10 September 2014

The dam way

By: Zubair A. Dar
Posted: September 10, 2014 

Apart from dredging the Jhelum, which would increase its carrying capacity, the state’s flood control policy has little to offer. (Source: Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi) Apart from dredging the Jhelum, which would increase its carrying capacity, the state’s flood control policy has little to offer. (Source: Express Photo by Shuaib Masoodi)

The floods in J&K — the worst in the last 50 years — also inundated a large part of the Kashmir Valley, which was hitherto thought to be safe from them. Common people as well as water policy experts are in shock. No amount of short-term relief will bring back what each household has lost. A gaping hole in the state’s flood management has been exposed.

After the shortage of essential supplies and threat of disease have been dealt with, the focus should shift to revamping the state’s flood management policy and widening it to include strategies that other parts of the world have successfully employed. There is no doubt that 15 inches of precipitation in a week will always be dangerous. Yet, its destructive capacity can be tempered. Right now, the state’s irrigation and flood control department has limited options. The dredging of rivers carried out in the last decade has not helped the situation. In fact, it has made it worse in certain cases — for example, the Doodhganga and Rambiyaar tributaries of the Jhelum. As the floodwaters carried a high sediment load, the sheer force swept away the bridges and roads that embank these turbulent streams.

To prevent flooding, low-lying areas should be used to strategically divert water in order to avoid the inundation of cities and towns. But in Kashmir, such areas, especially the ones around Srinagar, have either been converted into residential neighbourhoods or used for infrastructure projects. But even if these areas were available, the volume of water that causes major floods would far surpass their capacity. Apart from dredging the Jhelum, which would increase its carrying capacity, the state’s flood control policy has little to offer.

The state has a specific objective to generate electricity from run-of-the-river projects and has no dams. The construction of large dams is not permitted under the Indus Waters Treaty. As Kashmir is yet to fully exploit its run-of-the-river power generation potential, this was not seen as a limitation. But the state is vulnerable during intense precipitation, the incidence of which is likely to increase if global climate change patterns replicate themselves in the Himalayan region and intensify extreme weather conditions.

Strategically placed, dams could hold large quantities of water from the Jhelum’s tributaries. The confluence of the Veshav, Lidder and Rambiyaar into the Jhelum within a few kilometres of each other in south Kashmir could prove dangerous for Anantnag town and adjacent areas. This is a good example of where a dam could be employed to good effect. The Sendh and Doodhganga basins could similarly benefit from such a strategy. Wular lake near Sopore also presents a natural water-storage option. Its capacity to hold a large quantity of water could be enhanced, as envisaged by the Wular navigation project, to provide security against the threat of inundation in north Kashmir. But the projects would have to be accommodated by the Indus Waters Treaty first.

There are benefits for both sides — this year’s floods have killed people on each side of the Line of Control, a grim reminder of the 2010 floods in Pakistan. Despite its large dams and huge storage capacity, Pakistan was unable to prevent the devastation. Dams upstream on the Jhelum, Chenab and Indus, however, could have helped keep water levels low and prevent breaches. Policymakers in Pakistan must understand this well. However, the threat of dams being used as strategic weapons is something that has prevented the political leadership in Pakistan from recognising their larger benefit. The stalling of the Wular project on the Jhelum is a clear example of this mindset. The question is: how can the lack of trust be overcome?

The answer lies in the participation of J&K in future negotiations over the Indus waters. The state could wield greater control over the river waters, which should be distributed by the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty to provide Pakistan a guarantee against strategic wartime usage. Through collective monitoring and the exchange of real-time water discharge data, trust could be further built between water management authorities on each side. And given the fact that dams would be essential to control floods, holding back water would also be detrimental. For India, this would be a win-win situation. Industry and growing metropolises could use the hydropower generated in Kashmir. Power is central to India’s growing economy and hydropower provides an easy option for the country to decrease its reliance on coal.

Cooperation over water is not a new feature of India-Pakistan relations. In fact, it is the sole area where diplomacy between the two countries has been largely successful. Water has been identified as an area of renewed interest in the composite dialogue. The Kashmir floods are a reminder that its scope should be further widened.

The writer, a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, works on water policy and management in the Indus basin

- See more at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-dam-way/99/#sthash.6Y5LPE60.dpuf

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