Guest post by Noreen Haider, a journalist and policy analyst based in Lahore, Pakistan.
It is indeed a reality that sixty four years ago India and Pakistan appeared as two independent countries on the map of the world and people on both side of the border accepted the existence of these two sovereign countries. Yet no matter what the geo-political and geographical divides may be, it is impossible to ignore the physical reality that the natural resources of this land predated these borders and remain one ecological system.
India and Pakistan may be two separate countries but they are naturally joined together at the border line stretching across thousands of miles. In fact there is no physical divide between the two countries like mountains, or sea, or even rivers. Rather the rivers are the constant and continuous connection between the two neighbors, which are more like Siamese twins.
The rivers more than any other physical feature demonstrate how nature knows no boundaries. The rivers are the lifeline of civilizations, custodians of cultures, song, music, dance, food, dress and poetry. Rivers are like the eternal guardians of cities, of cultivation and growth, of sustenance and hope, of joys and sorrow, of ebb and flow. The rivers know no boundaries. They are the symbols of progress and travel, the quest for knowledge and they represent the ever present natural channels of man’s eternal voyage. For centuries man has traveled on and along rivers to seek new possibilities and new lands. They rivers symbolize life itself and traveling along a river has always meant a journey from hope to hope, from people to people however far apart along the way.
In the context of India and Pakistan not even a single river creates a dividing line, rather all the rivers that flow from East Punjab to West Punjab and the rivers coming from North plunging into Indus, eventually come together and blissfully lose their identities as one as they continue their final journey and fall into the Arabian Sea.
This rhythm of life had been the heartbeat of the region called Punjab. The rivers are loved and worshiped by the people for centuries and their waters treated as sacred for they sustain the land and everything on it. These sacred rivers were cherished by the people of this land for centuries because they realized their importance. Poetry was written and songs were sung in praise of the beautiful rivers. Hundreds of stories and romantic folklore associated with the rivers forms a major part of the literature of all the languages spoken along the rivers. But then after the partition what really happened to alienate the people from their rivers? Why they are not revered anymore? Why have they become the target of petty politics? Have they become less important?
India and Pakistan have been constantly fighting over rivers and although after the Indus Water Treaty a formula was reached regarding sharing of rivers but the bickering has not stopped to date. There is a constant tug of war between the two countries regarding the sharing of water? There are many political and strategic reasons given for this and although there have been Water Commissions set up and constant high level delegations exchanged for deliberations but both parties seem unsatisfied over the division of river waters.
The arguments are really old so there is no point repeating them but the bottom line is the same. Each country wants to have the maximum benefit from the rivers for its own vested interests, its own people and its own geo-political strategic reasons. But it seems that no one has as yet thought of the Right of Rivers in all this tug of war. It is the basic right of the river is to run and live as the important symbol of life and civilization itself. No government can be given the right to kill a river for any reason no matter how strategically important. The rivers were here much before the people, the countries, governments and politics and they have the oldest claim to the land and the right of way to flow on its natural course and complete the cycle of life.
In the Indo-Pak Regional Conference on Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction this topic was revisited after a long time. The Conference held in Lahore from 8th July to 9th July 2011 was a very important event in terms of its being held in Pakistan and providing the platform to learned speakers and informed audience to speak on cross border cooperation on a number of issues relating to climate change, water sharing, rivers and disaster management.
The Conference was organized under the auspices of the "Young Global Leaders" program of the World Economic Forum with key leadership shown by Malini Mehra CEO of the Centre for Social Markets in India and hosted by the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). The organizers and sponsors that included Beaconhouse Public Schools, Aman-ki-Asha initiative of the Jang Group, Express News and the foreign missions of the United Kingdom and Norway, did a superb job in bringing together people from India, Pakistan and from all over the world who not only talked at length about the various dimensions of regional cooperation but also provided a chance for the enlightened and educated youth of Pakistan to have a firsthand knowledge about the importance of sharing and cooperation. The reality is that the rivers and clouds know no boundaries made by man. They follow their own paths and their own terrains. The climatic changes that are occurring are not country specific and the impact of these changes is also not country specific.
The global climate change are effecting regions in ever evolving patterns and people across a region have to be better prepared than ever to cope with the new dimensions of the climate changes in order to have better control over its implication like unusual natural hazards that may occur. The case in point is the torrential flooding that has now been experienced in China, Pakistan, and India. In fact the phenomenon of climate change is still being observed and its direct relation to many of the abnormal weather patterns and hazards is still not fully established however this makes it even more important to be prepared for it. The climatic changes and its eventualities have to be understood and very high levels of cooperation in terms of data sharing, technology sharing, planning and preparation is needed between regional countries in order to prevent and mitigate disasters.
It has to be understood that no matter how deep the political differences may be on certain issues there must be an agreement to compromise, and cooperate on issues of regional importance such as disaster mitigation, sharing of river waters and risk reduction between India and Pakistan.
Another aim of the conference was for that for the first time in Pakistan there should be more state to state cooperation between the two Punjabs in India and Pakistan. As the Punjab was one land just a few years ago there is a great deal that is not even similar but same across the border with regards to the land, rivers and cultures. The natural phenomenon that effect people in Punjab actually have effect on both sides so there is a great deal of space for cooperation in many different ways. Professor Menon, Former Member of Disaster Management Authority GOI, that joined the conference via Skype from India shared some fascinating ways in which technology in India was being used and can be even used in an improved manner for early warning in case of hazards, He shared how the technology in India has allowed them to make precise predictions of the inundation levels and outreach and that has helped in saving countless lives and livestock before the actual flooding occurs. Using the same technology just by the addition of data from Pakistan much better and accurate predictions of the water flows can be made and countless people will be able to benefit from it.
For the first time in Pakistan the passing of the eighteenth amendment of the constitution has given complete provincial autonomy to the federating units in Pakistan and now there is a much wider space for matters like climate change and disaster risk reduction which can be dealt in a more regional perspective than just by focusing locally.
The second window of opportunity for the provinces after the newly established provincial autonomy is the complete provincial authority over curriculum development. Therefore there is possibility of developing more region specific curriculums especially for the subjects of geography and science and inclusion of the concept of hazards, disaster risk reduction, preparedness and school safety plans in the regular curricula from kinder garden to secondary classes. India is way ahead of Pakistan in this respect and there has been extensive work done for the preparation of children specific material on disaster risk reduction and climate change there. Pakistani Punjab can benefit a lot from some of the work already done there and include something on the same lines in its curricula in the context of floods that are a perennial feature if there is a political will for it.
The rivers know no boundaries and they cannot and should never be detained due to political reasons. Perhaps compromises were made when the Indus Basin Treaty was signed but that was then. I believe the Indian stood up for Indian interests and Pakistanis stood up for Pakistan but I wonder if there was anyone standing up for the rivers?
I believe now it’s time to stand up for the rivers and I speak for the rivers and I speak for my river, Ravi particularly. Due to the division of waters Ravi has now stopped flowing and turned into a sewer. The once vibrant river is almost dead. I ask India and the people of India-as they have always held the rivers sacred and revered them -to have a more benevolent stance on Ravi, no matter what the treaty says and let it flow again and flourish again. Rivers are our shared resources and our joint heritage. No matter if they are the massive rivers like Ganges and Indus or smaller rivers like Ravi and Sutlej.
Let’s not let the rivers be a target of our differences and disagreements. The only hopelies in cooperation and commitment for peace. The lines on the map are important but there are lines represented by rivers which are far more important. The life lines of planet Earth itself, our rivers.