Has the Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project (KHEP) become another flashpoint for India and Pakistan? This 330 MW 3 unit project to generate 1713 million units of electricity annually was inaugurated by remote from Srinagar by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 19 May.
Pakistan retaliated to its construction by threatening to re-open this festering issue by demanding the World Bank to place this matter once again before an International Court of Arbitration.
India started work on KHEP way back in 2007. In 2010, Pakistan took the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), The Hague, which stayed the project for three years.
The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) gives Pakistan control over the waters of the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum and Pakistan's stand was that building of KHEP would involve changing the course of the Kishanganga thereby affecting its flow.
The problem is inextricably linked with the peculiar way in which rivers flow in north India. The Kishanganga is a tributary of the Jhelum and it originates in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, then flows from there into Jammu and Kashmir only to once again re-enter Pakistan.
The PCA ruled in India's favour green signalling the construction of the run-of-the-river plant. The conditionalities placed on India was that it lowers the height of the dam from 98 metres to 37 metres and ensure a minimum flow in the river of 9 cumecs (one cubic metre of water per second) both of which India agreed to adhere to.
Other restrictions placed by the PCA to which India complied was that there would be no draw downing of the dam, a process by which water levels of the dam are brought down to flush out the silt. But this is not allowed under the IWT.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator for South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People points out that the construction of KHEP has meant that even though it is a run-of-the-river project, water flows in the Kishanganga do get affected.
"In a normal run-of-the-river project, we divert water into a tunnel and then put it back into the river. Here we divert water of the Kishanganga, put it into a tunnel and then allow it to flow into the Jhelum," Thakkar said.
This he believes, could impact the Neelum (as the Kishanganga is called in Pakistan) Jhelum Hydro Electric project which was inaugurated by Pakistan prime minister Shahid Khaqm Abbasi last month.
Thakkar has other major objections to the setting up of KHEP which has been shown as a prodigious feat of engineering by Indian engineers and which has involved the building of a 23.24 km long tunnel using special state-of-the-art tunnel boring machinery.
"KHEP cannot be viewed as an economically viable venture. Every megawatt of electricity is costing the public exchequer Rs 10 crore. This means the NTPC will have to sell electricity at Rs 8-10 per unit to recover costs but the present electricity tariffs are between Rs 3-4 per unit so where is the question of their recovering the costs?" asked Thakkar.
But senior NTPC executives point that the construction of KHEP has to be viewed as a strategic victory for India vis-a-vis Pakistan and therefore the cost is of little consequence.
Former special envoy and veteran diplomat Satish Lamba believed Pakistan is overreacting to the KHEP construction. This overreaction can be gauged from the fact that with KHEP located close to the LoC, on November 2016, Pakistan resorted to firing near the dam site.
"I do not see the construction of KHEP being an infringement on the IWT. We are only completing a project which had started much earlier. I know they are once again taking up the matter to the International Court of Arbitration which has given a judgment on this earlier to which we have complied," said Lamba.
He went on to add, "India is building this project keeping in mind its own long term need for water. Of course, both countries are in need of water but Pakistan has gone ahead and built the Neelum-Jhelum hydro project on the Neelum (Kishanganga) also. I think it is time we put them (Pakistanis) in their place."
But the local Kashmiri population is also upset that they are going to receive only 12 percent of the power from the Kishanganga with the rest going into the national grid. This is seen as a major betrayal on the part of New Delhi which is presently using 3,000 MW of electricity generated from Jammu and Kashmir for the rest of the country leaving Jammu and Kashmir power starved.
Kashmiri commentator Wajahat Habibullah has pointed out that after visiting Gurez, he found that though the hydel project has used state-of-the-art machinery, the people of Gurez and its surrounding villages had no electricity, no water, no drainage, no public sanitation, no tarred roads and no hospital.
The Ratle Hydroelectric Plant is a run-of-the-mill hydroelectric power project under construction in the Chenab river downstream of the village Ratle near Drabshalla in the Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir.
The project includes a tall gravity dam and two power stations adjacent to one another with water being diverted from the dam through four large intake tunnels located south-west of the power station.
Once again, Pakistan has accused India of violating the IWT as it goes ahead with construction of the Ratle dam and this matter has also been taken up this matter with the ICA.
India can hardly be complacent on this issue because ICA re-opening this issue will depend on how much pressure Pakistan can place on the World Bank. Meanwhile, China has stepped in to show its solidarity with Pakistan and started work on building two mammoth Bhasha and Bunji dams on the river Indus in Gilgit-Baltistan at a cost of $27 billion. The entire installed hydro projects of Jammu and Kashmir will not equal the capacity of Bhasha Dam which is the smaller of the two projects and the electricity generated from both dams will be used by China.
China has also announced the building of 55 reservoirs on the Tibetan plateau and has announced plans to build 28 dams on the Brahmaputra river and its tributaries. This will immediately affect the water sharing balance in the North East and with Bangladesh.
Thakkar and other water experts are strongly opposed to the present government plan to build several large hydro projects on a single river basin as is being done with the Chenab.
Several projects are in the pipeline on the Chenab river for which there have been no proper cumulative studies on their impact on the environment.
"Once these projects are operationalised, they will have a multiplier impact ( mostly negative) on the environment of the region," Thakkar said.
What is even more alarming is that projects such as Bursar, Sawalkote and Pakul Dal are being pushed through even though the regional environment department has given it a negative report. Issues of ecology, seismic concerns and environmental flows needed to be addressed.
The main concern remains how in the long run, construction of a large number of hydro projects adversely impacts the flow of a river. Once the flow of a river is adversely affected, the entire ecology of the region gets affected.
Even more trenchant is his criticism of the multiple dams being constructed on the Chenab in Himachal Pradesh. "All the private players have pulled out of these projects because they were found to be unviable. Then surely the government also needed to have second thoughts about their viability," said Thakkar.
With the competitive dam building going on in the northern region and in the Tibetan peninsula, there is no doubt that the ecology of this entire sensitive mountainous zone is going to change irreversibly in the years to come.