Kashmir historian Kalhan Pandit (mid-12th century) has made a mention of river Krishnaganga several times in his chronicle Rajatarangini and has also given some useful hints about its geographical location and the region through which it flows.
Geographical sources tell us that the Krishnaganga River called Neelam in Pakistan originates from Krishnasar Lake in a glaciated region North of Sonamarg area in Kashmir. Running northwards to village Baroab, it meets a tributary from the Kabul Gali west of Dras area and then runs westwards along the Line of Control in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. (Majid Hussain (1998). Geography of Jammu and Kashmir, Rajesh Publications, 1998. p. 13). It enters Pakistan occupied part of Jammu and Kashmir across the Line of Control beyond Kanzalwan in the Gurez sector, and then runs west until it meets the Jhelum at a place called Domel near Muzaffarabad in PoK. (The Neelum Plan, rediff. Retrieved 2009-11-15). The Kishanganga/Neelum River is 245 kilometres long, it covers 50 kilometres in Jammu and Kashmir and the remaining 195 kilometres in PoK.
The Kishanganga hydro-electric power project designed by India in 2009 and completed and inaugurated on 19 May 2018, involved the diversion of the Kishanganga river into an underground powerhouse near Bandipur and the discharge of the water into the Wular lake. Also, a 37 metre high concrete dam was constructed in Gurez valley of Bandipora. The projects’ total cost is estimated to be Rs 5,882 crore.
The Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project (NJHP) of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) is diverting the water of River Neelum from Nauseri, 41 kilometres northeast of Muzaffarabad through a tunnel passing under the River Jhelum. The outfall tunnel is at Zaminabad, 25 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad.
The issue is wrapped in the story of rivalry between India and Pakistan beginning with the partition of India in 1947. Apart from political dimension of Kashmir issue, water has been a bone of contention between the two states that are at loggerheads. In late 1950s, both accepted the mediation of World Bank and agreed to sign what is now called Indus Water Treaty. The two sides committed themselves to standing by this agreement. However, with the passage of time differences in interpretation and practical implementation of the clauses of the treaty remained a source of friction. In such situations, they have been approaching the World Bank for disposing of their complaints and the WB has been responding to their approach.
The Treaty has laid down the broad principles to be followed when any one of the two countries intends to utilise the waters of the rivers allotted to them under the auspices of the Treaty. In 2007, India began the construction on a run-of-the-river power station on the Kishanganga (Neelum) River upstream of the Neelum–Jhelum Dam project of POK.
Pakistan protested against this move of India arguing that the project would divert 10 per cent of the river’s flow while other estimates stand as high as 33 per cent. Nevertheless, water flow below the Neelam–Jhelum Dam, in POK’s Neelam Valley, is expected to be minimal as both projects are diverting water to the Jhelum River. This has the potential of adversely impacting the ecology of the Neelam Valley and the proposed 350 MW Athmuqam hydropower project by Pakistan.
In 2010, Pakistan took the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague arguing that India’s Kishanganga hydro-electric power project violated the Indus Water Treaty by increasing the catchment of the Jhelum River and depriving Pakistan of its water rights. In June 2011, the Court or Arbitration delegation visited both sites, the Kishanganga and Neelam–Jhelum Projects. In August 2011, they ordered India to submit more technical data on the project. However, prior to that, India had reduced the height of the dam from 98 m (322 ft) to 37 m (121 ft). After their application was first rejected, the court asked India in late September to stop constructing any permanent works that would inhibit restoration of the river. While India could not construct the dam, she continued the work on the tunnel and power plant. In February 2013 The Hague Court ruled that India could divert a minimum of water for the Kishanganga Hydroelectric Plant.
Rebuffed by the WB, in 2008 Pakistan resumed its work of completing the diversion of the water of Kishanganga to the underground power generating plant. The Neelum–Jhelum Hydropower Plant is also a part of the run-of-the-river hydroelectric power scheme in PoK. Under this scheme, the water of Neelam (Kishan Ganga) river is diverted to an underground power station 42 km (26 mi) south of the town of Muzaffarabad with an installed capacity of 969 MW.
Construction on this project began in 2008 after a Chinese consortium was awarded the construction contract in July 2007. However, the actual construction work was delayed for many years and the first generator was commissioned in April 2018 and the entire project is completed in August 2018 when the fourth and last unit was synchronized with the national grid on 13 August and attained its maximum generation capacity of 969 MW on August 14, 2018.
This, in short, is the background of new trouble arising in POK by way of reaction of the local people to the NJHP of Pakistan. People in Muzaffarabad and some more towns of POK have staged massive demonstrations against the diversion of the waters of Neelam. Actually, the protesting multitudes recall the scruffy treatment meted out by Pakistan to the people of Mirpur when many years ago Mangla dam was constructed on the Jhelum. They fear they will have to meet the same fate as the people of Mirpur.
Under the headline ‘Muzaffarabad observes shutter down against diversion of Neelam River’ the prestigious Pakistani English newspaper Dawn of 11 January 2019 informed that the “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” (AJK) capital witnessed a complete shutter down strike on Thursday against the environmental issues caused by the diversion of Neelum River for commissioning Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project (NJH). It said, “The strike call was given by an alliance of civil society activists who include lawyers, traders, political workers and students under the banner of “Darya Bachao, Muzaffarabad Bachao (Save River, Save Muzaffarabad) Committee.”
The committee has been persistently organising different events to draw the attention of the authorities concerned towards serious environmental issues following reduced water discharge in Neelam river beyond Nauseri – the composite dam site of NJHP– from where water is diverted through a tunnel system to the powerhouse in Chattar Klass.
What is the “environmental issue” that has become the rallying point for the people of Muzaffarabad and some more towns of POK? The answer to this question can be gleaned from a press release issued by the POK administration after speculations started about the shortage of potable water in Muzaffarabad in the aftermath of the diversion of the river’s water. It said, “Since the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) is to initiate the process for filling of dam at Nauseri from October 16, it runs the risk of the city affecting water supply within the city, Though the PHED will try to control the situation with its full capacity, yet the urban population should be informed to avoid being wasteful with water and instead use it judiciously”. The release added, “There prevails an impression that due to the filling of the dam the river will completely dry up, affecting badly the areas downstream Nauseri, and that it will leave a foul smell due to the less discharge of water… We want to make it clear that the whole water of the river will not be diverted at any cost,” said the NJHP administration.”
Quoting a press release of Jammu Kashmir Awami Workers Party (JKAWP) which had staged a protest outside National Press Club Islamabad against the ‘state-created’ ecological crises being faced by the residents of Muzaffarabad, the Express Tribune of 22 January 2019 said the main crisis is the catastrophic reduction of water in the Neelam River flowing inside Muzaffarabad. The river has almost dried from Nausari to Muzaffarabad after the inauguration of Neelam Jhelum Hydropower project, owing to diversion of 90 per cent of the river water to the tunnel from Nausari. This repudiates the claim of the authorities that only 20 per cent of the water has been diverted. The J&K Awami Workers Party (JKAWP) Chairperson Mr Nisar Shah Advocate said it is very unfortunate that the government of Pakistan is only interested in generating electricity from the waters of Kashmir. Meanwhile, it has totally failed to protect the rights of local people and the government.
The Business Times of 15 October had reported that the exiled political activists from POK gathered outside the Parliament in Brussels to protest against the atrocities and plundering of resources in the region. The activists raised slogans against Pakistan blaming it for the construction of the Neelam-Jhelum Hydro Power Project while the masses of people were reeling under abject poverty.
What is at the root of peoples’ resentment is the embedded impression that Islamabad is trying to serve the interests of the people of only Punjab at the cost of the interests of other nationalities. This is also the root cause of resentment among the Baluch and the Sindhi people. The Pakhtuns have a long-standing grouse that they have been subjected to divide and rule policy inherited from the colonialists. Thousands of families were dislocated in Mirpur when Mangla dam was built. They were made to suffer the trauma of homelessness for a long time because alternate accommodations were not available. Islamabad regimes turned a deaf ear to the demands of the people of AJK for payment of royalty accruing to them from the electricity produced from Mangla dam and supplied to Punjab. Moreover, electricity produced from Mangla dam is supplied to entire Punjab while the villages of POK though close to the site of the dam are deprived of the same. Thousands of POK youth had to leave their homes and hearths and migrate to western countries as labourers and servants to make both ends meet since there were no industries and no employment opportunities in PoK. The truth is that Islamabad is diverting maximum resources towards the development of Punjab. The NJHP is the latest example.
Yet there is another significant and noteworthy aspect of the NJHP project. Diversion of the waters of Neelam violates the Security Council’s resolutions on Kashmir wherein the stipulation is that nothing will be done by Pakistan to change the status quo in the State of Jammu and Kashmir. PoK is a disputed area between India and Pakistan. India has already lodged a protest with the Security Council that Pakistan is engaged in illegal activities in PoK. She has lodged a protest against Pakistan allowing China to build the Karakorum Highway across the disputed territory.
Many people in PoK have come to the conclusion that it is the calculated policy of Islamabad to bring about the ecological disaster to the Neelam Valley. For quite some time in the past, the people of these areas have been protesting against Pakistani army and ISI raising terrorist camps along a large area of LoC where Kashmiri recruits are given training in terrorist strikes and then are sent back in the valley. They have brought out protest rallies demanding that terrorist training camps be wound up from Neelam valley for two reasons. One is that the recruits receiving training in these terrorist camps are undesirable persons with nefarious designs and a sub-human culture likely to spoil their youth, and secondly, Indian security forces often pound these terrorist camps with artillery fire and many a time civilian sites become the targets resulting in a loss of precious lives and property. They believe that diversion of the water of Neelam and turning it into a dry nullah is the subtle way of punishing the people for voicing resentment against ISI’s designs.
The POK Diaspora world-wide has voiced its resentment against the selfish and arbitrary action of Islamabad in diverting the water of the Neelam. Their opposition will escalate as time rolls by. To argue that the diverted water goes back to Jhelum brings no relief to the people who will be struggling for a bottle of fresh water in days to come.