Managing meagre water resources

The threat of water scarcity looms large in Pakistan, posing a threat to the country’s security and stability

Talat Masood February 14, 2017
The writer is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board

The threat of water scarcity looms large in Pakistan, posing a threat to the country’s security, stability and environmental equilibrium. India has threatened to set aside the Indus Waters Treaty that has been the cornerstone of division of water resources between the upper and lower riparian. The treaty even bore the brunt of two wars and several skirmishes between the two countries and yet managed to survive. Wastage and improper utilisation of existing water resources is another area that needs our serious attention. What is not well known that India having the advantage of being the upper riparian is cleverly utilising the ground water to its advantage! In Pakistan, unlike India, there is absence of laws for ground water usage to ensure equitable distribution among provinces. There is very little realisation of the importance of ground water and in the absence of regulation water table is decreasing at an alarming level. Experts are warning us that very soon 20% in Balochistan and 15% in Punjab underwater pumping will become impossible. Balance between extraction and recharge of ground water has to be maintained for maximum utilisation and preservation. This would require both supply and demand side management. The unfortunate aspect is that in Pakistan most vulnerable communities facing water shortages are also the poorest. As the cost of pumping water from deep underground sources is more expensive it hurts the poor farmer the maximum. Successive governments have focused more on development and less on management of water and this trend persists. Pakistan unfortunately has the lowest productivity in water usage and more so in ground water usage. From this it is apparent that we are applying outdated strategies in the utilisation and preservation of water resources. Pakistan is also faced with the danger wherein in certain areas saline water is mixing with sweet water. An integrated approach to face these challenges is very much needed which would require good ground water governance. “LEAD” Pakistan, a major think tank, has undertaken several comprehensive studies and organised many seminars to raise awareness on water-related issues. There are few other think tanks, such as SDPI that are also focusing on these vital issues. In contrast the government is not giving the attention that the looming water crisis deserves. The government needs to develop an exhaustive water policy and experts are of the view that in the absence of any clear guidelines Pakistan’s interests could be compromised.

After the constitutional amendment water has become a provincial subject and there is less federalism in water distribution. Punjab is now dependent on Mangla Dam and the other three provinces get their share of water from Tarbela Dam. The reservoir capacity of Tarbela and Mangla dams is only for 30 days of flow and that too is gradually diminishing due to sedimentation. It is important that there is absolute equity in the distribution of water to the provinces and it should be released on the basis of needs.

Aggravating the water challenge is the impact of climate change and global warming. The melting of glaciers is directly affecting the flow in the rivers. Our experts have been warning of this impending threat for many years but the government has failed to take any concrete measures to counter it. Equally important is to control population growth otherwise Pakistan’s problems will continue to multiply and the water crisis will further aggravate. All this reinforces the need for integrated thinking and planning.

At the time of partition 21 million acres of land was under cultivation and now it has increased to 46 million. We are tapping about 74% of our resources, which is fairly satisfactory. But it is the shortage of reservoirs that is costing Pakistan dearly.

Moreover, there is extreme vulnerability of river flows between summer and winter. It is 84% in summer and 16% in winters. This big variation poses a major problem, giving rise to floods in summer and shortages in winters. The need is to build new reservoirs to reduce wastage and collect surplus flows.

Adding to our worries Prime Minister Modi has threatened to blow up the Indus Waters Treaty and block access to water from three Western rivers of Indus. The World Bank, which is the guarantor of the treaty, responded by announcing a pause in the arbitration of disagreement over dams being constructed in India. It was of the view that by doing so it would save the treaty.

The Indus River basin aquifer spans the two countries and when the Indians carry out excessive abstraction it results in starving the Pakistani side and lowering the water table. This in turn creates a favorable situation for Indian Punjab as water starts flowing to their side having a lower water table. This in turn adversely affects the water availability and quality on the Pakistani side.

Engaging with India on water and other issues has become very difficult. Prime Minister Modi has adopted a very hostile policy toward Pakistan. He conducted an orchestrated campaign to defame Pakistan at the regional and global level by using the UN and other regional forums but failed to muster broad support. The LoC has remained volatile and Pakistan has countered it by strengthening its defences. All these measures having failed in pressuring Pakistan, India is now exploiting the lacunae’s in the Indus Waters Treaty. He knows that Pakistan is water scarce and further restrictions on flow could put enormous pressure on it. However, it may not be that easy to do away with the treaty or to divert waters of the three eastern rivers. Not only that it would be violation of international code of conduct but technically an extremely difficult task. When sanctity of treaties are violated then it could well open up a Pandora’s box with China similarly exercising the option of diverting the Brahmaputra River!

Pakistan clearly faces multiple challenges and governance issues in managing its water resources. What it needs is good planning and management strategy for a better future.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 15th, 2017.

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