All about water: managing the flows

Published: October 21, 2019
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and has served as vice-president of the World Bank

The issue of water — storing it, regulating its use, managing its flow — is so important that it would take more than one newspaper article to deal with most of its aspects. I will write two or three articles in this space and run them sequentially to cover some of the more important issues that should inform the making and implementing of public and private policies pertaining to water.

Water is back in the news again for two reasons. The first one is because of the likely consequences of global warming. The second because of the implied threat as reported in the press in Pakistan. According to this, the Indian Prime Mnister has threatened that he will stop the flow of water into Pakistan if the leadership in his neighbouring country does not fall in line with the Indian policies adopted in the part of the Kashmir state New Delhi controls. Both water crises for Pakistan are man-made. The first is because of centuries of activities by human beings who were adding to the accumulated global warming gases that are now playing havoc with the climate. The second has been caused by the Indian leadership that believes that nothing would come in its way to impose Hindu extremist rule on a country that has some 20% of the population belonging to faiths other than Hinduism. Most affected is Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in the country.

Pakistan’s Imran Khan has used several international forums to highlight the problem in Kashmir. His campaign has been picked up by the Western press — no doubt the reason for the Indian Prime Minister’s threat to interfere with the flow of water into the rivers that enter Pakistan from India. These flows are guaranteed by an international treaty. What would happen if India disregards it? The question is hard to answer but highlights the reason why Pakistan needs to focus its public policy on managing water flows.

Before getting into that, I will provide a quick overview of how the press in the West is responding to India’s actions in Kashmir. This will provide some indication of how the West may interact with any unwarranted action by India on water that would affect Pakistan. But having a sympathetic press is not enough; only state actions would persuade the Indian leadership to mend its ways.

The press in Britain and the United States, after paying little attention to the harsh measures adopted by the Modi government after changing the status of Kashmir, began to take note of what was happening in India’s only Muslim majority state. The New York Times carried on its front page a story that detailed the common people’s suffering as a result of the government-ordered clampdown. On the front page of its issue of October 7, the newspaper started its long story by mentioning the case of a young man who was bitten by a krait, a poisonous snake, but couldn’t receive medical attention. His mother went from city to city, in search of help. He died when antivenin couldn’t be found. “Two months after the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s autonomy and imposed harsh security measures across the Kashmir Valley, doctors and patients here say the crackdown has taken many lives, in large part because of government-imposed communication blackout, including shutting down the internet”, wrote Sameer Yasir and Jeffrey Gettleman.

The journalists gave several accounts of the stress common people were facing. They wrote: “A new group on the messaging service WhatsApp, called Save Heart Initiative, that had helped more than 13,000 cardiac emergencies had been celebrated in the Indian media as a Kashmiri success story has been rendered virtually defunct. Hundreds of Kashmiri doctors even some in the United States were part of the group, uploading electrocardiograms and other vital information and then getting life-saving advice from one another. With no internet in the Kashmir Valley, doctors there can’t use it.” The amount of stress caused by India’s Kashmir moves would be nothing compared to the damage it could do by curtailing the flow of water into Pakistan.

Getting back to the issue of water management in Pakistan, I will use the work done by a committee headed by Sartaj Aziz when he was in charge of the Planning Commission. The group wrote a report titled “Water is the Soul of the Earth: National Water Policy, 2018”. The final report was signed by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, then prime minister of Pakistan; Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, then chief minister of Punjab; Syed Murad Ali Shah, Chief Minister of Sindh; Pervez Khan Khattak, then chief minister of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa; and Mir Abdul Quddoos, then chief minister of Balochistan. The fact that it was a consensus document was in of itself an achievement since the provinces had not been able to agree among themselves or with the federal government on how to divide the water that had flowed through the Indus River system. Among the 15 areas of concern relating to water and its uses identified in the report, one of the more important was the following: “Different regions in the country are endowed differently with different water availability in terms of precipitation, surface flows and ground water and there is increased stress on the sharing of water resources.”

The report on its very first page sounds an alarm. “With rapidly growing population, Pakistan is heading towards a situation of water shortage, and by corollary, a threat of food insecurity. Per capita surface water availability has declined from 5,260 cubic meters per year in 1951 to around 1,000 cubic meters in 2016. This quantity is likely to further drop to about 860 cubic meters by 2025, making our transition from “water stressed” to a water scarce country. (The minimum water requirement to avoid food and health implications of water scarcity is 1,000 cubic meters per capita per year.) The situation calls for rapid development and management of the country’s water resources on a water footing.”

While the sharp increase in the size of the population was an important contributor to the water problem the country was facing, there were two other equally important reasons for the growing water stress. The first had been recognised for a long time. It was the inefficient use of water in the rivers, canals and fields. The other was the failure of the various governments to construct storage dams. I remember a study authored by Syed Salar Kirmani who, having served as Wapda’s chief engineer, joined the World Bank. In the study he estimated that Pakistan wastes some 50% of the water it receives in its rivers; it could solve some of the water problem by reducing the level of waste. I’ll come to that subject in the article in this space next week.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 21st, 2019.

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