** This blog is part of AlertNet's special multimedia report on water. Visit "The Battle for Water" for more**
By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - The snow-fed rivers that run from the Himalayas are the lifeline for more than one billion people in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh living on the so-called Indo-Gangetic plains. The rivers sustain major cities including New Delhi, Islamabad and Dhaka as well as vital breadbasket regions, making the area one of the world's most densely populated and intensely farmed.
But the Himalayan rivers are increasingly becoming a bone of contention, particularly between bitter rivals India and Pakistan. Many of them run through the remote mountainous region of Kashmir in India, before flowing across the border downstream into Pakistan where 80 percent of irrigated agriculture is dependent on their waters.
Power-starved India's plans to build a series of hydroelectric dams in Kashmir are upping tensions with downstream Pakistan, which fears the dams will disrupt the flow of waters affecting everything from its drinking water to agriculture. In the latest in a series of disputes over dam building in Kashmir, Islamabad raised a red flag over the 330 MW dam project on the Kishanganga river in 2010 at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, saying New Delhi had violated the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty governing the sharing of waters between the two nations.
Pakistan fears the hydroelectric dam on the Kishanganga will damage its irrigation capacity, affect its food production, and reduce its hydroelectricity capacity. Pakistan got a stay order and, although India can continue some work such as tunnelling, it cannot do any permanent work on the river - known as the Neelum in Pakistan - until a final settlement.
India says its dams don't consume or store water, but just briefly delay it which is in line with the 1960 pact. Its energy needs are huge - not just in Kashmir, but throughout the country where 40 percent of the population do not have electricity. Many in Indian Kashmir talk of living in "power misery" especially in the cold winter months where power cuts are common, and people suffer in sub-zero temperatures.
India plans at least 25 hydroelectric projects to harness the Himalayan waters, some of which are not transboundary. These include the Pandoh dam in the country's northern Himachal Pradesh state, which uses the waters of the Beas river to generate 990 MW of power. Analysts say these dams are also vital for economic growth, as a severe power shortage is hitting factory output, stifling further an economy which is growing at its slowest in years.
With historical tensions, mistrust and rivalry plaguing relations between India and Pakistan, analysts say water is likely to add another layer of volatility which could spill into conflict as climate change, population growth and water scarcity take their toll in the coming decades.