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Human cost of India’s Baglihar dam disputed

The dam has not only threatened Pakistan’s environment and farming community, but also displaced several hundred people.

When the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status on August 5, 2019, it not only gave it more flexibility and opportunity to exert its control over the land and the indigenous population, but also over the Indus river system that both Kashmir and Pakistan depend on for survival. It is the reason why water insecurity has always been at the heart of the dispute over Kashmir.

To prevent a water war, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960, which gives the former exclusive rights to the waters of the Eastern Rivers until the point they flow into Pakistan, with the latter granted exclusive rights to the Western Rivers. India has always held the upper hand over the Indus, however, given it controls upstream flow, leaving Pakistan vulnerable to India’s whims.

India’s dam and hydroelectric projects in Kashmir have caused Pakistan additional insecurity and anxiety, especially since they reduce water flow into Pakistan by as much as 30 percent, and it all the while gives New Delhi the ability to cut off total water flow at any point in the future or at such time a war breaks out between the two countries.

 “The treaty worked well in the past, mostly because the Indians weren’t building anything,” John Briscoe, an expert on South Asia’s water issues at Harvard University, told The New York Times. “This is a completely different ballgame. Now there’s a whole battery of these hydro projects.”

At the centre of Pakistan’s angst is the Indian government’s construction of the Baglihar dam, a hydroelectricity project, located on the Chenab River in the Ramban district of India-administered Kashmir. The dam was opened in 2008, but Pakistan has raised objections to the project since 1999, when India announced changes to the project design, specifically in regard to lifting the hydro-electricity output to 450 megawatts.

“The problem Pakistan has regularly raised on the dam is the design permits India to potentially cause a lot of harm by storing water from the river during the dry season or during hostilities. This can create situations of severe drought or flooding,” observe Tapan Mohanty and Adi Hasan Khan in a 2005 journal titled, “Dam of Division: Understanding the Baglihar Dispute.”

The United Nations has already defined Pakistan as a “water scarce” country, and when you add climate change reduced rainfall patterns, India’s exertion of control over Kashmir, and reduced water flow as a result of these hydroelectricity projects, you have a recipe for a major conflict between India and Pakistan in the not too distant future.

“Projections are that by the year 2050, water accessibility for human consumption will have dropped by 40 percent,” warned former UN Deputy Secretary General Asha-Rose Migiro. “Probably the next major conflict will be about water.”

A community of 1,400 Kashmiri residents has already been devastated by the Baglihar Dam, however, and despite promises made to them by the Indian government 12 years ago, and repeated assurances since, they remain forgotten, languishing in a cycle of poverty, homelessness and despair.

When I spoke with Raqib Hammed Naik, a Kashmiri journalist and documentarian, he described how the dam submerged the town of Pul Doda, located 65 kilometres downstream, destroying the homes and businesses of more than 400 families, who were “relatively prosperous” up to the day their livelihoods disappeared under water.

“No one has ever looked at the human costs of these dams in Jammu and Kashmir,” says Naik. “Everyone talks about Kashmir in terms of human rights violations, like how badly the Indian state is treating Kashmiri people, but these construction projects are being taken up and creating anonymous human costs.”

“These people [from Pul Doda] have lost everything…after the dam was constructed, the authorities kicked these 400 families out of their houses, promised them money and land and other things, but that promise has still not been fulfilled, and they continue to live in abject poverty.”

Naik explained how families and individuals he met have contemplated or even attempted suicide, after giving up any hope the Indian government will deliver on its promise of compensation. 

“It was like a death-blow,” 37-year-old Dheeraj Sharma, who owned a pharmacy, told Naik. “It [the dam] took away everything we had earned with our blood and sweat throughout our lives.”

Essentially, these people went from living in a thriving and prosperous urban environment, with all the relative modern comforts that come with that, to being forcibly relocated to the countryside, where there is an absence of electricity, internet, and civilian infrastructure.

“The money the Indian government had set aside for these people has been relocated to the construction of roads, but where are these people going to sleep at night – on a road?” asks Naik.

The knock on effects from these dams not only destroy the lives of communities in Kashmir, but also further downstream in Pakistan, with one study concluding the Baglihar Dam project has caused a 27 percent reduction in water flowing from the Chenab River, which is “not only causing energy losses but also serious environmental damage” in Pakistan.

Worryingly, India’s control over Kashmir gives it full control over water flowing from the Himalayan Plateau into Pakistan, a national security threat if there ever was one, remembering New Delhi threatened to divert water away from Pakistan by damning the Ravi River in retaliation for an attack carried out by the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) against a convoy of Indian soldiers in Kashmir in 2016. 

“Blood and water cannot flow together,” threatened Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Indian government made a similar threat after a JeM militant detonated a car bomb, killing 44 Indian paramilitary officers in Kashmir’s Pulwama district in 2019.

Despite these threats, however, the IWT has held, but we can no longer ignore the human costs Indian constructed dams are inflicting upon the lives of ordinary Kashmiris and Pakistanis, and the environment.

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