Stop the Dam(ned) Project: Outrage over the Bursar Hydroelectric Project

View of the Marusudar River in Kashmir
View of the Marusudar River in Kashmir (Source: Johann/Instagram).

The Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEFF) has approved the construction of a dam for hydropower on the Marusudar River, a tributary of the Indus River in the northwest portion of the country. The approval comes without the site visits required by Indian environmental law. Coined as the Bursar Hydroelectric Project, the 800MW dam is located in the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.

In an interview, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation speaks positively of the Bursar Project, indicating that “the flow of water can be regulated not only to the benefit of this project, but all downstream projects. This will enhance the power generation potential of all these downstream projects during the lean flow months.”

Concern has been expressed over impacts on biodiversity and villages which will be flooded. Based on the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project conducted in July 2017, the project will effect 18 hamlets across 14,000 hectares that house over 17,000 people. About 1,150 hectares of forest land will also be cleared. The project site is within 10 kilometers from the Kishtwar High Altitude National Park, a nationally protected park with rich biodiversity and glaciers. The EIA indicates that the dam could impede the seasonal migratory path of fish, affecting endemic fish species and spawning grounds. This necessitates a site visit and an environmental clearance from the MoEFF. However, the project was approved without the site visit, sparking public outrage.

Since the Marusudar basin contains many glaciers, issues of climate change and glacier retreat should also have been considered for planning the project. Thakkar, who is coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), said in an interview that “there is no options-assessment or the assessment of how the project will perform in the changing climate and how the project will add to climate change effects and destroy adaption capacity in changing climate.”

According to research, projections indicate greater warming in the upper Indus, and greater warming in winter than in the other seasons, suggesting a possibility of increased meltwater. In terms of rainfall, the change is not uniform with a forecasted increase in precipitation over the upper Indus basin and decrease over the lower Indus basin. Overall, there seems to be much uncertainty with regard to changes in future discharge and whether it will affect the dam operations.

View of the Kishtwar Town located near the site of the dam
View of the Kishtwar Town located near the site of the dam (Source: The Chenab Times/ Instagram).

Moreover, the dam is tied up in the tense negotiations between India and Pakistan over the Indus River basin. Based on the Indus Water Treaty, India must allow 80 percent of the water flow into the lower riparian state of Pakistan. The Bursar Project might further reduce discharge flowing into Pakistan. However, an Indian official, who prefers to remain anonymous, is confident that the project will not violate the principles of the Indus Water Treaty and reduce river discharge to Pakistan. In an interview, he explains that “according to the treaty, we would start storing water, after the dam’s construction, during the June and August period when the water level remains very high and does not affect the flow.”

According to Athar Parvaiz, a writer from The Wire, “Worldwide, hydropower projects are running into problems and being scaled back, but India is doing the opposite in what appears to be a determination to maximize the benefits of the Indus Waters Treaty.” While dams prove to be a potent source of renewable energy, there is still a need to consider how dams are changing the local environment and will fare in the changing climate – as a warmer climate has already accentuated glacier shrinkage at the river source.

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New Report Documents Pakistan’s Water Insecurity

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A map of the mean annual precipitation in Pakistan, illustrating the country’s aridity (Source: United Nations Development Programme).

Water security is a pervasive issue in Pakistan, a largely arid country. The majority of the country receives less than 300mm of rain per year, while a small region in the north receives upwards of 1000 mm per year. The Indus River provides much of the water to the area, but its flow is irregular due to the variable precipitation. Moreover, the river originates partly in Pakistan and partly in India, creating additional political challenges that stem from the decades-long history of tension between the two countries.

Last month, the United Nations Development Programme released a Development Advocate Pakistan report that describes the uncertain future of water in Pakistan, which is impacted by changing climate and melting glaciers, as well as political issues with neighboring India. The report’s editors suggest several ways to increase water stability in Pakistan. They advise increasing public awareness because the lack of trust stems in part from incomplete access to data and information. They also recommend high efficiency irrigation systems and updating academic curriculum in the country to include sustainable development.

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A road passes through Tharparkar, a region in southern Pakistan (Source: Rcbutcher/Creative Commons).

As the report describes, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan provides most of the water in the glaciated parts of the country. Altitudes exceed 5000 meters with annual snowfall of approximately 5000 millimeters in the highest regions. This zone is the largest area of perennial glaciers outside the polar regions; nearly one third of the Gilgit-Baltistan area is glaciated. The meltwater of these glaciers contribute a massive volume of freshwater, which forms a significant component of the flow into the Indus River.

The variability of river flows as a result of monsoon seasons has led to water crises and conflicts between provinces, as well as neighboring countries. The Indus Water Treaty has allowed for peaceful relations between Pakistan and its neighbor India for the past 40 years. As Justin Rowlatt describes in his BBC report from September 2016, the Indus Water Treaty has survived two wars and numerous military impasses between the two countries. However, the increased water stress in the Indus River basin since the early 1990s has strained the treaty. 

Coverage of the UNDP report in Indian and Pakistani newspapers has unsurprisingly varied. A recent article in the Times of India covering the report emphasized Pakistan’s negligence and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Treaty. An article in the Hindustan Times reports that, “Pakistan has cleverly employed the IWT to have its cake and eat it too” by receiving the larger amount of water the treaty allots for downstream States, while also using the treaty to sustain conflict with India.

The coverage of the issue by Pakistani newspapers is sparser. In one editorial published in Pakistan Today, the author calls the UNDP report a “wake-up call” and urges cooperation between Pakistan and India to resolve the dispute.

The treaty itself fails to address two important issues. The first is that it does not provide for a division of water during shortages in the dry years between India and Pakistan. The second is that it does not discuss the cumulative impact of reservoirs on the flows of the Chenab River, a major tributary of the Indus, into Pakistan.

On a fundamental level, the government of Pakistan does not think the Indus Water Treaty is effective because its people are not satisfied with the amount of water received, but the government of India does not wish to amend the treaty or address water conflict between the countries in other contexts. The treaty allows India to create reservoirs on nearby rivers to store water for hydropower and flood shortages. This provision has created conflicts between Pakistan and India, since India controls the flow of most of these dams and reservoirs.

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The Jhelum River in Pakistan (Source: Myasinilyas/Creative Commons).

The Jhelum River also presents a problem to Pakistan’s water security. The river is controlled by India, but is a major source of irrigation and hydropower for Pakistan. If India were to close the gates of the river for long periods, it would have a detrimental impact on Pakistan. As relations between Pakistan and India continue to decline, India has threatened to use water as a political weapon. The “possibility of turning off the taps has been raised before, but never as forcefully as this,” explains Rowlatt in his BBC article,

Pakistan itself contributes to the dysfunction of the treaty. As the editors explain in the UNDP report, “Pakistan’s negligence in conducting sound analysis and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Commission of World Bank” has slowed progress.

The Times of India reports that following the release of the UNDP report, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva to discuss the dispute over the Indus Water Treaty. Sharif hopes that a Court of Arbitration helps solve the dispute, while the government of India requested the World Bank nominate a neutral expert to solve the disagreement. The World Bank Group is a signatory to the Treaty and has encouraged both India and Pakistan to agree to mediation on the issue. It is clear that without some sort of institutional change, Pakistan’s water security will become less certain as climate continues to change and tensions with India escalate. 

 

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