Degradation of Indus Basin: how secure is South Asia's future?
By Arjimand Hussain Talib
It is the degradation of the Indus Basin due to its neglect in integrated development and conservation by both India and Pakistan that is seeing a severe water crisis looming over our heads in the sub-continent
Talking environment and ecology in the time of war for many is like talking taboo at prayer. War is about death and survival, whereas environmental and ecological preservation is about drawing-room discussions of luxury--so goes the feeling. This irony of the general sub-continental sense of environmental and ecological issues, if at all it is there, is not about our intrinsic ignorance. The problem lies in the mannerism of our environmental talks and activism in our region, that always come packaged as an "elitist luxury"--far from the realities of our day to day life. It is this fundamental flaw with our discourse on environment that is to blame for a looming environmental catastrophe that Kashmir, Pakistan and India are bracing for, which (not many of us realise) could undermine our very survival. The sub-continent has to wake up to the fact that the environment we live in is basically linked to our security, and that Jammu & Kashmir being at the heart of the Indus River Basin, which is crucial for social and political stability of Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan and northern India, needs greater attention.
Not many of us know that the concept of trans-boundary basin development was discarded after India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. Likewise, not many of us are aware that one of the conditions of the World Bank-brokered treaty was the multilateral and integrated ecological and environmental conservation of the Indus Basin. Both the provisions of the agreement have not been fulfilled. The degradation of the Indus Basin, of which Jammu & Kashmir is a part, has manifested itself in many ways that affect our day to day life. We are already in a situation of water scarcity, which is giving birth to violent conflicts on water sharing. The water riot in Garend village in the Budgam district and the other one at Qazigund recently in Kashmir, in which three people were killed and eight others wounded, cannot be seen in isolation.The environmental degradation of the Indus basin as a whole has already resulted in severe precipitation shortages in the catchment areas of the Indus system. Not only that, we have yet to realise the magnitude of degradation of the region's eco-system as a direct consequence of the sustained India-Pakistan political and military standoff. We are far from realising the extent of strain on the ecology of Jammu & Kashmir, due to the militarisation of vast tracts of mountains and pastures on both sides of the LoC in the Indus Basin.
The military standoff at the Siachen Glacier, for instance, is a huge environmental loss. Studies have found that about 12,000 tonnes of load is flown into the Siachen Glacier every year, including the one, which is para-dropped there. Going by these estimates, it is estimated that 21,6,000 tonnes of load has been transported on to the Glacier since 1984, the year of militarisation of the Glacier. It is estimated that out of the total load off-loaded on the Glacier, over 50 per cent has been dumped there as hazardous waste. Experts claim that 40 per cent of this waste is plastic and metal. As a consequence, Siachen Glacier has become the world's biggest and the highest garbage dump, which mainly consists of plastic, remains of crashed helicopters, worn out gun barrels, splinters from gun shelling, empty fuel barrels, burnt shelters, telephone wires, skid boards, para-dropping boards, edible oil containers, canisters, gunny bags, rotten vegetables, bad meat, expired tinned meat, cartons, wrappers, shoes, clothing, ration items etc. Items damaged or lost due to misjudged para-dropping too add to this list. It also includes bodies, which could not be recovered.
Lakhs of parachutes are used to drop rations over the posts in both India as well as Pakistan. Though reusable, these parachutes lie at the posts and are not re-inducted. All this non- biodegradable waste has become a part of the snow of the glacier. It has been found that one of the edges of the Siachen Glacier has receded by more than 200 yards. The oozing out of the toxic substances by these materials is a continuous phenomenon, which are released into rivers as and when the glacier melts. All toxic washing residue as a result of continuous washing of clothes on the Glacier flows into the Nubra River. The Nubra goes to join the Shayok River and ultimately flows into the Indus.
Research has shown that contamination of Indus waters in upper Pakistan has much to do with the pollution of the catchment of the Indus Basin. The latest report of the United Nations' Environment Programme (UNEP) has revealed that the lakes forming in the Himalayas and other mountains ranges, because of global warming and localised thermal stimulation activities, like military manoeuvres, threaten the lives of tens and thousands of people in the valleys. It has reported that glaciers are retreating and high altitude snowfields are melting fast and in response to rise in temperatures, lakes directly fed by glaciers are swelling. In Nepal and Bhutan, for instance, the study has found that 44 lakes were filling so rapidly that they were in danger of bursting within five to ten years, sending millions of gallons of water into populated valleys. It has been divulged that there are 2323 such glacial lakes in the Himalayas in Nepal and in the Hindukush.
Given the fact that the geographical and climatic patterns are almost the same in the Jammu & Kashmir Himalayas, Kashmir valley and also the plains of Pakistani Punjab face a real danger of a flash flood catastrophe in the coming years. Over the last few years, independent research has established that glaciers in Jammu & Kashmir are receding at a fast rate. There has been drastic decrease in the downpour of precipitation as well. Jhelum has already recorded the lowest-ever water level of 6.06 feet at Sangam and 0.40 feet at Munshi Bagh on February 12, 2001. The constraints imposed by the Indus Water Treaty by virtue of which the Indian-administered Jammu & Kashmir cannot store the waters of its rivers, either for hydro-power generation or for irrigation purposes, has increasingly come to be seen as a case of ecological deprivation. Indus Water Treaty allows J&K to build storages aggregating 3.60m acre feet on the three rivers of the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. Out of the 3.60m acre feet, 1.60 MAF could be used for hydro-power, 0.75 MAF for flood moderation and 1.25 MAF for general storage for non-consumptive uses, including power generation. As a result of these constraints, agriculture expansion in Kashmir has not been able to keep pace with population growth. >From a net irrigated area of 261 thousand hectares in 1950-51, J&K has been able to expand irrigated land to only 308.77 thousand hectares till 1997-98.
Although Jammu & Kashmir State was supposed to get 50 per cent share of the power from the Bakhra Dam project as a compensation to conceding rights under the Indus Water Treaty, the promise has never been fulfilled. Agreement had been reached between the then Chief Minister of J&K State, Shiekh Muhammad Abdullah and the then Chief Minister of Punjab, Prakash Singh Badal in 1979 regarding construction of Shahpur Kandi Barrage, under which our State had to get about 11,000 cusec water discharge from Ravi River to irrigate its over one lakh hectares of land in the Jammu division. However, despite construction of 90 meters-long Ravi-Tawi canal during Shiekh Abdullah's tenure, the Shahpur-Kandi Barrage project has not been completed even after 23 years have lapsed. One of reasons of non-completion of the canal is said to be that Indian Punjab itself is facing water shortage due to increasing demands and its water dispute with Haryana.
Due to the depletion of ground water sources in the Rajasthan, Gujarat in India and Punjab and Sindh in Pakistan, strain on Indus system waters have increased considerably. One of the causes of this situation is the degradation of the Indus Basin, which is highly crucial for India's northern plains and almost whole of Pakistan. It is the degradation of the Indus Basin due to its neglect in integrated development and conservation by both India and Pakistan that is seeing a severe water crisis looming over our heads in the sub-continent. For long-term ecological conservation of the Indus Basin, one agenda of India-Pakistan bilateral engagement must be demilitarisation of highland pastures in the Pirpanjal and other mountain ranges, like Zanaskar and the Siachen Glacier. And what would have to follow these steps is a major integrated Indus Basin development and conservation project. That is the key to a secured collective future of South Asia.
The News on Sunday
23 June 2002
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