The Waters of Panjab
The very name 'Panjab' stands for abundance of water, but the present situation of water resources in the region is highly critical with water scarcity, water pollution, depletion of groundwater and insufficient drinking water. In Panjab, water is all the more meaningful because the very existence of Panjab depends on the waters of the five rivers. Moreover, water plays an important role in the spiritual and cultural beliefs of the Panjabis. The Panjabi Hindus use water for tirath isnaan (baths at places of pilgrimage) to purify the body and the Panjabi Muslims perform wudhu (ablutions) with it prior to performing namaz (prayers). The Panjabi Sikhs use it for amrit (baptism ceremonies) and have sarowars (tanks of water) at their Gurdwaras (Sikh places of worship). Accordingly, the rivers of Panjab are not only resources but also places of reverence and homage that have very important value for its people.
Having a semi-arid climate, Panjab is a severely water stressed region which suffers from periodic shortage of water that has serious consequences for its agriculture. Thus, irrigation has become crucial for food production and security. The waters of the five rivers are the main resource of Panjab but without proper water management, only limited agricultural development is possible. Detailed research, however, show that there are socio-political reasons for the water crisis and depletion of groundwater, which is a major cause for the looming environmental crisis.
Panjab is also exporting very large amounts of water in terms of ‘virtual water’. This is the water needed to grow crops exported to other parts of India and Pakistan, which depend on Panjab for food, cotton and other agricultural products. The water resources of Panjab are being used close to, and often beyond, its natural limits. In fact, both India and Pakistan are hopelessly inefficient in the way Panjab’s water resources are used. It is a major problem of mismanagement. The excessive use of water from the rivers of Panjab is already creating tensions between India and Pakistan. With climate change, the chances of an outright water war between these nuclear neighbours is highly likely.
The Indus Waters Treaty
The Partition of Panjab on 15 th August 1947 resulted in a conflict over the waters of the Indus River basin. The two countries, India and Pakistan, could not decide how to share and manage a previously cohesive and interconnected irrigation network. The dispute was finally resolved in September 1960 by the World Bank using engineering and technical principles with the Indus Waters Treaty and the creation of a permanent Indus Waters Commission. Under the terms of the Treaty, the waters of the Eastern Rivers (Ravi, Beas and Sutlej) were allocated to India and those of the Western Rivers (Indus, Jhelum and Chenab) to Pakistan.
New link canals and dams., which were financed by international institutions, were built to transfer water from the three Western Rivers to areas in West Panjab. The treaty, however, did not take into account the historical usage of the Indus River basin. In addition, factors such as the conservation of the natural environment, protection of ecosystems and sustainable water use were also overlooked. Not even the British had ever envisioned that it would be necessary to divide the intensive network of canals in Panjab. Not many Panjabis are aware that one of the conditions of the Indus Waters Treaty was the multilateral and integrated ecological and environmental conservation of the Indus Basin of Panjab. This provision of the agreement has never been fulfilled to the detriment of Panjab.
Riparian rights are the right of the owner of the land forming the bank of a river or stream to use water from the waterway for use on the land, such as for drinking water or irrigation. International Environmental Law upholds the underlying principle of riparian rights, which is when a river flows entirely within the territory of a state; its use depends on that state. The identical principle is applied in the Indian Constitution in Entry 17 of the List to the 7th Schedule of the constitution. In addition, the Constitution provides for irrigation and hydroelectric power to be controlled by the state when a river is within the boundaries of that state.
An international watercourse is an ecosystem to be protected and whose development has different effects on all riparian countries and should not be treated merely as a shared natural resource to be used. The best principle of allocation of water resources is common management, that combines the fact that watercourse basins are efficiently managed as an integrated whole and also the need to achieve equitable utilization.
Diversion of River Waters
Based on the Punjab Reorganisation Act 1966, India's share of the waters of the three Eastern rivers in Punjab state were allocated to different states. This was detailed in the Eradi Tribunal award in 1986 on the waters of Ravi and Beas rivers. As a result, Punjab state is allocated less than 25 % of the waters from its own rivers! (see table below) The remainder is being diverted to the states of Haryana and Rajasthan through the Bikaner, Sirhind, and Bhakra Main Line Canals. This is despite the fact that both these states are non-riparian states to the above rivers.
This has led to a lot of resentment by the Panjabis and the need for a greater share has been a demand by local people and regional political parties since 1966. Moreover, as per International Riparian and Environment Law, Punjab state has the inalienable right to fulfil its own requirements and only surplus to its needs should be supplied to other regions. In India, this policy is applied to all other states except Punjab state. The diversion of the river waters to other states has resulted in a shortage in meeting Punjab state’s need for irrigation water. This has forced the Panjabi farmers to dig tubewells and extract groundwater beyond its sustainable use. This, to a great extent, has led to the looming environmental crisis of water scarcity.
Origins of Water Conflict in Punjab State in India
The dispute over water is a direct consequence of the 1966 Punjab Reorganization Act, which created the states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh by dividing East Panjab. Large-scale projects were then implemented under central direction to distribute the waters of Punjab's rivers among the states of India. The Act also allowed for central power of mediation of disputes of water allocation and the control of all aspects of projects involving the rivers of Punjab state. All these were to the detriment of Punjab state. The Bhakra Dam and the Sutlej-Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal were planned to divert water from the rivers in Punjab state to Rajasthan and Haryana. The construction of canals and dams have upset the natural topography of the land and resulted in the environmental problems of flooding and water-logging in Punjab state.
Nadee-aa vaah vichhunni-aa maylaa sanjogee raam.
'The rivers and streams, which are separate
may sometime be reunited again'.
This Shabad is by Guru Nanak Sahib in Raag Asa
on page 439 of the Guru Granth Sahib.