Water, water, everywhere…

Pakistan is fast becoming a water-stressed country

M Ziauddin February 09, 2019
The writer served as executive editor of The Express Tribune from 2009 to 2014

Pakistan is fast becoming a water-stressed country. Perhaps it is already one. But then perhaps we could still sidestep the looming disaster. A latest Report on Water Management, Floods, Transport & Aquatic Tourism prepared by a committee constituted by the FPCCI shows a way out. Submitted to the FPCCI in Dec 2018, the committee which was headed by a former senior Pakistan Navy officer, Naeeem Sarfraz, has come up with what can only be described as hope against hope in the backdrop of the impending crisis. According to statistics quoted by the report, Pakistan receives about 145MAF of water annually from the three major rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenab and their tributaries, including the Kabul River. Out of this, only 103MAF reach canal heads for irrigation while the remainder flows down to the sea.

And out of the 103MAF at the canal heads, only 26MAF are used for crop cultivation while the remainder is lost through seepage, evaporation, escape below Kotri, leakage from the outmoded infrastructure, mismanagement and corruption. Unlevelled fields, old water distribution system (warabandi) and outdated irrigation methods (flooding) also contribute to water losses.

The report claims there is no water shortage, only a crisis of its proper usage and management and goes on to suggest that all water courses, canal minors and distributaries have to be lined to stop unproductive seepage of water. The report estimates the lining of canal minors and water courses can save 23MAF and increase crop productivity.

The report suggests that old methods of field irrigation need to be changed. ‘Flooding’ needs to be replaced by improved water saving techniques such as ‘Bed & Farrow method’, ‘Dry Direct Seeding of Rice’, ‘Alternate Wetting & Drying’, ‘Laser Land Levelling’ and ‘Drip’ or ‘Sprinkler Irrigation System’. This is expected to cause water saving of 30-35% which is equal to 20MAF, substantially more than the storage capacity of Tarbela and Mangla dams combined. Rampant corruption in the Irrigation Department also needs to be curbed, says the report.

Stating that water is a precious commodity, the report talks about its cost. Being virtually free, a great amount, according to the report, gets lost through wastage. Therefore, it suggests that the price of water has to be based on its cost of delivery to the consumer. Farmers in Punjab pay only Rs135 per acre per year, while those in K-P pay Rs625, whereas cost of maintaining and operating the distribution system is Rs875 per acre. Moreover, recovery of water charges (abiana) in all the provinces is low, from 12% in Balochistan to 44% in Punjab. Hence, the report maintains abiana rates need to be increased and improving its recovery system which it believes would lead to reduction in wastage and also generate funds for maintenance of the water distribution system. Similarly, in urban areas, installing meters and charging the correct price would reduce wastage.

The report says adequate water is available for domestic use of rural and urban communities throughout the country, except in isolated pockets of deserts. Enough water reaches every city but does not reach the consumers because of outmoded and badly damaged distribution systems within the cities. The report suggests the first priority should be replacement of or upgradation of the distribution system inside every city. Water received from pristine glaciers and rainfall is clean and pure. It is contaminated by people throwing sewage, garbage and industrial and commercial waste into drains, canals and rivers. Drains, built during the 1960s for lowering the water table in waterlogged districts, are now carrying black water and dumping it in the QB Link Canal or the River Ravi. The first responsibility of society is to stop polluting the waterways and the ground water. Implementing laws and extensive installation of water-treatment systems will stop water-borne diseases. Then there will be no reason why every citizen cannot get clean water from a tap.

The report also makes suggestions on how best to meet the challenges of floods and using waterways for transport as well as promoting aquatic tourism.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2019.

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