Water woes that haunt both India and Pakistan

irrigation-rep-image-reuters (Representational image) Severe shortage of water is affecting crop yield | Reuters

Our family evenings are never complete without the interesting stories that my father-in-law has to tell from his early teens, before the subcontinent was divided by the borders and he went to the now Indian side of Punjab to attend the festivals of different seasons. Many of his stories would start with “once I was so-and-so years old and had gone to a mela in Amritsar (or some seven other cities that is part of Indian Punjab). This 85-year-old man has a lot of good things to say about the people that live in a separate country now. Sadly, these seven decades since the partition have not been as merciful to the minds of the generations to succeed.

Many factions on both side of borders have been exploiting the desperation of people on either side, to instigate the emotions against the neighbouring country. As a result of this exploitation and propaganda, there are not-so-kind sentiments on both sides.

Today, every teenager in remote areas of Punjab has been “made aware” of the information that India is “stealing” Pakistan’s share of waters. There was a time when Pakistani political parties would talk about the core issues between India and Pakistan and the sharing of rivers, especially those flowing down from Kashmir. But lately, political parties have so many other issues on their plate that the major parties of mainstream politics hardly get to go there.

When authorities drop an issue that is important to the masses, there are always vultures that prey on those leftovers, and the same has happened to the water issue that was already not being handled all that well. To leave such issues to be hijacked makes the people even more vulnerable. The radicalised parties and factions have taken advantage of the situation to sway the minds of the people affected by the shortage of water for agricultural purposes and much affected crops – thus, the debts.

Jamat-e-Islami, the only religious party with electoral background and political footings in the remote areas of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, has a separate wing that concentrates on peasants and their issues in order to secure their support. This wing has been staging demonstrations from time to time, but the biggest demonstration was organised in 2015 in Lahore. Thousands of people came from all over Punjab to protest the severe shortage of water that had badly affected the crops and the answering of the call by Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Now, those who realise the tendencies of Jamaat-ud-Dawa and the ideals that the organisation stands for have been haunted by the protest and they say that the organisation is with the masses.

The dysfunctional religious groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (now banned in Pakistan) have taken the lead in exploiting the shortage of irrigation water, especially in Punjab. Repeated allegations of terrorism-supporting activities from different fronts has led to a permanent ban on Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Pakistan. But rather than shutting down, the organisation continues to exist under a different banner. Jamaat-ud-Dawa has penetrated the masses on micro level using this issue.

With India having 19 big and small dams on rivers Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi and Krishnaganga, and Pakistan slowly losing Ravi to some of them, Pakistani farmers look for answers in the country's resolve to build the Kalabagh Dam to fight the giant shortage of irrigation water.

When governments fail to provide these answers, the radicalised organisations replace the governments in this equation, providing the affected with a party to blame. The claims made and misinformation provided by these organisations gathers more weight when every now and then there comes a news of India building a new dam, however small it might be.

The canal system that was created during the British Raj had made this side of Punjab so fertile and self-sufficient in irrigation matters that for us, there was no concept of shortage of irrigation water. Now, something that was never in our imaginations for over a century has brought forward the frustration and desperation, but letting the radicalised organisations take benefit of it is something that is unfathomable. The youth of Pakistani Punjab is being manipulated and poisoned by anti-India sentiments, but what they do not get to know is the humanitarian aspect of life. They do not know that while they are facing the dire shortage of irrigation water, one of the major issues that India is dealing with is farmer suicides on a large scale.

However, there are voices of sanity that try to give us a reality check. In a TV interview a few years ago, Dr. Mubashar Hassan dismissed the claims of the host and the propaganda spreaders by wittily asking the host that if India was really stealing Pakistan’s share of water, where on earth was she hiding it? Dr. Hassan is a former finance minister and holds a PhD in hydrology/dams technology.

But there are only a few of such experts, and even fewer make it to the mainstream media. Thus, the people are being fed disinformation, and the agendas of the organisations that are using these vulnerabilities to their advantage are open secrets.

India and Pakistan, for the sake of the safety of their people, need to counter this propaganda, lest more and more people keep assuming while falling prey in the hands of these radicalised factions. Of late, governments of India and Pakistan have been taking steps to mend bridges, but in order to pave the ways of friendship, one has slay the demons that are breathing fire inside the country too. Both the countries should open dialogue on every other issue rather than waiting for Kashmir and cross-border terrorism conflicts to be resolved because, however trivial they may seem, the haunting issue of water is a concern for the future.

Huma Sadaf is a Lahore-based journalist and a human rights activist.

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