that it would irrigate 20 million hectares of dry land in the four provinces, and the country would be able to produce an additional 2 million tonnes of wheat every year. In arid Baluchistan alone, 200,000 hectares of waste land would be irrigated, and about 300,000 ha would be made productive in the NWFP.
But there are nay-sayers to offset Sharif’s optimism. Pakistani water experts say that converting the water-sharing accord into profitable projects will require about U$ 5 billion over ten years. Besides, it is an open question how strong the agreement really is. There are already voices of dissent, both within Punjab and in the other provinces. Groups such as the “Jiye Sindh Tehrik” have rejected the accord, saying that it still fails to guarantee equitable sharing of water. Local leaders in the NWFP want their share of the Indus water increased by 30 per cent.
Above all, the other provinces are not entirely convinced that Punjab has given up the Kalabagh dam plan. And former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who is from Sindh, has roundly criticised the agreement. Analysts say that the position taken by her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) will have an important bearing on whether or not Shard’s accord can be implemented.
Khalid writes for The Muslim in Islamabad.