It’s not every day you get a phone call from a representative of a country asking for your help. But this was the be- ginning of an extraordinary journey for Professor Jackie King.
It’s an unusual story, told to members of the University of the Third Age (U3A), on Monday February 1, at Constantia Place.
It began in October 2009 when the phone rang late one night in her Bergvliet home. An official of the Pakistani government said they were having a border conflict with India and would she please help. “Although I’d never worked in Pakistan, he knew my home phone number,” said Professor King.
The conflict was about a hydropower dam being built on a headwater tributary of the Indus River in India-controlled Kashmir. The dam would divert all dry-season flow to remain in India, leaving the Neelum River as it flowed across the Line-of-Control into Pakistani-controlled Kashmir virtually dry for half of each year. Of concern was the impact on tourism, the Pakistan people living along the river and Pakistan’s own hydropower dam being built further downstream. This had the potential to become the biggest conflict between the two countries since Partition (of India into India and Pakistan) in 1947.
Pakistan planned to take India to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, aiming, through the Indus Waters Treaty, to halt construction of the dam. Professor King was asked to help prepare their court case.
The first step was to see everything for herself. With two members of her team, she flew to Islamabad, drove to Muzaffarabad and then undertook the two-day journey up the Neelum valley and into the high Himalayas to Taobat, through a very narrow, steep-sided valley. At the furthest end, the villages have no television, electricity or phones, houses are built from the local wood and stone and are spartan, and many inhabitants never leave the valley. Women embroider exquisite shawls during the harsh snow-bound winter, and men decorate and paint their vehicles with exuberance.
It is a fragile world – frequent earthquakes and landslides, ferocious monsoon summers and mudslides, and high personal levels of danger from the Taliban and Al Qaeda to the west, and India across the river.
Her group travelled in convoy, accompanied by the army, anti-terrorist squad, Elite Force and police, sometimes with up to 30 vehicles in the convoy. The local people knew they were coming and lined the route knowing, hoping, they could possibly help.
Returning to Islamabad, more of her team arrived and, working with Pakistani scientists, they built a story of how the dam would impact the river and the people. “As we increase development of a river system we change its pattern of flow. If we take away part of a human’s diet, his/her body will change, and if you take away part of the river’s pattern of flows it will change. Fish could disappear, water quality deteriorate and household incomes and health decline,” said Professor King.
In August 2012 both countries made their submissions at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Professor King acted as advisor to the government of Pakistan and served as an expert witness.
In February 2013 a partial award was handed down that allowed India to build their dam but with no flushing of sediments that gather behind the dam wall – this was a partial victory for each side. A second set of investigations led to a final award in which India was required to let 30 percent of the dry season flow past the dam and into Pakistan.
The wet season monsoon flows are so big that they would come through almost undiminished.
The countries are now monitoring the situation, with the option to return to the court after seven years for a review of the award.
* Professor King is an aquatic ecologist who worked as a researcher at UCT for almost four decades.
She now runs her own consultancy, Water Matters, a water-resource consultancy specialising in river basin.
Her experience is vast: she has spoken as a keynote or invited speaker at 30 international scientific confeences; written over a 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers and parts of books; played a leading role in the inclusion of sustainable use of rivers in South Africa’s 1998 National Water Act; worked in more than 20 countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, and led advisory teams working on some of the world’s great rivers including the Mekong, Nile, Zambezi and Okavango.
Her work in South Africa was recognised in the 1990s with a silver medal from the Southern African Society of Aquatic Scientists and in 2003 through the government awarding her the national Women in Water award. In 2010 she was appointed as an inaugural member of the Nat- ional Water Advisory Council to advise the South African Minister of Water Affairs and in 2012 she was appointed as Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape.