Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

ENVIRONMENT: Planned Afghan Reservoirs Worry Pakistan

Muddassir Rizvi

ISLAMABAD, Sep 4 2003 (IPS) - Afghanistan’s reported plan to build large storage reservoirs along the Kabul river is causing jitters in neighbouring Pakistan, which fears a worsening of it water woes if this happens.

The direst predictions say that the reservoirs across the border would reduce water availability in Pakistan by almost 16 percent, a possibility taken quite seriously in a country already struck by acute water shortages over a decade of low rains.

Tensions over water are seen also in increasing discord among Pakistan’s provinces over the distribution of water from the Indus river system, the water lifeline of a country whose economic mainstay is agriculture and its allied industry.

According to the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, the per capita water availability in Pakistan has already fallen to 1,300 cusecs today compared to 5,300 cusecs in 1953.

”The changing rain patterns, sedimentation of water reservoirs and water loss through seepage and evaporation from the existing river and canal systems have caused water scarcity in the country,” explained Asif Shuja Khan, who heads the country’s environment agency.

Both government agencies and activists are thus closely watching the planned construction of reservoirs along the Kabul river.

Already, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), which manages the Indus water and is responsible for its distribution among the country’s four provinces, has warned Islamabad to take up the issue of reservoir construction with the Afghan government.

IRSA’s chairman Nasr Rajput, according to the English-language daily ‘The Nation’, has written to the government warning of water crisis in Pakistan. ”We will have no water to build new dams if big dams are constructed by Afghanistan on Kabul river,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Official reports suggest that Kabul River and its tributaries contribute 16 percent to the water availability in Pakistan through the River Indus.

Since most of Pakistan is arid or semi-arid, the Indus river system serves as a watershed to 80 percent of the country’s almost 22 million hectares of farmland, through a well-knitted network of canals. The other 20 percent is fed by rainfall.

It is the Kabul river, which meets the Indus River at Nowshera in the North West Frontier Province that borders Afghanistan, and two major reservoirs at Mangla and Tarbela that supply water to Pakistan’s irrigation network during the winter season, just when the country’s staple wheat is sown.

Pakistan has a dam – the Warsak Dam – on the Kabul river that was built in the 1960s, coinciding with the Green Revolution that saw a boost in agricultural output.

”If we minus the Kabul waters from our supply estimates, we are looking at a major crisis, especially in the winter season,” commented an official of the Ministry for Water and Power, requesting anonymity.

The government has so far not raised it with the Afghan government.

Even if it has, nobody in the country’s Foreign Office is ready to comment on it, for it may further strain Islamabad’s relationship with Kabul, which is already under stress after their recent squabbles on the demarcation of the Durand Line that divides the two countries.

In fact, the government seems to be playing down the issue. Replying to a question on the issue on Aug. 25 in Hyderabad, a town in the water-starved southern province of Sindh, President Gen Pervez Musharraf was quoted by the domestic news agency Online as saying: ”They (Afghans) have not anything to eat, how they can build the dam.”

But what Musharraf did not address was the fact that it is India that has offered financial and technical assistance to Afghanistan to build storage reservoirs on Kabul river, in addition to the desire of the international donor agencies to restore, rehabilitate and develop the water distribution system in the war-torn country.

The national budget announced by the Afghan interim government this year also included allocations for reservoirs to be built on a number of eastern rivers that form the catchments of the Kabul river.

The budget also included projects for the rehabilitation of the banks of the river, but did not mention the construction of any dam.

To some national security experts here, however, the involvement of rival India makes the issue beyond one between just Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pervez Iqbal Cheema, who heads the government-funded Islamabad Institute of Policy Studies, says the issue has the potential of emerging as a ”major irritant” between the two countries despite the new warmth in ties since April.

”The building of large dams would imply that Pakistan would not get roughly 15 to 20 percent of water that is being supplied by the river Kabul,” he wrote in an article published by the English-language daily ‘The News’. ”Since the proposal has been initiated by India, which has also offered technical assistance, as it aims to kill two birds with one stone, one has to take it seriously and assess its likely repercussions for Pakistan,” Cheema said.

He indicated that there might be other motives behind India’s helping Afghanistan. ”It is becoming increasingly clearer that the representatives of the Northern Alliance in the Kabul government are bending backward to please India even at the cost of damaging relations with an immediate neighbour,” he added.

The Northern Alliance dominates the interim government in Afghanistan and has developed a distaste for Pakistan due to Islamabad’s patronage of the Taliban students’ militia in past decades.

Activists are more reconciliatory however, suggesting that while Pakistan must take up the issue with the Afghan government, it must not forget that every country has the right to use its water.

”Perhaps the time has come that Pakistan and Afghanistan discuss the issue of water sharing and reach some sort of understanding through multi-stakeholder talks,” suggested Sarwar Bari, who heads Pattan Development Foundation, an organisation that works with riverine communities in the country.

”Such an agreement must be based on the principle of the rights of lower riparian over the river waters,” he said in an interview. ”But at the same time we cannot just stop Afghanistan from building dams to meet its domestic needs just for the reason that Pakistan would not be able to carry out its own huge water projects.”

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