Water, water, everywhere

In March 2012, a book titled ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’ written by British Author Anatol Lieven was published. The book received mostly negative reviews from the Pakistani press owing to its subtle pro-establishment undertones. Due to the harsh criticism, constructive analysis about some contents of that book was avoided by most commentators. One of Mr. Lieven’s observations that was ignored, pertained to the impact of climate change on Pakistan’s future. He argued that Pakistan is not at immediate risk from the marauding Jihadis with global ambitions, lack of employment for the burgeoning educated class or external aggression; rather it faces an imminent ecological disaster. The fact that Pakistan has faced five major floods in the past five monsoon seasons, confirms this assertion.
Pakistan is a water-scarce country. At an average of 240 mm of rainfall per year, Pakistan is one of the most naturally arid of the world’s heavily populated states. Without the Indus river system and the canals flowing from it, most of Punjab would be semi-desert and scrub-forest. Only 24 percent of Pakistan’s land area is cultivated– the great majority through man-made irrigation systems. The rest is pastoral land, or uninhabited: desert, semi-desert, and mountain.
John Briscoe and Usman Qamar, in their book “Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry”, published by Oxford University Press in 2006 noted, “The facts are stark. Pakistan is already one of the most water stressed countries in the world, a situation that is going to degrade into outright water scarcity due to high population growth. There is no feasible intervention which would enable Pakistan to mobilize appreciably more water than it now uses. There are no additional water resources to be exploited and agricultural water use must decline to enable adequate flows into the degrading Indus River Delta. Pakistan’s dependence on a single river system makes its water economy highly risky. Groundwater is now being overexploited in many areas, and its quality is declining.”
According to a 2009 study by the Woodrow Wilson Center (Running on Empty: Pakistan’s Water Crisis) drawing on a range of different works, by 2025 population growth is likely to mean that Pakistan’s annual water demand rises to 338 billion cubic meters (bcm) – while, unless radical action is taken, Pakistan’s water availability will be around the same as at present, at 236 bcm. The resulting shortfall of 100 bcm would be equal to two-thirds of the entire present flow of the Indus.
Compounding the problem is the assertion made by people across the political spectrum that our water woes are because of India stealing our water. During the September 2014 floods which ravaged parts of Punjab and Sindh, India was designated as the cause by rightwing media and terrorist organizations (some of which were also first-responders for flood victims). They chose to overlook the fact that Jammu and Kashmir also faced its worst flooding in recent memory and the response they evoked among the Indian population. The relief effort in Jammu and Kashmir was well-coordinated for the most part and many precious lives were saved due to proper aid. Contrast this with Punjab where people were left on their own by the administration and only Jihadist charities were visible in any flood relief efforts. The rightwing elements also missed the point that building Kalabagh Dam would not have affected these floods as the flooding was in Rivers Jehlum and Chenab while Kalabagh is planned to be constructed in the path of River Indus. Another misinformed criticism was directed towards the much-maligned Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).
Pakistan’s Commissioner for Indus Waters was recently asked about the “India-caused-floods” theory, to which he replied: “India doesn’t have significant water storage capacity on the Chenab. There has also been massive damage owing to flooding on the Indian side. Such manipulation would put their irrigation and flood control structures in jeopardy.” Current PTI leader and then-Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi told a national news conference in April 2010: “Is India stealing that water from you? No, it is not. Please do not fool yourself and do not misguide the nation. We are mismanaging that water”
The problem that underlies water-scarcity in the country is not India or IWT but our own profligacy in using water. Our farmers are still using Basin/Furrow irrigation method while drip-irrigation is a much better alternative used in most developing countries. We habitually waste groundwater on regularly washing driveways and whole houses, with scant regard for the environment. Conserving and properly managing water resources is a bigger problem than most policymakers in Pakistan realize. During World Bank hearings for disputes arising over IWT, it was discovered that Pakistan doesn’t have a single expert on Water engineering. In larger cities of Pakistan, water supply has been politicized and local groups with vested interests have taken over the function of providing water to people. In underdeveloped parts of Sindh, provision of water supply to villages is decided according to patronage networks. The future is not only gloomy, it is also terribly dry.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.


The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

ePaper - Nawaiwaqt