Can we actually stop the flow of water to Pakistan?
As I had written in my first article on IWT, since the last several years now IWT is seen as being unfair towards India. Some experts want a review of the Treaty while others are seeking its abrogation. Many others are simply asking for stopping of flow of water to Pakistan to teach them a lesson.
Without getting into the argument of whether the Treaty can be scrapped, legally, morally or otherwise, or even whether it is a wise move, in this write up I will try to look at the practical aspects of stopping and storing the flow of waters to Pakistan that have been guaranteed to it by the Treaty. We will also look at the other option of diverting the waters that currently flow to Pakistan.
We will try to understand the ramifications of such actions – not the political, social, humanitarian, environmental fall outs, but just the physical aspects of stopping, storing or diverting such a large volume of water. Simply put, we will assess whether the call for stopping or diverting of water to Pakistan can be practically implemented i.e. is it physically possible to stop or divert the water from flowing to Pakistan.
For analyzing this we will need to differentiate between the Eastern (Sutlej, Beas, Ravi) and the Western (Chenab, Indus and Jhelum) Rivers. The unrestricted use of waters of the former three rivers is with India. As such, these three rivers need to be excluded from this analysis though it is worth mentioning here that even nearly 60 years after the Treaty was signed India has not been able to fully utilize its share of water from these three rivers.
With the exclusion of the Eastern river, the blockade of water to Pakistan would involve only the three Western which incidentally contribute more than 80% of the flow of the Indus basin. In volume terms the three Western rivers annually contribute 117 billion cubic metre (BCM) out of the annual average flow of Indus of 147 BCM. And as mentioned above, we will be looking at two possible options; (i) the stopping and storing this water and (ii) diverting the flow of these rivers to possibly the plains of north India.
In simple terms, to store this volume of water to a height of say 1 metre, we will require, every year, an area of more than 23 crore kanals (117,000 sq kms). To put it in perspective the total area of the 10 districts of Kashmir valley is only 3.2 crore kanals (16,350 sq kms). So, the flow of these rivers could, in just one year, inundated the Kashmir valley to a depth of more than 7 metre, i.e. up to the ridge of the roof of an average two storey house in Kashmir. It will require, every year, a valley the size of Kashmir to store the water that flows from the three Western rivers to Pakistan.
The said volume of 117BCM is enough to inundate in just one year the whole state of Punjab or Haryana to a depth of more than 2.5 metres.
The other way to visualise the magnitude of the storage requirement is to compare this volume of 117 BCM with some existing large storage reservoirs. For this comparison we can look at Bhakra Nangal reservoir (it is twice the size of next largest reservoir i.e. the Tehri dam) which has a storage of 9 BCM. So, the annual storage requirement for stopping the flow of the three Western rivers is equivalent to 13 storages the size of Bhakra Nangal. And just to reiterate this is an annual requirement not a one time requirement.
Without getting into the debate of where we can find land for such massive reservoirs, we might have a quick look at the timing aspect of such an action, i.e. when at the earliest can such a blockade be actually made effective. On an average, it takes 8 to 10 years to construct a large reservoir the size of Bhakra Nangal. So even if we start constructing such storage(s) today the actual impounding of the water would happen only in say 2030. Till then Pakistan will not actually feel the pinch of the impounding.
And to continue with this blockade we will need to complete the next lot of storages by 2031. And similarly, every year thereafter we will need to continue completing such large storages of around 117 BCM capacity to keep pace with the flows.
The above are simple high level calculations to get a feel of the scale of the storage reservoirs. We can briefly discuss more specially the storage potential of each of the three rivers. In my two earlier articles on IWT I had explained that the terrain and topography of the three Western river basins was just not suited to construction of large storages. With or without the Treaty, even if one wanted to construct large storages on these rivers the topography would not allow it. Besides the proposed storage for Busar HEP (already planned) on Chenab the other potential storage could be on Wular but again its capacity is very limited. We have seen in high floods its water are touching Narbal area on the outskirts of Srinagar. Any increase in water level in Wular will inundate Srinagar city itself.
With the storage option out let us explore the option of diverting the flows of these rivers to the plains of north India and may be use some of the flows to irrigate the deserts of Rajasthan and usher in a green revolution there. While discussing this option we need to keep in mind that when in last 60 years India have not been able to fully use the flows of the Eastern rivers, can it actually use the flows of the Western rivers whose annual discharge is 4 times that of the Eastern rivers.
For this diversion option, to keep things simple, we can for now study only the option of diverting the flows of Chenab since distance wise, amongst the three rivers, it is the nearest to Rajasthan. Diverting flows of a mighty river like Chenab poses enormous challenges in design, topography, terrain and geology making it just a desk top exercise which can never be undertaken on ground. Nonetheless let us look at the indicative costing and timelines of this impractical and impossible option.
For diverting the flows of Chenab we will need to excavate a ‘man made’ river. It would probably be a mix of channels and tunnels and its cost would be simply staggering. Imagine excavating a 600 kilometre long river, carrying a discharge capacity equivalent to half the peak discharge of Jhelum Sep 14 floods, through the mighty but treacherous Himalayas. Back of the envelope calculations put just the cost of just the ‘river’, excluding the land acquistions, storages and the associated irrigation canal network, in excess of Rs 360,000 crores (RS 3.6 lakh crores); that is nearly 5 times the recent annual budget of J&K. And its construction could take anything from 30 to 50 years. The total cost of the project would possibly be twice as much. And the environmental impact of such a project cannot even be approximated at this stage. And in any case Pakistan will not feel any impact of this for at least next 30 to 50 years.
So whatever we might be hearing or reading on the news channels and social media, clearly IWT cannot be fiddled and messed around with.