While much of the news from South Asia in the past few days has dealt with this week’s Kabul conference on Afghanistan’s future, the New York Times published a fascinating piece yesterday on the importance of water as a source of tension between Pakistan and India. In this case the point of contention is the Kishenganga Dam, currently being built in India on the Indus River, the same river that feeds Pakistan’s most fertile farmland.
The construction of this dam serves both practical and political purposes for India; the dam’s construction is legal under a 50-year old water-sharing treaty with Pakistan, and India is in desperate need of hydroelectric power. The article’s authors Lydia Polgreen and Sabrina Tavernise explain that, “About 40 percent of India’s population is off the power grid, and lack of electricity has hampered industry. The Kishanganga project is a crucial part of India’s plans to close that gap.” India’s energy needs will only grow, New America Foundation/Smart Strategy Initiative Director Patrick Doherty noted in a recent op-ed, as India struggles to integrate 250 million people into its cities by 2030.
Yet for Pakistan the issue of water is serious. Due to an undeveloped irrigation system, Pakistan’s agriculture is vulnerable to changes in water flow, and a change in the Indus’ flow rate or a decision by India, motivated by electrical need or a political decision, could endanger an industry that supplies 25% of Pakistan’s economy and employs 50% of its workers, as Polgreen and Tavernise point out. The mere possibility of India holding this power over Pakistan can only make a bad situation worse, as talks between India and Pakistan’s foreign ministers ground to a halt last week over mutual recriminations on the subjects of terrorism and Kashmiri self-determination.
The ongoing fight over Kashmir is the 800-pound gorilla in the room in South Asia; Pakistan and India maintain huge forces along the Kashmiri even in “peaceful” times, allocating resources and people to watching each other across one of the most heavily-defended borders in the world.
Much of Pakistan’s strategy in Afghanistan is designed not only to create a friendly or at least pliant Afghan government, but also to keep Indian influence out. Without a solution to the Kashmir dispute and a reduction of tensions with India, Pakistan will undoubtedly continue its support for militant groups in Afghanistan, Kashmir and increasingly outside of the region. But India has shown only limited willingness to discuss Kashmir, even in the abstract.
Embedded in this current energy crisis, however, is an opportunity for the United States not only to decrease tension in an important and seemingly intractable conflict, but also to develop India’s economy and to help the country transition toward sustainable development.
India’s immense energy needs are currently met in large part by coal and hydroelectric power, but the government has ambitious plans to increase its output from new technologies. For instance, India hopes to produce 200,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2050, in a country that currently produces 150,000 megawatts energy from all sectors. However, the country needs an estimated $154 billion in startup costs for such a plan, and has so far only allocated $18-$22 billion. The United States could help fill this gap, either by promoting investment or providing aid; the former helps American companies while spurring a need to further develop solar technologies, while the latter could be conditioned on a reduced dependency on hydropower broadly, and specifically reducing the use of hydropower driven by sensitive water sources, like the Indus river.
While something like a water or energy deal will not come close to solving the conflict over Kashmir or bring stability to South Asia, it can help remove yet another stumbling block and chip away at the mistrust that fuels anger between officials and helps justify militancy in Pakistan. More measures to build trust and an increased effort to build cross-border trade and other tie can help create favorable conditions for peace, while creating opportunities for American industry to grow.
— Andrew Lebovich