The Ticking Time Bomb

Pakistan is losing groundwater at a rate of 1 metre per year, the daily Dawn reported. If the government does not take action, Pakistan will run out of water by 2025, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) issued warning to the government. Pakistan’s per capita water availability has declined to 908 cubic metres, placing Pakistan on the threshold of being a water-scarce country, the daily Nation reported. Per capita designed live water-storage capacity available in Pakistan is 121 cubic metres per person which is higher than Ethiopia only, UN Development Programme reported in its December 2016 report. These are but a few reports that unequivocally signal the imminent threat of water insecurity that would devastate our agriculture and wreak havoc on our industries. Pakistan’s journey from a water-abundant country in 1950 to a water-stressed one today is painful and calls for remedial measures on a war footing as a former IRSA chairman, Mohammad Raqib Khan, had implored the government to freeze all PSDP, impose water emergency and utilize all state resources in developing infrastructure for water storage.

Water is not only for life … water is life. This statement by the Secretary-General of the United Nations underscores the importance of water for socioeconomic development of a country. The importance of water increases manifold in countries like Pakistan where economies are agrarian and depend heavily on the sustainable availability of water to spur economic growth and development.

Agriculture is the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy; accounting for 19.5 percent of the gross domestic product, employing 42.3 percent of the labour force and providing raw material for several value-added sectors. In addition to its fundamental importance in agriculture, the sustained flow of surface water in the Indus River and its tributaries is crucial also for power-generation. Out of our energy mix, about 29.4 percent of total power is being generated from environment-friendly hydel sources. Water security is essential for halting seawater intrusion, conservation of flora and fauna in the Indus Basin and regeneration and protection of riparian forests. This vitality of availability of water in national development warrants thorough discussion so as to highlight the underlying factors that are responsible for looming doomsday-like scenario.

Tremendous stress on both demand and supply sides is causing shortage of water. On the supply side, the climate change and its repercussions in the form of erratic monsoon patterns, floods and droughts, the unregulated and unchecked exploitation of groundwater – we are extracting 50 to 55 million acre feet (MAF) groundwater annually – limited storage capacity due to poor and dilapidated infrastructure for water storage – we have yet to construct any mega hydro reservoir since the commissioning of Mangla and Tarbela in 1967 and 1970’s respectively – and centuries-old unlined canal system that is causing a colossal loss of 24MAF from canal head to farm gate are compounding the issue of water availability in Pakistan. The already limited water resources are also being rendered unfit for domestic, agricultural and industrial consumption due to unhindered mixing of contaminated agricultural runoff, untreated industrial effluents and household waste in rivers and canals.

On the demand side, hydel sources in Pakistan are facing extreme pressure due to rapid population growth, water-intensive farming practices, unregulated industrialization and fast-paced urbanization. Due to unbridled population growth, we will face 1.6 times rise in demand for water for domestic use. Water-intensive farming practice such as plantation of sugarcane and rice and growing of 2-3 crops per year is complicating the water-availability issue. For the past two and a half decades, the policymakers have been struggling to cope with the issues of water supply and contamination of water due to industrial effluents. Owing to these reasons, we are on the verge of becoming a water-deficient nation as the supply of water is decreasing amidst a growing demand.

The shortage of water would have far-reaching implications at domestic as well as international level. The water-scarcity-driven repercussions would be wide-ranging and could pose threat to national security, interprovincial harmony, social and economic growth and law and order situation.

The Indus Basin Treaty was signed between Pakistan and India in order to settle the water-related disputes amicably. Though this agreement has proved effective in preventing a war on water issue between the two nuclear-armed states, India’s BJP-led, ultranationalist Modi government is hell bent on tearing this treaty apart to appease its Hindutva constituencies. Being the upper riparian country, India enjoys advantageous position and is stubbornly adamant to construct dams on the western rivers – the Indus, the Jhelum and the Chenab. The decades-old controversies surrounding the Rattle Dam on Chenab and Kishanganga Dam on the Neelum River could spiral out of control and result in a nuclear-standoff with India. This security concern multiplies due to the fact that the official broker of IWT, i.e. the World Bank, has failed to bring forth any consensus solution and Pakistan has requested it to refer the case to the International Court of Arbitration. Although these issues can be solved diplomatically, the ultranationalist Narendra Modi cannot be expected to let Pakistan prosper with unrestricted availability of water.

The precarious interprovincial harmony could easily be jeopardized due to the water apportionment disputes. In the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991, it was decided that 114.35MAF water would be apportioned among the provinces while taking the capacity of proposed Kalabagh and Bhasha dams into account. Now that 26 years have passed, we have yet to even launch any of these projects. The Kalabagh dam has been subjected to provincialism and the current government has only been able to purchase half of land for Bhasha dam out of 37,400 acres required for the project. Now, 101.84MAF of water is being diverted into canal system, so IRSA has to share the shortage of 13MAF among the provinces. Given that this shortage is already causing serious irritants in smooth distribution of water among the provinces, imagine what would happen when the federal government will reduce the current allocation substantially. The looming water-scarcity is bound to further fuel mistrust among smaller provinces against Punjab and this could be gravely damaging for the federation of Pakistan.

Agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy. The role of agri-sector and its allied subsectors in strengthening exports and boosting foreign exchange reserves is second to none. The poor performance of agriculture during financial years 2013-14 and 2015-16 plunged the national economic growth below 5 percent. All the subsectors of agriculture – crops, livestock, fisheries, forestry, etc. – exclusively depend on sustained, cheap availability of water to help boost the GDP growth. The food and nutritional security of the citizens of Pakistan is also contingent upon safe drinking water. Although we are yet to become a water-scarce country, shortage of water, coupled with water-borne diseases, is already taking a heavy toll. We are facing a loss of 1.44 percent of total GDP due to the aforementioned factors.

The looming water insecurity is fast emerging as the biggest concern among the policymakers of Pakistan. The issue is complex, and tackling it, essentially, warrants a multidimensional approach. We have to impose water emergency and must take this issue head on. The areas that demand immediate attention are efficient management, effective governance, holistic legislative and administrative reforms, result-oriented diplomacy and sustained awareness campaigns.

Mismanagement is the foremost reason of dwindling water supply. We have utterly-unacceptable conveyance losses. The British-established irrigation system is inadequate to cater for the needs of over 207 million people. The unlined canal system, abysmally low 41.5 percent water efficiency, flood irrigation, unregulated groundwater exploitation and unnecessary environmental flow of 26MAF to ward off seawater-based intrusion and conserve marine flora and fauna are severely limiting the ability of water resources to meet the ever-increasing demands. What we need urgently is bringing agri-sector under the tax net and pricing the canal water as it is heavily undervalued. The current tariff system (Abiana) can only recover 24 percent of total annual operational and maintenance cost of the canal system. Obviously, this poor cost of recovery is the principal reason behind prevailing inefficiencies and financially unsustainable irrigation system. We will have to employ innovative urban water-management methods such as recycling, wastewater management and rainwater harvesting, as well as water treatment to ensure the required level of quantity and quality of water in major urban centres.

Effective governance through capacity building of state institutions responsible for water development, conservation and distribution must be an important pillar of the strategy aimed at countering water insecurity. Modernization of observation infrastructure, data management and forecasting system would help IRSA to decide allocation of provincial share on scientific basis, the empowerment of WAPDA and Minister for Climate Change through providing autonomous working environment, and sustained financing would help them to launch new public welfare projects, especially those related to water, overhauling of the provincial departments of irrigation, agriculture, forestry and extension, would help increase the outreach of government down to the farmer level and adoption of sustainable urbanization pattern could also be helpful in saving the wastage of water in cities and towns.

Legal and administrative reforms embedded in organic National Water Policy, thus, become the most pressing need of the time. We have yet to formulate a national water policy that deals comprehensively on all facets of the issue of water. Although the Council of Common Interests (CCI) has unanimously approved the first-ever National Water Policy of Pakistan recently, it must include measures for enforcing water-pricing, increasing water-storage capacity (currently less than 30 days against the minimum requirement of 120 days), controlling population growth, improving water institutions and their management and applying strict regulations over groundwater extraction.

Pakistan is comparatively weaker than India in water diplomacy. We have failed to convince the World Bank about our genuine grievances. We first demanded neutral experts for resolution of disputes but failed to achieve desired results. Our experience in Baglihar Dam and Kishanganga Dam speaks volume about our abysmal diplomatic performance. Now that Rattle and Kishanganga cases are pending before the World Bank, we must utilize all available resources to emerge as victorious; otherwise, our already shrinking water resources would face Indian water aggression on an unprecedented scale.

Public education campaign is also critically important as it would help government to inculcate among the people the importance of water. People should be informed through advertisement campaigns and public-relations programmes that the unnecessary use of water is against the teachings of Islam because the Holy Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) has instructed Muslims to use water judiciously even for ablution. All forms of media – electronic, print and social – must be utilized for spreading awareness on the importance of water.

Water is lifeline of Pakistan’s economy. It can be utilized as an engine of economic growth and also as an agent for regional trade expansion. It is estimated that even if we achieve one billion dollars output for every MAF used for agriculture, water economy has potential to increase the share of agriculture from current $20 billion to $200 billion. The Indus Basin has the potential of generating 59,000MW of clean energy against the current output of 6,500MW. It is never too late to mend; we must not politicize the water-related issues and play politics over it; otherwise, we will suffer irreparably.

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