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India raises concern on Pak's China-funded mega dam project

New Delhi : At a time when the United Nations is stressing on the importance of diplomacy to prevent and resolve trans-boundary disputes over water resources, a new chapter has been added to the ongoing India-Pakistan stand-off on water.

Pakistan had recently claimed that China will fund a $12-14 billion mega dam project over the Indus basin. The proposed Diamer-Bhasha dam has been on the drawing board for years, but with Chinese funding and support, Pakistan is hoping that the project gets underway by as early as next year.

Once it gets operational, the dam will generate a staggering 4,500 megawatts (MW) of electricity besides providing irrigation water to farmlands on the Pakistani side.

India has been opposed to the project ever since it was planned and does not want any construction activity in the Indus Basin.

News reports quoted Pakistan Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal as saying that Islamabad expects China to fund the long-delayed mega dam project and work to begin next year. Islamabad has been keen to build several mega dams along the Indus but raising funds for these projects has been a struggle so far with several international institutions refusing to participate in the wake of opposition from New Delhi.

But, some of these projects are being re-considered now with China's One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project calling for Pakistan to be a key ally.

According to Minister Iqbal, a Chinese company from a Beijing-picked shortlist and a local partner would build the dam over a 10-year period and work should begin in the "next financial year", which begins in July.

"This water reservoir is most critical for food security in Pakistan, so is a very high priority project for Pakistan," Iqbal told Reuters recently.

China and Pakistan signed a memorandum of understanding in December for Beijing to help fund and develop Pakistan's Indus Basin dams, though no timelines have been released. Pakistan estimates there is 40,000 MW of hydro potential.

On the Indian side, New Delhi has also decided to make the mega Kishanganga hydropower project in Jammu & Kashmir operational as soon as possible. The move is part of New Delhi's plans to step up exploitation of India’s share of water in the Indus Water Treaty (IWT).

The 330-MW Kishanganga hydro-electric project is being taken up by state-run National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC). The project involves construction of a 37-metre high concrete dam in Gurez valley of Bandipora area and also diversion of water of the Kishanganga River through a tunnel into an underground powerhouse with three units of 110 MW each for generating electricity.

The project cost is estimated to be Rs 3642 crore and construction work at the project site had started in 2009.

Pakistan had objected to the design of the Kishanganga project, stating that it will result in 40 per cent reduction in water flowing into the country. This is also against the provisions of IWT. India has refuted the claims.

Signed by India and Pakistan in 1960, the IWT has come under pressure in recent times due to the killing of Indian soldiers by militants that New Delhi says are supported by Pakistan. The IWT gives a detailed framework for sharing the waters between India and Pakistan from the Beas, Ravi, Sutlej, Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers.

New Delhi has also raised concern on the proposed Bunji Dam on the Indus in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region. The Bunji Dam will be 190 metre high and will have an installed capacity of 7,100 megawatts.

Several activists are worried that the full-scale environmental impact of these hydro projects has not been put in the public domain and India has reasons to worry being the downstream neighbour.

The two mega dam projects are reportedly being built and funded by Three Gorges Corporation, which built the world's largest dam - Three Gorges dam - in China.

However, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres was hopeful that water has proven to be a "catalyst for cooperation" even among nations not on the best of terms and the Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan has survived three wars.

"Water, peace and security are inextricably linked," said Guterres, noting that in the second half of the 20th century alone, some 287 international water agreements were signed.

He cited the example of Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake in South America that has long been a source of cooperation between Bolivia and Peru.

"The 1960 Indus Water Treaty between India and Pakistan has survived three wars between the two countries," Guterres said.

The UN Secretary General underscored that water is and should remain a reason for cooperation not conflict. With climate change having a growing impact, water scarcity is a growing concern and by 2050 at least one in four people will live in a country where the lack of fresh water is chronic or recurrent, he added.

Meanwhile, news reports indicate that Pakistan is seeking a joint mechanism with neighbours India and Afghanistan for watershed management and trans-boundary aquifer sharing in a bid to minimise the negative impact of development projects.

News media in Pakistan said Islamabad is keen on the deal to “minimise” the negative impact of development projects taken up by India and Afghanistan in border areas.

The joint mechanism in this regard is a part of Pakistan’s National Water Policy, which states that the IWT has the “potential of threatening Pakistan’s water availability during low-flow periods.” The policy also seeks regional mechanism involving two or more neighbouring countries for a “viable” solution to Pakistan’s water problems.

"The regional mechanisms involving more than two neighbours shall be explored for a viable solution to Pakistan's growing vulnerability to hydro-meteorological disasters, owing to trans-border winter releases and stoppages at critical times of monsoon and during rabi and kharif planting seasons," the Policy noted.

A mechanism shall also be worked out for sharing of trans-boundary aquifers and joint watershed management, including sharing of real-time water flow information besides conducting a study to analyse the impact of challenges arising out of developments on the western rivers and examine measures to minimise the impact within the framework of the Indus Waters Treaty and international water laws.

Pakistan's water policy noted that water was a "highly under-priced commodity" and its prevailing cost recovery through cess was hardly able to meet a fraction of the operating and maintenance cost of the irrigation infrastructure.

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