Kashmir’s Water: New Weapon of War for India and Pakistan?

India and Pakistan were separated at birth, established in 1947 when they gained independence from Britain. Since then, these two countries have been engaged in a violent, 70-year-long dispute over control of Kashmir, waging three wars, countless skirmishes, attacks, and subsequent retaliations. Today, India occupies 45 percent of Kashmir, Pakistan occupies 35 percent, and China occupies the remaining 20 percent.

Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin on GlacierHub
Map of Kashmir boundaries and the Indus river basin (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Water is an important aspect of India and Pakistan’s fight over Kashmir. Kashmir, a small mountainous region tucked between India and Pakistan, is home to glacier headwaters for several of the Indus River’s tributaries. The Indus River begins in the Himalayas of Tibet, then continues through to India, Kashmir, and finally Pakistan––and provides water resources to almost 270 million people.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) of 1960, which was brokered by the World Bank, divided up control of Indus rivers to Pakistan and India. It also established the Permanent Indus Commission to facilitate communication between the two countries and resolve any disputes. Under the treaty, Pakistan retains primary control of Kashmir’s western glacier-fed rivers––Chenab, Jhelum, and Indus––while India holds the water rights for the eastern rivers––Beas, Ravi, and Satluj.

Indian and Pakistani-controlled land areas are demarcated by the Line of Control (LOC) with one huge exception: the Siachen Glacier. The two international agreements defining the LOC did not include the Siachen Glacier area, leading both India and Pakistan to compete for control. India claimed the entire glacier in 1984, and has maintained a military presence there since.

Recent Events

Tensions between the two countries subsided for several years following a 2003 ceasefire, however, more recent conflicts between India and Pakistan have brought the long-standing dispute in Kashmir, and its roots in water, back into focus.

In 2016, 19 Indian soldiers were killed in the Uri attack, prompting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to say, “blood and water can’t flow together at the same time.” In the following weeks, India suspended meetings of the Permanent Indus Commission, then engaged a policy shift to begin exerting full control over their allotted water under the IWT.

Fast forward to February 21, 2019, when Nitin Gadkari, India’s Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, tweeted:

Gadkari’s declaration came one week after a car bombing in Pulwama (India-controlled Kashmir) left 41 dead, making it the deadliest attack in Kashmir’s history. India charged Pakistan as responsible for the attacks and vowed to retaliate, but the Pakistani government denied any involvement. The next day, Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed claimed responsibility.

In the wake of the Pulwama terror attacks, media frenzy around this tweet quickly ensued. Several news sources speculated that India was attempting to put pressure on Pakistan, or that it was violating the Indus Waters Treaty by halting all water flow to Pakistan. Ministry officials later clarified on Twitter that Gadkari was simply reaffirming an existing policy. In accordance with their plan, India recently began construction of a dam on the Ravi river and plans only to use the eastern rivers, of which they have primary control under the treaty, for their proposed water diversions.

Caught in the Crossfire

In the month following, tensions between India and Pakistan have escalated, with Kashmir caught in the middle of their crossfire.

Making good on their promise of retaliation, Indian warplanes crossed the LOC for the first time since 1971 to carry out an airstrike. Pakistan responded by shooting down two Indian fighter jets, capturing one of the pilots, and releasing a controversial video of the pilot in custody before announcing they would release the pilot back to India as an act of good faith.

Uncharted Waters

Now two weeks after the pilot’s release, tensions in Kashmir have diffused somewhat, and both India and Pakistan have made it clear they intend to avoid further escalation. Historically, it didn’t take much to provoke hostile exchanges into an all-out war between the two, so what is making them more hesitant this time around?

First, both countries are now nuclear powers. And while India has a “No First Use” policy, meaning it will only engage in retaliatory nuclear strikes, Pakistan has yet to adopt such a policy. Any future hostilities run the risk of nuclear escalation and subsequent devastation, making Pakistan and India weary of reaching “the point of no return.” Though certainly possible, escalations of nuclear proportion remain unlikely.

Water as an Emerging Weapon

Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world's highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier on GlacierHub
Person holding up a Pakistani flag on the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier (Source: junaidrao/Flickr).

Additionally, throughout all of South Asia, future water availability is a monumental concern. In an article published by the New York Times, Arif Rafiq, a political analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said, “we may be getting a glimpse of the future of conflict in South Asia. The region is water-stressed. Water may be emerging as a weapon of war.”

It is no secret that political turmoil can wreak havoc on an environmental landscape, and in India, Pakistan, and Kashmir, this is further complicated by the impact of climate change. According to the Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment, rising temperatures will melt at least one-third of glaciers in the Himalayas by 2100, and up to two-thirds if we fail to meet ambitious climate change targets. Some glaciers are predicted to reach peak discharge as early as 2020.

Less water availability coupled with population growth will likely exacerbate tensions between India and Pakistan as they continue their fight for control over Kashmir’s water resources. The Assessment noted that future glacier and snow cover changes in the Indus river basin may not occur equitably, meaning the water quantities allocated to India and Pakistan under the IWT could change drastically. Since the IWT has no provision to deal with water in the context of climate change, the two countries could very well have to re-negotiate the treaty in coming years.

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.

Days After Surviving Avalanche, Indian Soldier Dies

The only surviving member of a group of 10 Indian soldiers that was hit by a Himalayan avalanche on February 3 has died from his injuries, the BBC reported. The soldier, Hanumanthappa Koppad, was found alive on February 8 deep under the snow at an altitude of about 19,600 feet, days after the deadly avalanche happened on a glacier in Kashmir. He succumbed to his injuries on February 11.

Siachen Glacier (Credit: Thehindu)
Siachen Glacier (Credit: Thehindu)

The avalanche buried the soldiers after it hit a camp located in the northern part of the Siachen glacier. Rescue operations were conducted by specialized teams from the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. There were over 150 personnel with radar, snow-cutting equipment, medical equipment, and thermal detectors engaged in the rescue work. Koppad was detected using radar and thermal imaging. He was weak and disoriented when he was rescued.

The soldier was airlifted to a hospital in Delhi and was being taken care of by special medical teams. “We hope the miracle continues. Pray with us,” the Army said, according to NDTV, when he was in a coma.

Kopad was given full state honors during his funeral on February 12, in his home village of Betadur in the Dharwad district. Hundreds of people went to the funeral and the whole village was immersed in sorrow. The Chief Minister in India guaranteed approximately $37,000 for the family, according to a report in The Indian Express.

Funeral of the Indian soldier (Credit: Thehindu)
Funeral of the Indian soldier (Credit: Thehindu)

The Siachen glacier is considered to be the world’s highest battlefield. It’s located in a disputed region, and both India and Pakistan send troops to patrol it, hoping to gain sovereignty. The avalanche that killed the soldiers spurred discussions about the conditions of the soldiers who have been patrolling this region, and must work in hazardous conditions and thin air. In January 2016, four Indian soldiers were killed by an avalanche in the same area, according to a BBC report. Prior to 1984, neither India nor Pakistan had any permanent settlement in the area.

In 2003, India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire along the Line of Control, which is a line between the areas claimed by the two countries and serves as the de facto border. However, soldiers from both India and Pakistan stationed in this area have died  because of the extreme weather conditions. In fact, over 870 soldiers have lost their lives due to the weather conditions since 1984, according to The Hindu.

Pakistan proposed on February 11 that both countries should mutually withdraw troops from the world’s coldest battlefield to avoid future tragedies, according to a report. This proposal has been turned down by the Indian Army.

“No question of troops withdrawal from Siachen as proposed by Pakistan unless Indian position on ground is authenticated,” an Indian military official said, according to The Indian Express.

He added: “I see no reason at all to connect this to any withdrawal from the Glacier. That being absolutely clear to us, we are committed to defending our borders and we will continue to do that.”

Although India has been continually improving the equipment for soldiers who are stationed at Siachen, future injuries and deaths seem likely due to the hazardous conditions at the top of the world.

Roundup: Fish in Patagonia, Film in Kashmir & Glacial Georgia

One Fish, Two Fish: Black Southern Cod maintain a more diverse diet when near glacier meltwater areas

The black southern cod, Patagonotothen tessellata, in southern Chilean Patagonia. (Credit: Fundación Ictiológica)
The black southern cod, Patagonotothen tessellata, in southern Chilean Patagonia. (Credit: Fundación Ictiológica)

“The black southern cod, Patagonotothen tessellata, is the most important notothenioid fish species in terms of abundance in southern Chilean Patagonia. However, studies on its trophic ecology are scarce. [This study assessed] the spatial variation in the diet of P. tessellata between two localities, one with oceanic influence (Staples Strait) and another with continental influence (Puerto Bories)… The black southern cod presents spatial differences in diet composition among contrasting environmental localities… The results provide evidence of two dietary patterns depending on the type of environment in which they are distributed, highlighting the potential role of the environmental variables on the availability and abundance of potential prey and in structuring diet.”

More here.

Glaciers in the Spotlight: Salman Khan films dramatic scene at Thajwas glacier, Kashmir

“No doubt Salman Khan’s films are incredible exciting and dramatic, but his forthcoming release ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ has even gotten better… ‘The Bajrangi Bhaijaan climax was shot at the base of the Thajwas glacier outside Sonamarg. Located at 10,000 feet above sea level… the 300 strong technical crew had to trek for an hour through snow every morning to reach the location. Added to this was were the 7000 extras that we had on set every day. Transporting them in hundreds of buses and then embarking on the hour-long trek was a huge logistical challenge for the production. To add to their woes was the sub zero temperatures and hail storms that would interrupt the shoot,’ said Kabir Khan who has previously worked with Salman in ‘Ek Tha Tiger.’”

Read more here.

 

Glacial Melt in Georgia, Communities Threatened by Avalanche

Mt. Ushba in Georgia (Credit: Levan Gokadze, Flickr)
Mt. Ushba in Georgia (Credit: Levan Gokadze, Flickr)

“Considering its size, Georgia has a large number of glaciers. In the mountains of Georgia, there are about 786 registered glaciers, with a total area of about 550 km. About 82.5 % are in the upper courses of the Kodori, Inguri, Rioni, and Tereck rivers. For the past 150 years, significant glacier retreat (0.8–1.7 km) and shrinking of their area by 16 % has been observed. Since the middle of the 1940s, the glaciological situation has been characterized by a sharp reduction in the glacial area, but with the simultaneous increase in their number as glaciers disintegrated into separate smaller ones, although at the same time separate movements have also taken place. Avalanches are common in Georgia. Nearly 340 inhabited places are under the threat of avalanche attacks. About 31 % of the territory of Georgia is subject to avalanches (18 % in eastern and 13 % in western Georgia).”

More here.

India PM Modi Visits World’s Highest Battleground

On October 23, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Siachen Glacier lauding the Indian soldiers based there. Modi tweeted “From the icy heights of the Siachen Glacier and with the brave jawans and officers of the armed forces, I wish all of you a happy Diwali.”

The Indian soldiers are based in heights of 22,000 ft above sea level on the Siachen Glacier. Both sides have lost thousands of personnel, not in combat, but primarily due to frostbite, avalanche and other hazards in this harsh region. Read more on the India Pakistan dispute of Siachen Glacier here.

http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/74150000/jpg/_74150702_siachen_lores_04.jpg
India and Pakistan have thousands of troops stationed on the Siachen glacier. (Prashant Panjiar/BBC)

Modi’s visit to Siachen Glacier was right after the two sides exchanged gunfire and the 2003 ceasefire was violated. Just this past month, intense gunfire exchange in Kashmir cost 20 civilian lives and wounded dozens. Media interpreted Modi’s Siachen Glacier visit as a message for Pakistan that the status of the disputed border areas is “non-negotiable”.

Diwali is, the “festival of lights”, the largest South Asian holiday of Hindu origins, celebrating the victory of light over darkness. Happy Diwali!

Glacier stories you may have missed – 8/25/14

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qzCsQsmipq0
(John “STI” Kristensen/Royal Danish Air Force)

Thajiwas glacier ‘will be history in 10 years’

“Kashmir University’s senior geologist, Prof Shakil Ahmad Ramshoo, has warned that if ‘mass tourism’ to Sonamarg is not stopped, the Thajiwas glacier will soon be a history.”

Read more here.

 

Glacial Melt Pours Iron into Ocean, Seeding Algal Blooms

Scientists report in a new study this week that glacial melt may be funneling significant amounts of reactive iron into the ocean, where it may counter some of the negative effects of climate change by boosting algal blooms that capture carbon.

Read more here.

Fighter Pilot Films First Person View Of Flight Over Fjords

“Being a fighter pilot is a lot of work. Maintence, years of training, planning for missions, paperwork — all just to pilot one of the faster, deadlier machines ever created by human hands. Seems like a real hassle, right?”

Read more here.