Water a burning issue at Pakistan-India talks


ASK ANY of the Pakistani farmers who or what is to blame for the dusty soil and there is only one answer: India.

Water should flow for six months of the year through great irrigation canals that criss-cross Pakistan, ending in the narrow ditches that bring life to the yellowing fields of the prosaically named Chak 36, a rundown town outside Lahore.

Now though, as farmers prepare to flood the fields for rice production, they are all but empty. “It’s India and the dams they are building,” said Arshad Ahmad, the village headman, shaking his head. “They are affecting our water flows, it’s going to get worse.”

The issue is just one among many bitter disputes that bedevil relations between the nuclear rivals. Tomorrow, the two states’ foreign ministers will meet in Islamabad – the first time they will have done so since peace talks were called off in the wake of the deadly attacks on Mumbai in November 2008.

Kashmir, water, Afghanistan and reining in Pakistan’s terror groups are likely to be on the agenda as both sides try to ease years of mutual suspicion.

“There is no fixed agenda . . . all issues are on the table,” said Abdul Basit, Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman.

The two countries have been to war three times since partition in 1947. Relations broke down completely when 10 terrorist commandos launched an assault on Mumbai two years ago, killing 166 people, in an attack thought to have been orchestrated in Pakistan.

The recent thaw follows pressure on both sides from the US, which sees regional stability as a cornerstone of peace in Afghanistan. However, no one expects a rapid breakthrough.

Imtiaz Gul, a Pakistani analyst, said both sides needed a face-saving deal over Mumbai. Only then could more substantive issues be discussed. “This is just another step to the resumption of the bilateral dialogue,” he said.

For now, though, deep distrust remains. In Pakistan, a new breed of controversy-seeking TV chat show host is attracting millions of viewers every evening by peddling conspiracy theories that put the hand of New Delhi at the centre of any ill to befall Pakistan.

This year they seized on the issue of water, accusing India of diverting tributaries that feed into the mighty Indus River and thereby drying out the Punjab.

The concerns have been taken up by politicians who are always keen to criticise their giant neighbour. That anger has also attracted Jihadi groups with a history of fighting India in Kashmir, raising the possible spectre of a water war. In recent weeks, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group behind the Mumbai assault, has taken up the cause.

Hafiz Saeed, who now heads Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity which is widely believed to be a front for his terror group, has called on his followers to attack India. “The government must take practical steps to secure Pakistani water,” he told protesting farmers during a rally. “It is a matter of life and death for Pakistan.”

The Punjab is dominated by five rivers which rise in the Indian-controlled part of disputed Kashmir, before crossing the border and pouring into the Indus.

The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty was designed to ease Pakistani fears that India could choke off supply at times of war.

Pakistani campaigners believe the accord has broken down because India is taking too great a share to feed new hydropower plants and irrigate farmland.

Talks earlier this year in Lahore failed to make progress.

Hamid Malhi, co-ordinator of the Punjab Water Council, which represents farmers, said he believed the dispute could be resolved simply by amending the original treaty. “What we fear is that if they fill all the dams and barrages they are constructing, they have the ability to squeeze us any time they like,” he said.

Nothing will change until Pakistan and India begin talking again.