Cooperative Mechanism to Save Kashmir Environment and Water Wars

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Iftikhar Gilani


The water issues between India and Pakistan may reach dangerous levels in the near future. With water resources drying up fast in Kashmir, the agriculture and economy of Pakistan will be badly hit. Pakistani authorities have, so far, consistently focused their efforts on making sure that India adheres to the provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) without realizing that that their water banks, be it of Wullar Lake or Indus line glaciers, have receded inwards by several miles since the treaty was signed. Since these glaciers and water bodies have no significant economic importance for India, it would be naive to expect the Indian exchequer to invest in saving these resources which directly benefit the Pakistani farmer. It is time that both countries address this issue seriously by building a mechanism to save these water banks and investing in reversing climate change affects in Kashmir. This paper analyses the implications and attempts to sensitize experts on the potential environmental catastrophe and calls for evolving corrective measures.


In an article published by the Washington Post on 28 January 2009, President Asif Ali Zardari described water as a major issue between Pakistan and India. He mentioned the serious consequences of an environmental catastrophe. He wrote: “The water crisis in Pakistan is directly linked to relations with India. Resolution could prevent an environmental catastrophe in South Asia, but failure to do so could fuel the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism.”

The Pakistan Indus Water Commission has been complaining of a reduced flow in the Chenab river at the Maralla headwork which has resulted in a loss of cropped areas in Lahore, Kasur, Okara, Sialkot, Hafizabad, Sheikhupura, Faisalabad and Jhang districts.  While Indian experts consider this as merely another attempt by Pakistan to bring in another catalyst for conflict, both countries have preferred to ignore the basic issues that cause water scarcity and will eventually influence their respective economies and diplomatic relations. Furthermore, the water issues are directly linked with economic growth and the overall wellbeing of Pakistan which is indirectly linked with stability – the absence of which provides fuel for terrorism.

It is believed that Pakistan’s water availability will  plunge to 800 cubic meters per person by 2020 against the current 1,200 cubic meters per person. Just 60 years ago 5,000 cubic meters of water was available to a Pakistani citizen.

India and Pakistan share six rivers of the Indus basin. These are grouped into two categories – the Western Rivers (the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum) and the Eastern Rivers (Sutlej, Ravi and Beas). Under the Indus Waters Treaty, India has comprehensive rights over the waters of the Eastern Rivers while Pakistan has the same over the waters of the Western Rivers. The treaty and its annexure are detailed technical documents which provide the guidelines to be followed on the usage of these waters. For instance, Pakistan can use the waters of the Western Rivers, however, India can also use them for irrigation purposes and is allowed to build run–of–the-river projects on them.

Pakistan depends on the Indus river, which starts in Tibet and runs through Ladakh on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir, before reaching it. There it is fed by numerous tributaries from the mountain glaciers and swells out as it flows down towards the Arabian Sea. A U.N. report notes that more than three-quarters of Pakistanis live in the Indus basin and its water irrigates 80 percent of the nation’s cropland.


Without going into an academic debate to discuss the Indus Waters Treaty and its fallout, let us focus here on some practical aspects. Since the signing of the treaty, water bodies in Kashmir have receded to dangerous levels.

A horrifying example of this is the pitiable condition of the Bari Nambal lagoon near Srinagar. Under the nose of the authorities this lake has turned into a marsh land. The absence of conservation measures has shrunk the area of this lagoon to just 0.50 sq kilometres during the past three decades.

The only remnants of this once sparkling lagoon are an unending stretch of horrible weeds, agricultural fields and muddy waters. This problem has been enhanced by the accumulation of tons of garbage including  non-biodegradable  polythene,  massive  encroachment  and the inflow of drains of the old city. Dumping of untreated sewage and garbage has changed this lagoon into dry mass.

The Jammu and Kashmir state pollution control board had procured a sewage treatment plant (STP), which has been non-functional for a few years. A scientific study has confirmed rising phosphate levels which confirm the sub-standard operation of the STP. Besides pollution, the lagoon has been extensively encroached. Shops and hutments have been constructed illegally without any proper check and nearly 17 drains pour wastage into this lake.

An identical fate haunts other nearby wetlands like Hokersar, Haigam, Shallabugh and Mirgund, which are the satellite wetlands of Wullar Lake and host thousands of migratory birds every year.

The Haigam Wetland Conservation Reserve, an important refuge for migratory waterfowls, shorebirds and trans-Himalayan species in winters has shrunk considerably as people of adjoining the villages have encroached on the land and started paddy cultivation. Environmentalists blame the government for it, as there are no conservation measures and monitoring mechanisms in place. In fact, the authorities constructed a road on the wetland’s boundary at Asthanpoora in 2007; disregarding the warnings by environmentalists that the vehicular traffic on the road will affect the habitat.

Environmentalist Mian Altaf, acknowledges deterioration of the wetlands in the valley, many of which are under threat due to reclamation for agriculture, development activities, contamination by sewage, agricultural run-off and siltation. Most of the wetlands in the lower Himalayan region are infested with aquatic weeds. The Trans-Himalayan wetlands are becoming fragile due to anthropogenic activities, growing tourism and faulty land management.

There is not a single water stream in Kashmir today which has not witnessed water depletion over the years. Analysis of the data collected from the eight districts of Kashmir, in a study sponsored by the Action Aid, shows that the water level in almost all the streams and rivers has decreased by about one-third, in some cases even by half, during the last 40 years. It is the water flow in the small streams and tributaries that finally determine the overall water availability in Kashmir’s three main rivers, namely, the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, which finally flow into Pakistan.


It has also been observed that the Himalyan glaciers are melting and receding faster than in any part of the world.  Muneer Ahmad of the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad, reported that the nose of the Kolhai glacier in Kashmir, one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas, had receded by almost 22 metres in 2007 while several smaller glaciers had disappeared completely.

Ajit Tyagi, Director General of the Indian Meteorological Department, warned that the glaciers could disappear even sooner if the earth continues to warm at its current rate. Almost 15,000 Himalayan glaciers form a unique reservoir which supports perennial rivers such as the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahamputra which, in turn, are the main source of fresh water for billions of people in South Asian countries.

Some scientists believe that clouds of pollutants – almost two miles thick – suspended over Asia may be a part of the problem. It was assumed that the clouds, caused mainly by domestic wood and dung fires and through the burning of forests and fields for agriculture, helped cool the land by filtering out sunlight.

However, it is now known that soot particles in the cloud actually absorb the sunlight and magnify solar heating on the ground by almost 50 percent.

While India has taken tough measures restricting tourist and pilgrim traffic to save the Gangetic glaciers, it tends to sidestep the Kashmir glaciers which are a source of water to the Indus and Jhelum. To whip up communal passions on land allotment to the Amarnath Yatra Board in Kashmir Valley last year, India’s Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) overlooked a report prepared by its own NDA member, Dr. Nitish Sengupta, in 1996 asking to regulate the Amarnath-bound pilgrims in order to preserve the fragile ecology and environment of the region. The forest land handed over to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB), at Baltal near Sonamarg, houses the Nehnar and Thajwasan glaciers. Ironically,  the  BJP  government  in  the  north  Indian  state  of Uttrakhand applied Dr. Sengupta’s report in Gangotri, where in May 2008 they issued a notification restricting the number of pilgrims and tourists visiting Gomukh, the source of the holy river, Ganga, to 150 a day.  Gomukh is as important a holy shrine for Hindus as Amarnath is in the southern mountains of Kashmir. Last year over 500,000 pilgrims visited the Kashmir Shrine over a period of two months and over 20,000 pilgrims were at the cave shrine against the recommended 3,000 per day.

Glaciologists have also warned of environmental degradation, ecological imbalance and adverse impact on the Nehnar glacier, situated at a height of 4200 meters around Baltal near Sonamarg, being caused by the heavy rush of pilgrims.

A paper presented in 2005 by Prof M.N. Kaul, a former principal Investigator on glaciology in the Department of Science and Technology in  India,  stated:  “The  ecology,  the  environment  and  the  health  of the glacier can be under severe threat in case the Baltal route to the holy cave was frequented by thousands of pilgrims.” Elaborating, he said, “there are 6500 glaciers in the Himalayan regions in India and out of which 3136 glaciers were in the mountain belt of Jammu and Kashmir… these glaciers constitute 13 per cent of the state’s total land and if allowed to assume strength year after year we can generate 80,000 MWs of electricity.”Referring to the Amarnath pilgrimage, he said “it is for the first time the Baltal route has been exposed to heavy pilgrim traffic which is likely to affect the ecological balance and the health of the Nehnar glacier.”

Environmentalists  have  often  raised  concern  that  pilgrims  not only defecate on the banks of the Indus river but throw tonnes of non- degradable items, such as polythene, directly into the river.  This has resulted in the deterioration of its water quality.  One expert, M R. D Kudangar, observed that the chemical oxygen demand of the river has been recorded between 17 and 92 mg/l which is beyond the permissible level.  Such enriched waters with hazardous chemical levels can in no way be recommended as potable.  It has crossed all permissible limits due to flow of sewage and open defecation.

It has been estimated that 55,000 kg of waste is generated on a daily basis during the pilgrimage. Apart from this waste, the degradation caused by buses and vehicles carrying pilgrims, trucks carrying provisions and massive deployment of security forces contribute further to air pollution. Another fallout is the threat posed to local inhabitants from crowding of the ecologically fragile area where they have to compete to retain their access and rights to resources.

Most countries have regulated tourist inflows into their mountainous regions.  India’s National Environment Policy itself calls for measures “to regulate tourist inflows into mountain regions to ensure that these remain within the  carrying  capacity  of  the  mountain  ecology.”   A UN sponsored study, ‘Mountains of Concrete: Dam Building in the Himalayas,’ has also predicted a dramatic decrease in flows in the Indus basin within 100 years.

The study undertaken by Sripad Dharmadhikari of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra for International Rivers predicts extreme changes in river flows due to global warming. As glaciers melt, water levels in the rivers will rise and dams would be subjected to much higher flows, thereby, raising concerns of dam safety, increased flooding and submergence. Furthermore, with the subsequent depletion of glaciers, annual flows would be much lower which would inevitably affect the performance of dams. These environmental issues and their impact should have been assessed in the planning stage before huge investments were made in the construction of these dams.

Half a billion people in the Himalaya-Hindu-Kush region and a quarter billion downstream who rely on glacial melt waters could be seriously affected. The current trends in glacial melt suggest that the Indus and other rivers may become seasonal rivers in the near future which will be harmful for the economies in the region.

Last year, a team of “The Energy Research Institute of India” (TERI) visited Kashmir to study some of these glaciers. The team, which was led by Professor Iqbal Hassnain, included an expert from Iceland.  The University of Kashmir also collaborated in the study.  They concentrated their studies on the Kolahoi glacier in the Pahalgam area, the largest in the valley. They also reported accelerated melting of glaciers and said it would be another tragedy in this environmental downslide.

An Action Aid report has also warned that melting of the Kashmri glaciers could trigger massive food security problems in the near future. According to the report, some of the glaciers have already disappeared as a result of which the discharge in streams has been significantly reduced. The report   which was basically a study that identified the impact of climatic change at the micro-level mentioned that a 21 percent overall reduction had been found in the glacier surface area of Chenab, a sub-basin of Indus. Of the major 327 glaciers in the Himalayas, 60 are in Kashmir and Ladakh. The report said while some of the glaciers have vanished, the surviving ones are fast shrinking. In Sindh valley, for instance, the Najwan Akal glacier has disappeared while the surviving trio – Thajwas, Zojila and Naranag – have shrunk considerably. The one feeding the Amarnath cave has been reduced by over 100 meters in a year. Similarly the Afarwat glacier near Gulmarg does not exist though once it happened to be 400 meters long.

The report further mentions that this phenomenon is not area specific but exists everywhere from north to south. As per the locals, almost all the major glaciers in south Kashmir – Hangipora, Naaginad Galgudi and Wandernad – are shrinking. It carries no supporting data which, in certain cases, was available with certain official agencies.

The report says that while snowfall and rainfall has reduced, the temperatures have risen. Barring certain water bodies that are spring fed, most of the streams are glacial-fed. Early-melting triggers massive discharge in rivers. However, the water bodies lack the adequate quantity once the peasantry starts tilling the fields. Further, early-melting triggers flash-floods and the fall in water discharge impacts agricultural production that, according to the report, is already affected by arbitrary land use.

The report has tried to link the possibility of heat-trapping gases in Kashmir’s “almost closed environment” with the melting of glaciers and other indications of climatic change. Kashmir’s forest area has also been considerably reduced from 37 percent to merely 11 percent.

Barely 20 years ago, the snow line in the Kashmir valley’s east was just above areas like Pahalgam and Sonmarg (3200m). “Currently the line has receded to Shiashnag area which is at an altitude of 5000m only. Same is true of the Pirpanjal mountain range in the west where the snow line was above Kongwatan and Zaznar (3000-3500m).”

Most of the glaciers of the Great Himalayan range, from Harmuk to Drungdrung including Thajiwas, Kolahoi, Machoie, Kangrez, Shafat, have receded (4000-5000m) during the last 50 years.   According to testimonies of villagers in Choolan area located in the Shamasbari mountain range in North Kashmir, the nearby glacier, namely Katha, has reduced from 200 feet to 80 feet during the past 40 years. Similarly, people living around Tangmarg and Gulmarg in North Kashmir say the height of the Budrukot glacier in the area has been reduced from 16 feet to only 5 feet.

The  Khujwan  glacier  in  the  mountains  of  the  Kichama  area has shrunk from 40 feet to only 20 feet. The Afarwat glacier around Nambalnar Hajibal area, which used to be 300 feet long 40 years ago has completely disappeared.

Fifty years ago, 8000 sq km of the Chenab basin was under glaciers. Permanent and ephemeral snow cover would contribute huge quantities of water during the summer to this river through numerous perennial tributaries. Now it has only 4100 sq km of snow covered area. In the Pirpanjal range there is hardly any remnant of glaciers.  The terminal morains at Akhal(Rajpora) in Romshi river, Dubjan in Rambiyara river and Gurwatan in Veshuv river bear the testimony that the glaciers once extended up to these places. If this situation continues then all rivers flowing from Pirpanjal range will lose their perenniality and become ephemeral.


Another source of concern along with receding water levels is the increased level of pollutants. Gypsum mines operational in Uri, the last station of River Jheulum before crossing LoC, have polluted the water to such an extent that 30 percent of the population has been plagued with water borne diseases including tuberculoses. Besides Gypsum the series of toilets constructed on the banks of Naloosa stream by the Army has added further woes.

A scientific study on the   river Jhelum has found waters turning acidic. When one moves from Verinag to Baramulla (downstream) there containing substances and iron. This is accompanied by a massive depletion of essential chlorides. The river water has accumulated all the harmful chemical compositions which are not only affecting the human population but also the flora and fauna that exist within the two banks. One species of fish has already vanished and the factors put forward by the experts do not exclude the pollution crisis.

Out of Jhelum’s 997.79 Kms length, 241kms are in the Kashmir Valley. The volume of contaminants added to it in this small length are enormous. A  crude assessment reveals that millions of tons of solid waste, municipal garbage and sewage from human settlements flow directly into the river. The valley lacks tanneries, however, the wastes from brick kilns and other small scale industrial units are more hazardous to the health of the river.

Hospital wastes are also being directly added to the river in all the major towns. These hospitals and nursing homes are continuously evading the installation of systems which would decompose and destroy bio-degradable and other hazardous wastes.

Besides the main urban settlements – Anantnag, Bejbehara, Pampore, Srinagar, Pattan, Baramulla, Sopore and Uri – the villages are also adding a considerable amount of sewage. This excludes the pollution tapped by 17 of its tributaries which jointly drain a sprawling area of 11,353 Sq Kms in south, north and the central Kashmir. Human excretions and agricultural wastes are the main contribution to the water-body from villages. Investigations have revealed that pesticides, insecticides, weedicides and fertilizers have definitely added to the change of water chemistry of the river.

In Srinagar, the Urban Environmental Engineering Division (UEED) operates 52 de-watering units.  35 of them flow directly and the rest indirectly into Jhelum.  Usually these pumps run for five hours daily and in wet seasons for 20 hours. Each of these units adds 3,000 cfts of sewage to the river every second.

A research scholar at the Department of Environmental Science in the University of Kashmir had found that 525-575 cubic metres of solid waste in a 35 kms area in Srinagar was drained into the river Jhelum. In Anantnag town, 10MLD of liquid waste is pumped into the  river .The town generates 25 cubic meters of solid water every day of which only 18 cm is being treated by the authorities. Other major towns like Sopore and Baramulla towns pour 20 and 10 MLDs, respectively, of waste water into the river.

A survey conducted by the Jammu and Kashmir State Pollution Control Board (JKPCB) found that the chemical oxygen demand (COD) value was beyond permissible limits over the entire stretch due to untreated sewage through various drains. The average COD value does not even confirm the designated best-used criteria for drinking purposes.

Another study by the Central Soil and Water Research and Training Institute reveals that the Jammu & Kashmir state losses over 5,334 million tones of soil, annually. While 29 percent of the eroded land is being permanently lost in the sea, 10 percent is deposited as silt in water bodies and 61 percent is displaced. Only 34 percent of the overall soil has negligible erosion.


For over 30 years India and Pakistan have been engaged in discussing the Wullar Barrage or Tulbul Navigation project. They have, however, ignored the basic health of the Wullar lake which is a major water bank and vital reservoir for Pakistan.

The Wullar Lake is the main source of water to the river Jhelum which is the lifeline for the Punjab and Sindh plains. India and Pakistan are engaged in settling the disputes over the Wullar barrage and Tulbul navigation lock, however, the health of the lake, despite the alarm bells ringing from a shocking report prepared by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in collaboration with TATA, has been completely ignored.

34°16’N – 74°33’E,  between the Sopore and Bandipur townships in north Kashmir. It plays a significant role in the hydrographic system of the Kashmir valley by acting as a huge reservoir and absorbs the high annual floodwater of the river Jehlum. In recognition of its biological, hydrological and socio-economic values, the lake was included in 1986 as a Wetland of National Importance under the Wetlands Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India for intensive  conservation  and  management  purposes.  Subsequently  in 1990, it was designated as a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention.

The IWMI report says sewage disposal, weed infestation, catchment problems, sedimentation and excessive willow plantation have badly damaged this lake which is a life line for Pakistan’s water reservoirs. Recommending more funds to preserve the lake, the report points out that it yields a benefit to the tune of Rs 2.19 billion per annum. It is the only source of water for approximately 60,000 villagers in Jammu and Kashmir and helps in paddy cultivation in the catchment area of 83,000 hectares.

The report underlined that Jhelum, Kashmir’s main river, is bringing dirt and refuge from adjoining towns and habitations to the entire south and central Kashmir route spanning 140 km and dumping it into the Wullar lake. Similarly, 12 different rivulets of north Kashmir that are adding tonnes of organic and inorganic waste in the lake every day.

Moreover, the Indian navy’s only outpost in the form of highly skilled Marine Commandos (Marcos), an elite Special Forces unit, is located in this lake for counter-insurgency operations since 1995 but it too has never bothered to clean up the lake.

Experts believe that the condition of the lake has already reached a dangerous stage that stimulates the growth of aquatic plants resulting in the depletion of dissolved oxygen. They say it is high time that both India and Pakistan join their efforts and resources to conserve this crucial water reservoir.

While the Wetland Directory published by the Indian government puts the lakes area at 189 sq Kms, the Survey of India maps reduce it to 58.7 sq kms.  At the highest flood level of 1579 metres the lake area is 173 sq kms.  Revenue records, however, show 130 sq kms as the lake area, of which around 60 sq kms are under agricultural use.  When out of power, Union Minister for Water Resources Prof. Saifuddin Soz, who had led a campaign to save this lake, divulged  that the lake had shrunk from its earlier area of 200 sq kms to barely 24 sq kms.

Through satellite imagery, the Jammu and Kashmir Directorate of Environment and Remote Sensing (DEARS), found that the lake has shrunk from 202 sq kms to 65 sq kms of which 30 sq kms are witnessing massive vegetation and may result in eutrophication. Of the solidified lake, 35 sq kms stand encroached by the state government alone.


The on-the-ground picture may be more horrific than what is portrayed in this paper. The paper has also deliberately avoided taking up environmental concerns emanating out of the increasing military activities along the Siachen glacier. The paper primarily focused on issues that have yet to be dealt with but can easily be a part of future India-Pakistan diplomatic deliberations.

Terrorism may be a biggest threat devouring innocent lives in the region, however, the environmental catastrophe affects generations and costs more lives than any other calamity. Therefore, it is surprising that these issues have not received much attention.

It is imperative for both India and Pakistan to evolve a mechanism beyond the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) and water sharing negotiations to save the actual sources of water. There is greater need to set up a cooperative mechanism to govern and protect resources across the LoC. One cannot expect the Indian exchequer to invest on protecting resources that do not directly benefit India. It is the Pakistani farmer who has a vested interest in the protection of resources in Kashmir.

SAARC’s mandate could also be expanded to include greater cooperation on environmental issues. Monitoring committees for resource management should be set up, and knowledge and data sharing mechanisms should be enhanced in order to foster greater environmental cooperation.

Security can no longer be confined to national security threats or international relations. Environmental changes have now been listed as security threats. Richard Ullman has defined threat as “…anything which can degrade the quality of life of the inhabitants of a state, or which narrows the choices available to people and organizations within the state.”  It is time, therefore, for both India and Pakistan to re-define their strategies and attend to this issue which, if not addressed, will have a devastating impact on the lives and wellbeing of their people.


1.            P. Stobdeon, IDSA papers Pakistan Raises Water Issues

2.            Indus Water Treaty: Zardari ups the ante on Water Issues Arvind Gupt January 30, 2009

3.            Uttam Sinha, “India and Pakistan: Introspecting the Indus Treaty,”   Strategic Analysis, vol. 32, issue 6 November 2008, p. 963.

4.            From Encroachments, Pollution, Constructions, Official Apathy ARIF SHAFI WAN, Greater Kashmir

5.            Log Jam Street Ecological costs can deflate the GDP’s bounce

6.            Perennial Floods in South Asia: Need for Environmental Diplomacy Avinash Godbole Research Assistant

7.            India would make Pakistan barren by 2014, says Jamaat Ali Shah, Daily Times

8.            Himalayan glaciers ‘could disappear completely by 2035’, Daily Times

9.            [editorial-Greater Kashmir- November 13, 2008]

10.  Notification of Uttrakhand Government, May 28, 2008

11.  A paper by Prof M.N. Kaul, 2005.

12.  A study ‘Mountains of Concrete: Dam Building in the Himalayas,’

13.  Action Aid report on Kashmir glaciers

14.  Gypsum mining in Uri, Shabir Ibn Yusuf,, Kashmir Times

15.  Shahid Ahmad Wani Research scholar in the Department of Environmental Science University of Kashmir.

16.  A survey conducted by the J&K State Pollution Control Board (JKPCB)

17.  A report by Central Soil and Water Research and Training Institute

18.  Richard Ulhmn   Redefining Security