Even as Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee prepared to visit an army camp in Indian-administered Kashmir and intensifying cross-border firing raised fears of another Indo-Pakistan war, the head of a leading think-tank on South Asian conflicts has forecast that peace would hold - but only until water sparked off a full-scale clash within the next few years.
A potential crisis over water is more dangerous than the struggle over the disputed territory of Kashmir because Pakistan has stated that it would be prepared to use nuclear weapons over the issue, Sundeep Waslekar, director of the Mumbai-based International Center for Peace Initiatives, told a seminar in London Monday.
Water shortages were already affecting parts of Pakistan, and India's water table was falling rapidly, said Waslekar. This was leading to pressures on both sides for a renegotiation of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty that sets out India's right to manage three of the six rivers flowing between the two countries through Kashmir, and stipulates consultation on the other three with Pakistan.
A recent study from Peace Initiatives points out that Pakistan is "fast turning into a water scarce country and runs the risk of a collapse of its agricultural production in the next decade."
Waslekar emphasized that an agreement on water which helped to solve this problem could help pave the way for a resolution of the broader conflict, which has torn apart the predominantly Muslim territory since the partition of India and Pakistan by Britain in 1947.
Since the latest phase of the violence, which began in 1989, between 30,000 and 70,000 people have lost their lives, and as many as 350,000 have been displaced, according to the group.
The disputed territory's hydropower potential could help to transform it "from a valley of death and destruction to a center of excellence in...engineering," according to a new report co-authored by Waslekar and drawing on a conference of political leaders in the state of Jammu and Kashmir earlier this year.
The report, 'Reshaping the Agenda in Kashmir', says the state has harnessed barely 10 percent of its enormous hydropower potential. This would be a major contribution to economic growth, which, according to the report, is a top priority in securing peace for the region.
Waslekar admits that while he does not believe either side intends to launch an "all-out war," there is "intense pressure in India for a 'surgical strike.'" Following last week's attack on an Indian garrison, in which more than 30 people were killed, such a strike could inadvertently spark a series of mutual retaliations, he said.
"We will be sitting on tenterhooks," he said, noting that a meeting last weekend between Prime Minister Vajpayee and India's opposition leader was seen as ominous by many because the government would not decide on war without ensuring the support of the Congress party.