India is doubling-down on hydropower projects worth $15 billion in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir despite Pakistani warnings that the new power stations will disrupt water supplies.
Three Indian federal and state officials say the swift approval of long-delayed projects came after Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested last year that sharing the waterways could be conditional upon Islamabad’s crackdown on anti-India militants that New Delhi says it shelters.
Islamabad has opposed some of these projects before, saying they violate a World Bank-mediated treaty. The Indus Waters Treaty, ratified in 1960, defines Islamabad’s claims over the sharing of the Indus River and its tributaries upon which 80 percent of its irrigated agriculture depends.
The projects will take years to complete, but their approval could prove a flashpoint between the nuclear-armed neighbors at a time when relations have reached a low point. The largest, called the Sawalkote plant, is expected to generate 1,856 MW of power.
Pradeep Kumar Pujari, the top-ranking official at India’s Power Ministry, says the schemes could do more than generate electricity. "It is not purely a hydro project,” he said. “Broaden it to a strategic water management, border management problem, and then you put in money.”
Pakistan has repeatedly urged India to hold talks to decide the future of Kashmir. It also denies any involvement in the 28-year armed insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Nafees Zakaria, spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry, says he would confer with the Water and Power Ministry on the proposed Indian projects. He called the issue a technical matter.
Zakaria noted, however, that India would be attending a meeting of the Indus Commission later this month in Lahore, even though a broader peace dialogue was on hold.
"It seems that finally India has realized the importance of this mechanism under the IWT (Indus Waters Treaty) for resolving water disputes related to the Indus and its tributaries."
In the past three months alone, six hydro projects in Indian Kashmir have either cleared viability tests or received the more advanced environment and forestry approval, according to officials.
Together, these projects on the Chenab River, an Indus tributary, would triple hydropower generation in Jammu and Kashmir from the current level of 3,000 MW. This would represent the biggest jump in decades, said the officials, who both declined to be named because the approvals had not yet been made public.
"We have developed barely one-sixth of the hydropower capacity potential in the state in the past 50 years," said the senior official at the Water Resources Ministry. "Then one fine morning, you see we cleared six to seven projects in three months; it definitely raises concern in Pakistan."
Because of climate change, Pakistan faces a dwindling water supply, an issue exacerbated by outdated farming techniques and a rapidly expanding population.
According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, New Delhi could use these projects as a means to control Pakistan's supplies from the Indus, viewed in large part as its jugular vein.
"The cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season," it said.
India has said the projects are a way to utilize the river's flow and elevation to generate electricity rather than using large reservoirs, and which therefore do not go against the treaty.
But environmental groups, however, have questioned whether the government has adhered to adequate procedures by fast-tracking projects located in a sensitive, seismic area.
At a meeting of government officials last year regarding the Indus treaty, Modi said that "blood and water cannot flow together." His comments came soon after India had blamed Pakistan-based militants for a deadly attack on its troops in Kashmir.
Modi had a twofold message, according to Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gopal Baglay, to bring terrorism to an end and to fully embrace the economic potential available to India within the bounds of the treaty.
The projects that have won technical approval in recent months are Sawalkote, Kwar, Pakal Dul, Bursar, and Kirthai I and II.
Most have been held up for at least a decade as they wait for various clearances. Sawalkote, which was cleared by a government-constituted environment committee in January, first received techno-economic approval in 1991.
Some projects were stuck in litigation, like Pakal Dul, which has subsequently been resolved, said Jammu and Kashmir's Power Minister Nirmal Singh. "Things are now in a position for take-off," he said.
But Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said some of the projects have been cleared without adequate studies on impact assessment studies or public consultation.
"It's on one river, the Chenab, where you are doing so many projects. This is a very vulnerable region. It's landslide-prone, it's flash flood-prone, earthquake-prone," he said.
Written by Neha Dasgupta and Sanjeev Miglani for Reuters