Discourse on the water dispute between Pakistan and India needs to take into account the effect of politics rather than singularly focusing on technical issues, said Majid Akhtar, a lecturer at Beaconhouse National University.
He was speaking at a socialism school organised by the National Students Federation on Sunday.
Akhtar, who is a candidate for doctorate in geography at University of Arizona in the United States, said landless farmers and those with lands on the tail end of the irrigation system in both Pakistan and India were deprived in distribution of water.
He said big landlords in both countries, and within Pakistan in Punjab and Sindh, mostly owned land along the upper reaches of irrigation canals and enjoyed easy access to water.
Akhtar said a fair analysis of the irrigation problems faced by the two countries should be informed by an understanding of land ownership patterns and distribution of water.
“Small and landless farmers on both sides of the border are water insecure,” he said.
Akhtar cited the dispute between Anjuman Mazareen of Punjab (AMP) and the military farms as an example of how politics affected irrigation matters. He said during his research for doctorate he had learnt that the Irrigation Department could not collect water rates from most farms in Okara. “The military does not pay for the water it uses on its farms. And, it does not let other farmers (affiliated with the AMP) pay so that they may not use payment receipts to support their claim to the lands they till,” he said.
Akhtar categorised three major responses to irrigation problems in the two countries as technical, market-based and chauvinistic.
He said the bureaucracy of the two countries, the World Bank and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had taken a technical approach to the dispute. “Such an approach emphasises inefficient use of water and engineering issues,” he said. In Pakistan’s case, he said, the technical approach will identify the 40 per cent water lost in conveyance from canals to fields as the most pressing problem. “Lining of canals and building of more dams are examples of technical solutions,” he said.
He said a telemetry system introduced by the Indus River Systems Authrity to measure water use had been of no help in solving the dispute between Punjab and Sindh because it involved a trust deficit.
Akhtar said the market-based approach called for pricing water as a scare resource.
He said groups like Jamaatud Dawa in Pakistan had pushed for chauvinist solutions to the issue. Akhter said there were flaws in all three approaches. Technical solutions overlooked politics of land ownership and distribution of irrigation water, he said. The market-based approach did not deal with farmers’ capacity to pay for water. The chauvinistic solutions, he said, were based on the nation-state model.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 4th, 2012.