Despite boasting one of the largest irrigation systems in the world, river water disputes with neighbouring India and then between the provinces have given headaches to successive governments in Pakistan over the past 70 years.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency on the eve of World Rivers Day, which is being observed on Sunday, Feisal Naqvi, a Lahore-based water expert, said the Sindh and Punjab provinces have been squabbling over water distribution even before the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.
"This is not a new issue. It was inherited by Pakistan at the time of independence (in 1947)", said Naqvi, who has also represented Pakistan as an attorney in its legal battle on water dispute with India.
Read more: Sindh, Punjab water share further increased
The thrust of the dispute is over the distribution of water from the mighty Indus River, which together with other western rivers – Jhelum and Chenab – go to Pakistan in line with a 1960 water-sharing agreement between Pakistan and India brokered by the World Bank.
The waters of the eastern rivers – the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi – have been allocated to India under the said agreement. These rivers irrigate around 18 million hectares of arable land.
Punjab, the country's most populous province, and Sindh - the second largest province- have been at loggerheads over the distribution of water from the Indus River for decades.
Balochistan, the country's largest province in terms of land but the least populated, has been accusing Sindh province of stealing its water.
In 1991, an accord was arrived at to settle the decades-long controversy. But according to Naqvi, the different interpretations by the provinces fizzled the spirit of the agreement.
Punjab and Sindh get 55 million and 48 million acres feet water (MAF) annually out of a total of 142 MAF under the 1991 water accord.
Water accord fails to end discord
"According to Punjab, the 1991 water accord upholds the historic share of each province, whereas the new distribution percentage depends only on the extra water. However, Sindh interprets otherwise, insisting that the new percentage is based on the entire quantity of water," he said.
Also read: Sindh, Punjab to get even more water
Idris Rajput, a Karachi-based water expert, said Sindh's objections are valid.
He said that the construction of two major canals to divert the water from the Indus River by Punjab is one of the major reasons for the curtailment of Sindh's share.
"Punjab contends that it has the right to distribute water within the province through canals, which is the wrong interpretation of the water-sharing agreement. It cannot construct canals to divert the water from River Indus, which is share of Sindh," Rajput, who also served as secretary in the Irrigation Department of Sindh, told Anadolu Agency.
According to official figures, around 27% of Pakistan’s 796,096 sq. km land area is cultivated.
Punjab, Pakistan's breadbasket, shares 63% of the total cultivable land followed by Sindh, which owns 18% of the arable land.
The latest showdown over water distribution took place in May when the Sindh government accused the federal government of diverting water supplies to Punjab and providing 37% less water to Sindh than its due share from Indus River for the current season, wreaking havoc on the agricultural, particularly at the tail ends.
Punjab rejected the allegation, saying the additional flows were diverted to Sindh at the time of crops sowing.
"This technical issue has unfortunately been heavily politicised," said Naqvi contending that the 1991 accord is not a "perfect" to resolve the water-sharing disputes.
"It needs to be revisited. Otherwise, the simmering argument will further deepen in years to come,” he added, claiming that the makers of the 1991 accord were not water experts but engineers.
But Rajput described the 1991 accord fair enough to address the inter-provincial water disputes. "If this accord is implemented in its letter and spirit, the long-running disputes can be settled to a large extent," he said.
Experts blame river authority
He said the Indus River System Authority (IRSA)- a government body that oversees the water distribution among provinces- was responsible for the dispute, as it has failed to implement the water accord.
Read: Water apportionment controversy
Khalid Rana, director of operations IRSA, however, rejected the charge.
"IRSA having representation from all the federating units decides the regulation and accordingly issues regulation directives to WAPDA (water and power development authority) for making such releases as per Water Accord 1991. Smaller provinces i.e., Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, as they can’t utilise their full allocated share due to lack of infrastructure, are exempted from sharing of water shortages, " he said in a written reply to Anadolu Agency.
He said the IRSA releases full water share to Balochistan including conveyance losses.
“However due to some operational constraints of Sindh, as Balochistan gets its share from Sindh barrages, they cannot divert full share to Balochistan province, so Balochistan always faces a shortfall of water in its canals," said Rana.
Naqvi said that although Pakistan is on the brink of water shortages while taking international standards, it still has enough water to cultivate its lands.
The major problem, according to him, is poor water management and storage.
"Changing weather patterns are going to cause major water shortages in Pakistan if we continue to go ahead with exiting management and storage systems," he said, insisting that construction of new dams is essential for water storage, especially floodwaters.
Echoing Naqvi's views, Rana said the country's storage capacity is decreasing, which has also affected the water amounts being used by provinces in their canals.
Punjab and the three smaller provinces have long been locked in a controversy over the construction of the Kalabagh dam, a proposed hydroelectric project on the Indus River at Kalabagh in the Mianwali district of Punjab.
The proposed reservoir is aimed at storing huge amounts of water, in addition, to produce 3,600-megawatt electricity.
Construction of dams
However, some experts oppose the construction of the Kalabagh dam, saying that it will further decrease waters for smaller provinces, mainly Sindh, where large-scale protests have been held against the project in the recent past.
The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province claims its two major cities will be submerged if the Kalabagh dam is constructed.
The state assemblies of Sindh, Balochistan and K-P have already passed resolutions against the proposed dam.
According to the 1991 accord, 5 million acre-feet of water is required to fall into the Arabian Sea through downstream Kotri, Sindh annually.
"There is no need to waste time on this dead issue anymore. Instead, the government should pay attention to the construction of small dams to store water as the Indus River has already silted 40%," Rajput said.
The government has already initiated the construction of several dams across the country, including Diamir- Bhasha, a concerted-filled gravity dam on the Indus River in G-B, to cope with the growing needs of water and energy in the country.
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