05 April 2010

War or Peace on the Indus

Dr. John Briscoe is a former World Bank official who specialized in water. He is now the Gordon McKay Professor of Environmental Engineering, Harvard University.

Dr. Briscoe makes a strong case regarding water sharing between India and Pakistan through the Indus Water Treaty. It is cool calm voice in a sea of hysteria, and it should be given serious consideration.

Taken from The News (http://www.thenews.com.pk/arc_news.asp?id=9&arc_date=4/3/2010)

Anyone foolish enough to write on war or peace in the Indus needs to first banish a set of immediate suspicions. I am neither Indian nor Pakistani. I am a South African who has worked on water issues in the subcontinent for 35 years and who has lived in Bangladesh (in the 1970s) and Delhi (in the 2000s). In 2006 I published, with fine Indian colleagues, an Oxford University Press book titled India's Water Economy: Facing a Turbulent Future and, with fine Pakistani colleagues, one titled Pakistan's Water Economy: Running Dry.

I was the Senior Water Advisor for the World Bank who dealt with the appointment of the Neutral Expert on the Baglihar case. My last assignment at the World Bank (relevant, as described later) was as Country Director for Brazil. I am now a mere university professor, and speak in the name of no one but myself.

I have deep affection for the people of both India and Pakistan, and am dismayed by what I see as a looming train wreck on the Indus, with disastrous consequences for both countries. I will outline why there is no objective conflict of interests between the countries over the waters of the Indus Basin, make some observations of the need for a change in public discourse, and suggest how the drivers of the train can put on the brakes before it is too late.

Is there an inherent conflict between India and Pakistan?

The simple answer is no. The Indus Waters Treaty allocates the water of the three western rivers to Pakistan, but allows India to tap the considerable hydropower potential of the Chenab and Jhelum before the rivers enter Pakistan.

The qualification is that this use of hydropower is not to affect either the quantity of water reaching Pakistan or to interfere with the natural timing of those flows. Since hydropower does not consume water, the only issue is timing. And timing is a very big issue, because agriculture in the Pakistani plains depends not only on how much water comes, but that it comes in critical periods during the planting season. The reality is that India could tap virtually all of the available power without negatively affecting the timing of flows to which Pakistan is entitled.

Is the Indus Treaty a stable basis for cooperation?

If Pakistan and India had normal, trustful relations, there would be a mutually-verified monitoring process which would assure that there is no change in the flows going into Pakistan. (In an even more ideal world, India could increase low-flows during the critical planting season, with significant benefit to Pakistani farmers and with very small impacts on power generation in India.) Because the relationship was not normal when the treaty was negotiated, Pakistan would agree only if limitations on India's capacity to manipulate the timing of flows was hardwired into the treaty. This was done by limiting the amount of "live storage" (the storage that matters for changing the timing of flows) in each and every hydropower dam that India would construct on the two rivers.

While this made sense given knowledge in 1960, over time it became clear that this restriction gave rise to a major problem. The physical restrictions meant that gates for flushing silt out of the dams could not be built, thus ensuring that any dam in India would rapidly fill with the silt pouring off the young Himalayas.

This was a critical issue at stake in the Baglihar case. Pakistan (reasonably) said that the gates being installed were in violation of the specifications of the treaty. India (equally reasonably) argued that it would be wrong to build a dam knowing it would soon fill with silt. The finding of the Neutral Expert was essentially a reinterpretation of the Treaty, saying that the physical limitations no longer made sense. While the finding was reasonable in the case of Baglihar, it left Pakistan without the mechanism – limited live storage – which was its only (albeit weak) protection against upstream manipulation of flows in India. This vulnerability was driven home when India chose to fill Baglihar exactly at the time when it would impose maximum harm on farmers in downstream Pakistan.

If Baglihar was the only dam being built by India on the Chenab and Jhelum, this would be a limited problem. But following Baglihar is a veritable caravan of Indian projects – Kishanganga, Sawalkot, Pakuldul, Bursar, Dal Huste, Gyspa… The cumulative live storage will be large, giving India an unquestioned capacity to have major impact on the timing of flows into Pakistan. (Using Baglihar as a reference, simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, suggest that once it has constructed all of the planned hydropower plants on the Chenab, India will have an ability to effect major damage on Pakistan. First, there is the one-time effect of filling the new dams. If done during the wet season this would have little effect on Pakistan. But if done during the critical low-flow period, there would be a large one-time effect (as was the case when India filled Baglihar). Second, there is the permanent threat which would be a consequence of substantial cumulative live storage which could store about one month's worth of low-season flow on the Chenab. If, God forbid, India so chose, it could use this cumulative live storage to impose major reductions on water availability in Pakistan during the critical planting season.

Views on "the water problem" from both sides of the border and the role of the press

Living in Delhi and working in both India and Pakistan, I was struck by a paradox. One country was a vigorous democracy, the other a military regime. But whereas an important part of the Pakistani press regularly reported India's views on the water issue in an objective way, the Indian press never did the same. I never saw a report which gave Indian readers a factual description of the enormous vulnerability of Pakistan, of the way in which India had socked it to Pakistan when filling Baglihar. How could this be, I asked? Because, a journalist colleague in Delhi told me, "when it comes to Kashmir – and the Indus Treaty is considered an integral part of Kashmir -- the ministry of external affairs instructs newspapers on what they can and cannot say, and often tells them explicitly what it is they are to say."

This apparently remains the case. In the context of the recent talks between India and Pakistan I read, in Boston, the electronic reports on the disagreement about "the water issue" in The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Indian Express and The Economic Times. (Respectively, http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Water-Pakistans-diversionary-tactic-/articleshow/5609099.cms, http://beta.thehindu.com/news/national/ article112388.ece, http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/india/River-waters-The-next-testing-ground/Article1-512190.aspx, http://www.indianexpress.com/news/Pak-heats-up-water-sharing/583733, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics/nation/Pak-takes-water-route-to-attack-India/articleshow/5665516.cms.)

Taken together, these reports make astounding reading. Not only was the message the same in each case ("no real issue, just Pakistani shenanigans"), but the arguments were the same, the numbers were the same and the phrases were the same. And in all cases the source was "analysts" and "experts" -- in not one case was the reader informed that this was reporting an official position of the Government of India.

Equally depressing is my repeated experience – most recently at a major international meeting of strategic security institutions in Delhi – that even the most liberal and enlightened of Indian analysts (many of whom are friends who I greatly respect) seem constitutionally incapable of seeing the great vulnerability and legitimate concern of Pakistan (which is obvious and objective to an outsider).

A way forward

This is a very uneven playing field. The regional hegemon is the upper riparian and has all the cards in its hands. This asymmetry means that it is India that is driving the train, and that change must start in India. In my view, four things need to be done.

First, there must be some courageous and open-minded Indians – in government or out – who will stand up and explain to the public why this is not just an issue for Pakistan, but why it is an existential issue for Pakistan.

Second, there must be leadership from the Government of India. Here I am struck by the stark difference between the behaviour of India and that of its fellow BRIC – Brazil, the regional hegemon in Latin America.

Brazil and Paraguay have a binding agreement on their rights and responsibilities on the massive Itaipu Binacional Hydropower Project. The proceeds, which are of enormous importance to small Paraguay, played a politicised, polemical anti-Brazilian part in the recent presidential election in Paraguay. Similarly, Brazil's and Bolivia's binding agreement on gas also became part of an anti-Brazil presidential campaign theme.

The public and press in Brazil bayed for blood and insisted that Bolivia and Paraguay be made to pay. So what did President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva do? "Look," he said to his irate countrymen, "these are poor countries, and these are huge issues for them. They are our brothers. Yes, we are in our legal rights to be harsh with them, but we are going to show understanding and generosity, and so I am unilaterally doubling (in the case of Paraguay) and tripling (in the case of Bolivia) the payments we make to them. Brazil is a big country and a relatively rich one, so this will do a lot for them and won't harm us much." India could, and should, in my view, similarly make the effort to see it from its neighbour's point of view, and should show the generosity of spirit which is an integral part of being a truly great power and good neighbour.

Third, this should translate into an invitation to Pakistan to explore ways in which the principles of the Indus Waters Treaty could be respected, while providing a win for Pakistan (assurance on their flows) and a win for India (reducing the chronic legal uncertainty which vexes every Indian project on the Chenab or Jhelum). With good will there are multiple ways in which the treaty could be maintained but reinterpreted so that both countries could win.

Fourth, discussions on the Indus waters should be de-linked from both historic grievances and from the other Kashmir-related issues. Again, it is a sign of statesmanship, not weakness, to acknowledge the past and then move beyond it. This is personal for me, as someone of Irish origin. Conor Cruise O'Brien once remarked, "Santayana said that those who did not learn their history would be condemned to repeat it; in the case of Ireland we have learned our history so well that we are condemned to repeat it, again and again."

And finally, as a South African I am acutely aware that Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in prison, chose not to settle scores but to look forward and construct a better future, for all the people of his country and mine. Who will be the Indian Mandela who will do this – for the benefit of Pakistanis and Indians – on the Indus?

02 April 2010

How the (more than) other half lives

Two weeks ago, on the 20th of March, a fire broke out in Shanti Nagar, a slum in Gulshan-e-Iqbal in Karachi. Locals informed the fire department of the incident almost immediately, but by the time the fire trucks arrived – and whether their delay was caused by their inefficiency or because they had to negotiate the crowd that had gathered on the scene – there was nothing left but the ashes of over 300 shanties.

Shanties to you and me, but shelter to nearly 3,000 people, all of whom were left without homes. Some managed to save their belongings before the fire came. Some did not. Since the event happened in the afternoon, most adults were away, working, and their children left at home. Some unattended. Seven-year-old Danish's life was taken when the flames engulfed his home. Ten to fifteen other children were unaccounted for. Several others were injured.

It is impossible to quantify or relate to something as traumatic as the fire, the loss of life and the traumatic displacement of an entire community at Shanti Nagar. Arif Hasan, the eminent urbanist, once told an assembled audience in Lahore that there was nothing like a forced eviction; that they had to see one to really know what it meant. Of course, Hasan was not talking of people displaced because of things like fires or natural disasters. He was talking of people forcibly removed from their homes for the sake of "development", like when the officials of the Office of Education of the City District Government Lahore, on March 19, demolished some eight homes near the Lady Maclagan School on Bank Road to make space for the proposed new block of classrooms. That's not to say that the communities displaced in Shanti Nagar are any more or less traumatised than the families that were deemed to be illegal squatters on the property of the Lady Maclagan School. It is to say that the displacement by any means is traumatic.

The problem with slums, and there are many problems with slums, is that, as a rule, their inhabitants do not possess proprietary rights. Because they are not the owners of their shanties, their occupation sits at odds with the machinery of the state and the understanding of its laws. If someone doesn't have rights in property, how can he be said to have lost it? The machinery of the state does not look at the occupants of slums with a sympathetic eye. The same is true for the occupants of the homes demolished inside the Lady Maclagan School in Lahore. The land belongs to the City District Government of Lahore and, therefore, if the EDO (Education) deems it necessary to build a new block of classrooms, that is that. Occupation or not, homes or not, the cries of families being thrown to the wolves or not, the structures were "illegally occupied" and so the demolition team did not even have to inform the occupants of their decision.

The fact is that displacements, and the trauma that accompanies them, are everyday occurrence in Pakistan. If not at the hands of the elements and natural disaster (the flooding of the Leh Nullah in Rawalpindi routinely displaces hundreds), then at the hands of the numerous "encroachment drives" under the guise of "development".

The issue that appears is not of rights, but equity and morality. Cities in this part of the world, until recently, have been the exception and not the norm. Through history, with few exceptions, South Asians have been an agricultural and rural people. Now, we are told that over thirty five per cent of the people of Pakistan live in cities, and that in the near future, this figure will shoot past fifty per cent. At the same time, we have to understand how, as exceptions to the rule, our cities have grown. As the preferred space of the political, business and social elites, our cities have been occupied by a small but disproportionally influential set of elites. They have grown on the whim of whomsoever has had the occupancy of the civil secretariat or the position of general officer commanding the station. They have grown along the lines of a vision firmly set in the status quo.

But that is set to change. It must. The fact that slums exist is a proof of the fact that our cities are misallocating their resources in favour of a privileged few. For example, if one were to examine the footprint of the city of Lahore, they would find that a (incidentally elite) minority of the people live in the majority of the space occupied by housing schemes, cantonment boards and Defence Housing Authorities. Given the expected urbanisation of Pakistan, which is already the most urbanised country in South Asia, the pressures its new inhabitants will have on existing housing availability, sanitation, healthcare and educational services, employment opportunities and recreational spaces will be immense. Already, substantial proportions of the current and expected urban population live in slums or in unhygienic conditions. In Punjab, almost fifty per cent of the urban population lives in slums. In Karachi, I've been told that nearly seventy per cent of the population lives in slums.

The displacement of people for whatever reason is not without its cost. David Harvey, the noted academic and geographer in his recent seminal article 'The Right to the City' traces the history of urban displacement and links it firmly with urban violence. For example, Hausmann's Paris may have been the "city of lights" and the envy of every city back in the 1850s but the trauma of the displacements it caused, not to mention the economic disaster that was France's loss of the Franco-Prussian War, saw the birth of the Paris Commune. Similarly, readers are reminded of the fact that New York City in the 1970s was one of the most dangerous cities in the world and, in 1975, actually suffered bankruptcy. Harvey can trace these events to the trauma caused by massive displacements in the name of urban development undertaken in the preceding decades.

The overarching issue to be tackled is one of urban poverty and the effect it will have on the future of our cities. In Pakistan, with all the displacements effected and taking place, with the inequality in our cities increasing, we are lucky to have been spared the specter of urban violence (Karachi has nothing on, say, Rio de Janeiro, where some of the city's elite prefers to helicopter to work than take their chances on the favela mobs waiting for the opportunity to kidnap a millionaire). At some point, the Right to the City will have to be acknowledged and made part of a larger political debate.

In 1890, Jacob Riis published his work of photojournalism, "How the Other Half Lives", and documented the squalid conditions in which the inhabitants of New York City's tenements were forced to live. Condemned as muckraking journalism, it exposed the living conditions of the urban poor to the middle and upper classes of the city. But it was also powerful enough to attract the attention of, amongst others, Theodore Roosevelt, who used it as a basis to launch reform in housing in the city. When will our "How the Other Half Lives" be published?