India's dam construction in Kashmir has heightened tensions with Pakistan – and its own citizens
As water levels change along the border of India and Pakistan, the two nations have tightened their claim on the resource, reports Leyland Cecco. Residents now say they are paying the price in a war for water
Photography by Nathaniel Brunt
Mukhti Begum has not yet demolished her home.
Desperate and defiant, Ms. Begum, 50, is standing her ground.
In June, she and other residents of Badwan, in Kashmir's northern Gurez Valley, received orders from the Indian government: They had one month to dismantle their homes before water submerged the village.
Villagers began the process of tearing down their houses, salvaging and reusing whatever they could. Knowing the land would soon be covered in water, residents chopped down the valuable walnut forests encircling the village and sold off the wood, leaving a pockmarked landscape. Rooms that had welcomed births and mourned deaths became heaps of scrap tin sheets and logs to be carted away.
But Mukhti Begum's home – built from logs harvested from the nearby forest – still stands.
"I will mourn the loss of our home like I would the death of a child," she says.
The impending flood waters – and the destruction of the village – are no accident or natural disaster. They are the result of a new project, set to become operational within months, that is being undertaken by India's National Hydroelectric Power Corp. The state company plans to dam the nearby Kishanganga River and route a portion of its water through a 24-kilometre tunnel carved through a mountain.
In a push to develop its power generation, India is damming rivers in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir at a frantic pace. At the same time, neighbouring Pakistan, which has rights to some of the region's resources, fears that the dams put the rivers, and Pakistan's much-needed supply of fresh water, in jeopardy. Tension between the two nations, once quelled by a water-rights treaty put in place in the 1960s, is flaring again.
But while India and Pakistan tussle over water rights, citizens of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India have found themselves paying the price in the power struggle. Previous Indian dam construction in the region has left thousands of acres of stumps where thick forests once stood. Environmental groups say India is ignoring the impacts of pollution and deforestation on the region, and residents complain that the government has displaced them, promising jobs and compensation that have never materialized.
A further bitter irony of the project – and of most of the hydroelectric undertakings in Kashmir – is that none of villages near the dam will receive any of the power generated. Almost 80 per cent will be diverted to the rest of India, with the remainder kept by Kashmir as a royalty, an insufficient amount in a state which still lacks a constant source of electricity.
India currently faces crippling power deficits. Rolling blackouts throughout the country are common. The serpentine rivers flowing through Indian-administered Kashmir have significant resource potential – enough to sustain the power needs of more than 25 million homes or serve a large industrial base throughout India.
But while India needs the power, Pakistan needs the water: A quarter of the country's GDP is tied to agriculture and the sector employs more than half of the country's labour force. According to a report by the Asia Development Bank, it is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world.
In recent years, India has constructed a cascade of dams – 19 to date – that dot the rivers and tributaries flowing through India into Pakistan. As water levels change, largely the result of a changing climate, and construction of future Indian hydroelectric projects moves ahead, Pakistan is sounding the alarm.
With political tensions in the region escalating, Pakistan worries that India might soon withhold water as a bargaining tool by effectively turning off the tap.
India has done little to allay those fears.
When India and Pakistan became independent countries 70 years ago this month, the region of Kashmir remained disputed. Pakistan and India have fought three major wars for control of the territory. Its rugged mountains remain one of the most heavily militarized regions on the planet as anxious soldiers stare down each other across the disputed Line of Control. Estimates suggest India maintains a force of more than 500,000 soldiers patrolling the state.
The two countries maintain an uneasy water-sharing truce through an agreement brokered by the World Bank in 1960. The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) maps out control and use of water flowing into the Indus Basin, a deal viewed as a bright spot in an otherwise violence-marred relationship. India received control of the three eastern rivers of the catchment, and Pakistan the western rivers – although, crucially, these flow first through India before entering Pakistan.
But the agreement no longer reflects the demands of the two countries. Decades of rapid population growth and river-flow rates have changed the allocation of the water, calling into question the relevance of the agreement.
Elements of the treaty are crucial to maintaining Pakistan's water security: Dam- height restrictions, reservoir-storage capacity and river flow requirements rates all limit India's full control of the rivers.
Last September, Indian officials spoke openly about opting out of the Indus Water Treaty. Shortly after, Pakistan's Foreign Affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz weighed in. "Between the two countries, this act of revocation can be taken as an act of war," he said. While there is no indication India will leave the agreement, much of Pakistan's water security depends on an amicable relationship when it comes to resource sharing.
In the same month, a militant attack killed 19 Indian soldiers stationed near the disputed Line of Control. In response, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned that "blood and water cannot flow together." Soon after, the Indian government fast-tracked six hydroelectric projects worth almost $19-billion. The string of dams would triple the current power output of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Pakistan, too, is trying to dam the Kishanganga – which it calls the Neelum when it crosses into Pakistan-controlled Kashmir – and decreased flow rates would affect the viability of its downstream project. When construction began on India's Kishanganga dam, Pakistan argued it broke the terms of the IWT, and lodged a complaint with the International Court of Arbitration. In 2013 the Court approved India's right to build the dam, but more than halved the dam height.
"Pakistan has an objection to every legitimate or illegitimate hydro-power activity here," says Dr. Shakil Romshoo, head of the Earth Sciences department at Kashmir University. These disputes would be a normal course of action for any two countries locked into an agreement, says Dr. Romshoo, who frequently advises both countries on water issues.
More troubling for Dr. Romshoo is the absence of any provisions for the impacts of climate change.
"The [IWT] does not reflect how climate change will affect the water supplies." Between 1960 and the 1990s, receding glaciers increased water flows into Pakistan. After a tipping point in the 1990s, water flows have dropped 30 per cent over the last 20 years.
"If you look at the stream flow data, it shows a significant decline," says Dr. Romshoo. "But I know India has not turned off the tap, so I have an explanation, a scientific explanation." Co-operation between the two nations – focusing on climate change and water-sharing rather than agitation – would better position them to deal with impending resource shortages, says Dr. Romshoo.
While India's actions may agitate Pakistan, its own residents in Kashmir share in the frustration. The projects have taken a toll on the state's pristine environment, while the flurry of jobs promised by government officials visiting the area has never materialized.
"At a national level, people are not concerned with what is happening. They're more concerned they should get 24/7 electricity on our resources," says Nadeem Qadri, an environmental lawyer and founder of Kashmir's first environmental think tank. The decimation of forests is making the threat of floods an increasingly dire issue for the Kashmir Valley, says Mr. Qadri, citing the disaster of 2014 that displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the region.
"The community has been voiceless all these years," says Mr. Qadri. He and his colleagues have already launched a number of legal challenges in a bid to halt the dam from becoming fully operational. But he fears these obstacles might not be enough. "The government is very clear. They will commission the Kishanganga project [to be operational] – whatever may happen to the valley of Kashmir."
Government officials involved in the process say villagers in Badwan have been compensated for the loss of their homes. "Residents got more money than they ever dreamed they would," says a local senior government official from the area who wasn't authorized to speak about the project. "But [they] lost their land. Money cannot replace this. They wept when they left."
Shamali Begum, one of the more than 1,400 displaced residents, was preparing for the harvest of corn and potatoes when the order to dismantle homes came. She and her family have found property in a nearby, larger village, but prices have shot up in response to increased demand. The cost of similar land there is four times the cost of the compensation she received. In the border region, security remains paramount. Military bases and checkpoints choke the land with rows of barbed wire, pushing displaced residents to bigger cities.
In total, roughly $77-million has been paid for land compensation, ruined crops, new housing, and infrastructure projects in the affected areas, says the senior government official.
But villagers say the craftsmanship on government projects is poor: Among many examples, they point to crumbling footpaths and a hospital started in 2013 that remains a shell of concrete.
Perceptions of mismanaged government funds aren't a surprise. A highly critical 2012 report from India's Auditor General found most of the budget in Jammu and Kashmir's Forest Department "had been spent on purchase of LEDs, air conditioners, iPods, sofa sets, projectors, vehicles, furniture and fixtures" instead of reforestation.
South of Badwan, the Kishanganga river morphs into a swollen reservoir. On a recent day in July, the trunks and branches of pine trees near the dam site are submerged as engineers test the flood gates, raising the water level by 30 metres. When fully operational, the reservoir will envelop forest, acres of farmland and the skeletal remains of the village.
Almost directly below the site of the tunnel construction, where the diverted river will soon surge from the mountainside, is the village of Matrigram.
Like Badwan, it too has been affected by the construction of the dam. Residents report a spike in chest infections. They blame the exhaust fans perched high on the mountainside that blow rock dust from the tunnelling onto the village. In neighbouring villages, the same chest infection has also been reported.
Rice yields have dropped off significantly, say farmers. The plants, a bedrock of the local economy, are anemic in comparison to previous harvests. Farmers report dead livestock, blaming tainted water from the construction site. Each evening, the stream running into the village turns a cloudy grey, a phenomenon witnessed by The Globe.
"We've been deceived," says farmer Gulam Nabi Wani, 50. Residents within a five-kilometre radius of the construction site were promised jobs as labourers that never materialized, as well as redress for any damages caused during construction, he says. Additional Deputy Commissioner Khursheed Ahamad Sanai of Bandipora confirmed that while five families had been compensated for the loss of land during tunnel construction, no payments have been made against claims of illness or damage.
In neighbouring Chatmatrigam, also close to the site of the tunnelling, the community's source of potable water has turned into a turbid flow from construction waste upstream.
A single wire runs through the village, donated during Ramadan in June by the construction company, says farmer Ruvaid Gogor. It marked the first electricity for the village, providing enough power to light the mosque. Officially, the community still has no electricity. Nor will it, after the hydroelectric project is complete, with the turbines spinning less than two kilometres away, pumping out enough electricity for more than 300,000 homes.
"On paper, they've given us everything," says Mr. Gogor. "But in reality, we have nothing."
Leyland Cecco is a freelance reporter based in Toronto.