Schwebel's visit was neither the result of some kind of bonhomie between India and Pakistan, nor was it a culmination of any softening of stand on the Kashmir dispute. India remains averse to any third-party meddling in Kashmir, and Pakistan would be the last to wish American presence on its eastern borders as well.
In fact, during Schwebel's visit, Kashmir was the last word to be mentioned. Rather, it was water, the new-age conflict generator in South Asian politics.
Schwebel headed an International Court of Arbitration (COA) team that the United Nations has appointed to settle a "dispute" between India and Pakistan over the 330MW Kishanganga hydro-power project, being built by India in its part of Kashmir over the Kishanganga River.
Kishanganga is one among many projects that Pakistan is becoming wary of. Over the past few years Pakistan has been steadily upping the ante against almost all the major hydroelectric power projects in the state. Pakistan is a lower riparian state, which gets almost all its water from India, particularly from Indian Kashmir. To negate any major confrontation between the two countries, the World Bank helped them reach an agreement through the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) in 1960. The treaty has withstood two major wars between the nuclear-armed countries and numerous smaller conflicts. But now the situation is changing, as Pakistan's water needs have increased and availability has decreased alarmingly. Pakistan feels any new project will aggravate the situation.
Use of the water shared between the two countries is guided by IWT principles. A clause in the treaty gives priority rights to whichever country completes a hydroelectric project first on the Kishanganga River — and this has triggered fierce competition between the two neighbours.
India initiated the Kishanganga project, costing $820 million (Dh3,009 million), in the Gurez-Bandipora area of Kashmir, which would divert part of the river's flow, generate energy and discharge it in the Wular Lake. It involves construction of a 37-metre high concrete-faced rockfill dam and an underground powerhouse connected via a 16-kilometre water-diversion tunnel.
Feeling the heat, Pakistan too started a project just 70 kilometres downstream in its part of Kashmir. The Neelum-Jhelum hydroelectric project, as it is called, will generate 965MW of energy and will cost $2.25 billion.
But both India and Pakistan are ready to risk this gamble despite the huge amounts of money involved.
Even as competitive construction goes on, Pakistan has pointed a finger at the Indian project, calling it illegal in the light of the IWT. Having failed to resolve the issue bilaterally, Pakistan took the case to the International Court in 2010. Subsequently the UN appointed Judge Stephen Schwebel as chairman of the Court of Arbitration (COA). After a couple of hearings, the COA decided to visit the sites on the two sides of the divide and examine the "dispute" to decide on the issue.
According to Pakistan, the diversion of the Kishanganga River by India will reduce 27 per cent of the power-generation capacity of its Neelum-Jhelum project. There is also fear of reduced river flows for at least six months every year, irreparable loss to the environment, especially to the Musk Deer Gurez Park, and a dent in the tourism potential of the Neelum valley. Pakistani authorities say about 200 kilometres of riverbed will be affected by the project and about 40 kilometres of the length of the river will completely dry up; the water reduction will also severely affect agriculture in Pakistani Kashmir.
India rejects most of these accusations. The visit to the Kishanganga project site by the COA was part of efforts to resolve the dispute amicably. Besides holding a detailed review meeting about the project, the team also inspected the power house, the head race tunnel, the storage facility, the ventilation tunnel and the pressure shaft of the project. The media was barred from covering the event. "The team had a packed four-day visit," said Manzoor Ahmad Lone, the deputy commissioner, Bandipora district. "Since their visit was exclusively inspective in nature, they did not interact with anyone here."
Meanwhile, in their efforts to outrace each other in project construction, both have speeded up work. Pakistan's efforts have been supplemented by Chinese help — their project is constructed by a Chinese consortium. On the Indian side, engineering firms from the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany are working overtime to complete the project.
Pakistan was to complete its project in 2016 but massive delays will make it operational only by 2018.
Experts feel tunnel boring machines (TBT) can be a game changer for Pakistan in its race. TBT, if utilised at the Neelum-Jhelum project, will cut construction time by almost two years. But the proposal is held up in a big bureaucratic mess.
The media in Pakistan is agog with news that the country has almost lost its case to Kishanganga, as the Indian project is far ahead of theirs.
Kishanganga is not the only project that India and Pakistan have been fighting over. The two countries had faced off over the Baghlihar hydel-power project, built by damming the Pakistan-bound Chenab River in Indian Kashmir. In 2008 Pakistan was faced with decreased flow of water in the Chenab when India started to fill the dam. The river feeds water to 21 major canals and irrigates about 2.8 million hectares of arable land in Pakistan.
Pakistan Economy Watch (PEW), an economic think-tank, calculated that filling the Baghlihar dam would inflict a loss of $1.5 billion on Pakistan. Analysts in the country termed it a hydro weapon. The fast-flowing Chenab, a vital river for Pakistan's agriculture, has a high potential for generating power and India plans to generate 16,000MW of energy by constructing nine power houses on it.
Both the countries have had a history of water conflict from their days of independence. Professor Shaista Tabassum of Karachi University says in a paper that India stopped its canal waters from flowing into Pakistan on April 1, 1948, leaving about 5.5 per cent of west Pakistan's planted area and nearly 8 per cent of its cultivated area without irrigation at the start of the crucial summer season. The blockage brought the countries on the brink of war.
That memory is etched deep in the Pakistani mind, which now views every new project as additional leverage in the hands of India.
In the 1980s India planned a barrage over the Wular Lake in Kashmir but the project was stopped after objection from Pakistan. The project would have made most of the Jhelum River in Kashmir fit for navigation year round. But Pakistan feared its water-holding capacity and Kashmir was deprived of its water-transportation service.
The IWT has been under strain after being accused of a discriminatory attitude by all the three stakeholders — India, Pakistan and the state of Kashmir.
The water situation in Pakistan has been extremely worrisome. Coupled with mismanagement, experts fear it has become a ticking time bomb. According to latest estimates, Pakistan will face a water deficit of 25 million acre feet (MAF) in the next 15 years. The Indus River System Authority (IRSA) chairman in Pakistan, Rao Irshad Ali Khan, termed the situation gloomy. Khan said Pakistan will face a deficit of 20 MAF to 25 MAF between 2020 and 2025. Khan also said Pakistan is a water-deficient country with per capita water availability dropping to 1,000 cubic metres from 5,600 cubic metres in 1951.
"In the next 15 years the figure can go as low as 500 cubic metres per capita," Khan said. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have already termed Pakistan one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, a situation which will degrade to outright water scarcity.
Pakistan's water situation is being blamed on wastage, a growing population, climate change and lack of water reservoirs. Some also point a finger at India's alleged manipulation of Pakistan-bound rivers.
Pakistan's population is expected to reach 333 million in 2025 from the present estimated population of 180 million, which will need more food and more water.
The seriousness of the situation can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan's intelligence agency, ISI, too, plunged into the scene as it feared water was becoming too hot to handle for national security.
Citing civilian government failure in raising objections over alleged Indian power projects in Kashmir in April this year, ISI seized the records of two federal ministries — of water and power, and environment — to investigate an alleged institutional lapse in raising objections over Indian aggression on the country's water rights and securing international carbon credits on hydel projects disputed by Pakistan.
ISI believes that the water issue is of vital national importance to Pakistan and recommended strong action against the officials found involved in negligence. Pakistan's long-time IWT commissioner Jamaat Ali Shah, too, was axed after allegations of lapses.
Kashmir, with its bountiful rivers and streams, has an estimated 20,000MW hydro-electric potential. But due to its meagre policies, and some hard policies by New Delhi, the state has not been able to harness the potential. In the past, the local state government tried to take the mega hydro-electric projects on its own with foreign funding, but the lack of counter-guarantees from New Delhi forced them to shelve the plans and hand over the projects to the National Hydro Electric Power Corporation (NHPC), which is often dubbed the East India Company for the imperial manner in which it exploits resources in Kashmir.
As of now, NHPC has four power projects operational in the state — Salal, Uri, Dul Hasti and Sewa-II. NHPC started its operations in India from Jammu and Kashmir when it commissioned the Salal project in 1975.
These four projects contribute 47 per cent to NHPC's cumulative generations. NHPC plans to add 329MW more to its capacity by commissioning three projects — Chutak (44MW), Uri-II (240 MW) and Nimo-Bazgo (45MW) — by March 2012.
Kashmir on its own has only managed to construct projects generating 750MW, far short of the demand for about 2,500MW.
NHPC's bad PR gets a fillip with the recent disclosure in the state assembly that the alarm-less silt flushing mechanism in NHPC dams has caused the loss of 25 lives. The state government is trying to force changes in its dams.
Forced by acute criticism, the state government decided to undertake new power projects in collaboration with the NHPC with an almost 50 per cent stake in it. The state-run power development corporation signed an agreement for a joint venture with the NHPC and Power Trading Corporation of India on 49:49:2 basis. The idea is to implement three Chenab basin projects with a cumulative installed capacity of 2,120MW (600MW Kiru, 1,000MW Pakal Dul and 520MW Kawar) on BOOM (build, own, operate and maintain) basis.
Kashmir sees IWT as a major obstacle in its development. Kashmiris feel that in the run-up to resolving their disputes, India and Pakistan have made them sacrificial goats. According to some estimates, Kashmir loses $1.3 billion annually on account of the prohibitions imposed by the IWT, because of which Kashmir cannot store water for generating electricity or for irrigation purposes. Due to IWT clauses, all hydro-electric projects in Indian Kashmir can only be "run of the river" type, which is costly and less efficient. An estimated 1.37 million hectares of land is devoid of irrigation facilities in Indian Kashmir due to restrictions imposed by the treaty.
Such is the intensity of the water conflict that former Pakistan prime minister Chaudhary Shujaat Hussain once warned that the water row will lead to all-out war between the two countries. He called for the immediate amendments of the IWT to make it relevant.
Some jihadi elements are labelling water as one of the reasons for waging war against India. Jamaat-u-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed (accused of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks) recently termed water as one of the important reasons for waging a militant struggle in Kashmir. With Kashmir already being a disputed zone, the addition of a water conflict makes it a lethal cocktail of instability.
One of the biggest culprits of the water shortages is climate change, which has shrunk most of the glaciers in Indian Kashmir. The change could not have arrived at a worse time, when water needs have increased manifold.
Shakil Romshoo, head of the Geology and Geophysics department at the University of Kashmir, has been part of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)-sponsored study on glaciers in Kashmir. He paints a gloomy picture. "Out of the 24 watersheds in the Jhelum basin, 17 are showing decline in discharge," Romshoo said.
Kashmir valley's biggest glacier, Kolahoi, is the worst hit. It is the lifeline of the valley and the source of the Jhelum. The 11-square-kilometre glacier is shrinking at 0.08 square kilometres a year. Till date, it has lost 2.63 square kilometres of its area.
Some of the smaller glaciers have altogether disappeared and some are on the verge of extinction. According to an Action Aid report on climate change in Kashmir, there has been an overall 21 per cent reduction in the glacier surface area in the Chenab basin, threatening another major river.
Experts fear even drinking water may one day be hard to come by. "Imagine a time when even drinking water supply is affected," Romshoo told a news agency. "Will the people of Kashmir allow waters to go to Pakistan?" It is this assertion of Kashmiris that is set to make the situation rocky over water in South Asia.
Haroon Mirani is a writer based in Srinagar, India.