Kalabagh dam: Searching for solutions

The supporters of Kalabagh Dam (KBD), especially in Punjab, sincerely believe that KBD is panacea of all problems relating to water availability, flood mitigation, storage capacity and electricity generation. Its opponents consider it extremely harmful.

But this controversial project apart, all provinces of Pakistan have generally remained oblivious of the dreadful water issues which they are creating for future generations.

The first major challenge is the climate change. The steady flow of water in Indus is largely due to assured supply of water through glacier melt. And if the worst possible scenario of climate change is to be believed, the glaciers would vanish in a century because of faster melting rate; causing 30 to 40% reduction in water supply. To further compound our problems, the remaining supply would be highly erratic. Also the recent phenomenon of monsoon shift and cloud bursts coming to north west of Pakistan, in Chitral and Swat regions, compels us to take steps for managing future shortages as well as the excess flows. We need to act fast and design an appropriate action plan.

The second major test of our policy planning is population growth. Since independence in 1947, our per capita availability of water has reduced by 80%, from more than 5000M3/Capita/Annum to less than 1000M3/Capita/Annum. In another 100 years it would reduce to around 100M3/Capita/Annum. And that would be almost a drought like situation. Such rapid increase in population would further aggravate our problems in terms of urbanization and additional food requirements. This in turn would increase demand for irrigation water, for yet uncultivated area. Luckily we have land. But from where, we will arrange water?

Increase in population would require more jobs. Employment opportunity for such large numbers can only come through industrialization which would pose its own problems. Factories for providing employment need water and create effluent. In this case the problem is embedded in our inaction and laid back governance; further reinforced by weak implementation. Majority of industrial estates lack facility of effluent treatment plants. Most of the production facilities for textiles processing, leather treatment, chemicals and plastic industries are without any such arrangements. Their untreated industrial effluent is more dangerous as infiltration of its chemical waste contaminates the sweet water aquifers, spreading water borne diseases.

Another source of water contamination is effluent created by agriculture. The unrestricted discharge has already caused enormous damage to natural water reservoirs in Sindh including Manchar lake. The agricultural effluent of Balochistan is not given passage through Sindh and this has caused tension between the provinces and hindered the operations of Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD).

Third major issue pertains to the management of subsoil aquifer in Pakistan. Urban planners are oblivious to the fact that underground reservoirs are a dwindling resource which were created by nature over a long period of time. Their depletion does not auger well for future availability of water. Groundwater level in major cities has gone down to alarmingly low levels. Presently WASA in Lahore is extracting water from 750 feet depth wherein the total depth of aquifer is about 1000 feet. A recent study shows that Quetta valley aquifers, already down to unworkable levels, may now require at least two centuries for their recharging.

The fourth issue is the mother of all challenges for water economy in Pakistan. It pertains to water pricing. We treat water like air; available in abundance and without any charge. There is no price tag on the use of underground water and river water is almost free. When Sukkur Barrage was constructed, Sindh was part of Bombay Presidency. It was financed through a loan from Delhi. The capital cost along with O&M costs were to be recovered from water users. Sindh became a separate Province in 1936 and its administration failed to recover the said costs. The British government in Delhi was therefore constrained to restructure the loans. After independence recovery of capital cost was gradually abandoned not only in Sindh but in all provinces. And now only O&M cost is billed and that too is recovered partially; only around 20-30%. The disturbing end result is that stand alone water related projects without the component of electricity generation are almost impossible to finance in Pakistan.

In the past, two projects were built for water storage only. Water from Khanpur Dam caters for the municipal needs of Rawalpindi /Islamabad and for the agricultural requirements of KP. Hub Dam supplies water for municipal needs of Karachi and for agricultural needs of Balochistan. In both cases, it was decided by the ECC to recover the capital, as well as the O&M costs. However, this valid charge was never recovered. The beneficiary Provinces are even reluctant to pay for the O&M costs. It merits mentioning here that O&M does not include the cost of water but just the maintenance of civil structure.

Also without water pricing it is difficult to finance canal lining projects for minimising the wastage caused by seepage of water. In Pakistan, out of average annual inflow (1976-2015) of 145 Million Acres Feet (MAF), 101 MAF is diverted to Canals. From that 101 MAF, 40 MAF (4 MAF evaporation & 36 MAF percolation) is lost during conveyance, resulting in availability of only 61 MAF water at farm gate. About 36 MAF is lost through percolation of which 20 MAF is in saline areas mostly in the south and 16 MAF water is lost in sweet water areas. Saving of that 20 MAF of water by lining the canals in the area with saline subsoil water should be our top priority. However, commercial financing for such projects cannot be done without an arrangement for the payback of investment. The potential benefit is enormous since the amount of saved water would help irrigate another 20 million acres of cultivable land.

In Episode No. 6, example of All-American Canal was cited. This canal built in the lower Basin of Colorado River, was unlined for years. In 2003, various parties (both Federal and State) agreed to invest in lining the canal and share the saved water. Why we cannot do it; because here irrigation water does not have a monetary price tag.

Our cropping pattern is also not in line with our water situation. A water expert jokingly remarked that it would be inappropriate to classify Pakistan as water stressed because it exports almost 2 billion dollars worth of rice and has also started sugar export. He was right; these crops are water guzzlers but as water pricing is not structured to help rationalize water use, we are not letting market forces take care of this problem.

Efficient use of agriculture is impossible without water pricing. If the farmer uses laser land leveller, the use of water would reduce by 25% and if drip irrigation method is employed, the use of water would reduce by 70%. Such water saving techniques would require a one-time capital cost. But a farmer, as a rational investor would look at the monetary benefit of his investment in terms of value of water saved. And what is the value of water for irrigating an acre of land for wheat crop in Sindh? As determined by Tandojam University of Agriculture; it is only Rs. 53. So no rational person would invest to save water.

In conclusion, if the four federating units realize their collective responsibility towards our future generations, there is an immediate need to develop a collective approach and charter a road map for addressing our future needs; water storage is only one part of the kaleidoscope. In the next episode which would be last of the series, an attempt would be made towards that end.


ePaper - Nawaiwaqt