Wullar Thorn Out Of Indo-Pak Talks18 August 2011
The Telegraph (Kolkata)
New Delhi: Ahead of another round of Indo-Pak water talks scheduled in mid-September, the Jammu and Kashmir government has quietly abandoned the controversy-ridden plan to construct a concrete barrage where the Jhelum meets the Wullar lake in north Kashmir. It’s a small move with big implications: a persistent irritant in bilateral ties, the dumping of the barrage could prove a significant confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan. Work on the venture, christened the Tulbul Navigation Project by New Delhi but better known as the Wullar barrage, was stopped two years after it commenced in 1984 upon strong objections from Pakistan which argued the lock-cum-control barrage would not only deprive it of water but could also be used as a “natural weapon” against it. Initial plans envisaged the construction of a barrage 439 feet high and 40 feet wide with a maximum storage capacity of 300,000 acre feet of water. One aim was to regulate the release of water from the natural storage in the lake to maintain a minimum draught of 4.5 feet in the Jhelum from Sopore to Baramulla, a critical stretch that often becomes non-navigable in the lean season. Other than the vastly shrunken Wullar lake being a key source of water, the Jhelum remains a major facilitator of commerce and transport in Kashmir. The Jammu and Kashmir minister for irrigation and flood control, Taj Mohiuddin, confirmed that the state government had resorted to alternative measures to prevent flooding in the Jhelum’s upper catchments and ensure navigability in the river. “We have given up the barrage project in favour of temporary rubber dams, which can work as effectively,” Mohiuddin told The Telegraph. “Why should we want to erect a huge concrete structure when modern technology allows us to solve problems with more flexible methods?” The Jammu and Kashmir government is looking at some US firms that have tested rubber damming to provide the technology and the expertise to install and run a flexible barrage at the Wullar-Jhelum intersection. Mohiuddin would not go into whether the move had been prompted by international dynamics at the expense of domestic Kashmiri concerns and necessity, nor would he speculate on how it would impact Indo-Pak ties. But he did say the barrage had become “an unnecessary source of tension and suspicions” between the neighbours. “We had not been able to move on the project, it was stalled, this new rubber damming technique can probably help us a win-win way out,” he said. He appeared convinced that the new initiative would “in no way” compromise the interests of the Kashmir Valley and yet address reservations that Pakistan has had with the erection of a concrete barrage. Simply put, this is not the abrogation of the Tulbul Navigation Project, merely an effective and probably acceptable amendment to it. “We have huge concerns that we need to take care of in Kashmir,” Mohiuddin said. “There is the annual problem of flooding, there are the immense difficulties with the navigation of the Jhelum in lean season and above all, there is the issue of reviving the Wullar itself.” Wullar, which is India’s largest freshwater lake - it contracts between 120 and 30 square km depending on the season - has become a major bio-diversity challenge having suffered decades of neglect and abuse. A massive rescue and restoration effort has been in sanction since 1990 when the lake was designated a Wetland of International Importance in recognition of its ecological and socio-economic significance. The ministry of environment, for one, has cleared a Rs 400-billion long-term restoration project which has struggled to become effective in a state recurrently rocked by violence and disorder.