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Writ in Water

A design flaw in the Indus treaty makes Pakistan’s complaint, as well as India’s defence, valid.

Written by Ramaswamyriyer |
October 31, 2008 10:08:42 pm

The Baglihar hydroelectric project on the Chenab is once again flooded by controversy. Differences between India and Pakistan over the project were referred to a neutral expert (NE), as provided for by the arbitration clause of the Indus Treaty. After a year and half, the NE gave his findings in February 2007. By and large, he accepted the Indian explanations but recommended some minor design changes keeping Pakistan’s objections in mind. Pakistan was not wholly satisfied with the findings but having invoked the arbitration clause, it had to abide by the result. So why this fresh controversy?

Pakistan charges India with having unduly reduced the flows in the river. The initial one-time filling of a newly constructed reservoir is governed by specific provisions in the treaty. These provide for the filling of the reservoir by mutual discussion, failing which India can proceed to do so subject to two conditions: the filling (in the case of projects on the Chenab) must be done from June 21 to August 31; and the flow in the Chenab Main above Merala should not fall below 55000 cusec at any time. Pakistan says that these conditions have not been complied with.

The question is whether there was indeed a reduction in flows and if so, why. Though the relevant facts are not in the public domain, since I helped prepare the presentations to the NE, I can can hazard a guess. The point is that in accordance with the project design, there are no low-level outlets in the reservoir. The treaty stipulates high-level outlets, and one of Pakistan’s objections was that they were not high enough. The NE upheld the placement of the spillway gates but recommended a slight raising of the water-intake for the turbines. Be that as it may, the absence of low-level outlets necessarily means that as the reservoir is being filled, there can be no flow beyond the dam until the level of the outlets has been reached. It follows that for a short period the condition of a minimum flow of 55000 cusec cannot be met. In a sense, there is an internal contradiction in the treaty. If the condition of high placement of outlets is met, the minimum-flow condition cannot be met during the filling.

Perhaps Pakistan did not realise this consequence. One does not know whether whether the minimum flow could have been maintained from some other source. (That is not a requirement under the treaty, for the simple reason that the possibility of reduced or no flows because of the absence of low-level outlets is not recognised by it.) Such a possibility ought to have been discussed in the Indus Commission. In fact, the best course would have been to have agreed at the Commission-level on the modalities of filling of the reservoir, as provided for in the treaty.

Though ominous sounding, this is unlikely to snowball into a major controversy. Though the word “reservoir” is used, we are talking not about a large “storage” but about “pondage” for the purpose of turbine operations, i.e., a fairly small storage of limited capacity (reduced still further by the NE’s recommendations to take care of Pakistan’s concerns). Filling such a small reservoir cannot take much time (perhaps a week), and the reduction of flows, if any, can only be for a very short period (perhaps only a day or two). Presumably the reservoir-filling has been completed. If so, whatever has happened is now over and cannot be undone.

It is also necessary to ensure that in the future, a way to reconcile these two inconsistent provisions in the treaty is found. The right course would surely be to provide low-level outlets.

What this new discord brings to the surface is underlying lower-riparian anxiety and insecurity about upper-riparian control. One can only hope that good sense will prevail and that the two sides will resolve the issue, either at the current meeting of the Indus Commission, or at the higher government level. But please leave the existing treaty alone.

The writer is an honorary research professor at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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