India, inland water transport and water rights

The IWT offers an economic, energy-efficient, employment-intensive and almost pollutant-free mode of transport

Imtiaz Gul/Arshad H Abbasi January 27, 2022
The writer heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad and is the author of ‘Pakistan: Pivot of Hizbut Tahrir’s Global Caliphate’


Isn’t it tragic that an inland water-borne transport system that cost over a billion rupees in three years simply went to the dogs because of political partisanship and typical bureaucratic obstructions?

Let us recall the sad story:

In the year 2014, the government of Punjab established the Inland Water Transport Development Company (IWTDC) for studying and developing an Inland Water Transport (IWT) system along the Indus River corridor from Port Qasim to Nowshera. The IWTDC, led by a former merchant navy officer, Naeem Sarfaraz, made gradual but steady and extremely cost-effective progress; two buildings were constructed at Daud Khel to be used as the main operating base. It had a 100-ton barge constructed on the site and acquired a tugboat to support operations at different levels. Both cost less than a million dollars — far less than what it would have cost under the notorious public procurement rules.

Interestingly, before the IWTDC came into being, several studies had been conducted. Some consultants such as Tipton and Kalmbach Engineers (1962), National Engineering Services Pakistan (1975), Water and Power Development Authority (1976), and United Nations Development Programme Experts Reports (1981) made strong recommendations to the Pakistani government to remap water transport. However powerful transport mafia stone-walled all proposals to shield their interests and shelved the project.

Now the question before the champion of clean and green Pakistan — Prime Minister Imran Khan and Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar — is: will an efficient IWT system favour a cleaner environment? How can Pakistan benefit from the revival of the IWTDC?

One big contributor to the deteriorating climate is carbon dioxide (CO2), which is directly associated with global warming. It comes as no surprise that Pakistan is ranked amongst the ten countries most affected by climate change. Vehicular transport in Pakistan generates up to 28% of the total CO2 emissions which, together with industrial emissions, have increased air toxicity in major cities.

Why can Pakistan not reduce some of the CO2 emissions by reviving the IWTDC? As evidenced elsewhere in the world, inland waterborne transport has contributed to the development and progress of several economies across the globe over many centuries.

The Indus River, its five tributaries and an established canal system provide a potential of a 30,000-kilometre corridor for IWT. According to the Asian Development Bank’s assessment, one litre of fuel moves 24 tons through one kilometre on the road, 95 on the rail, and 215 kilometres on water. The cost of developing waterways is 80% lower than the cost of constructing motorway highways with negligible annual maintenance costs.

The IWT offers an economic, energy-efficient, employment-intensive and almost pollutant-free mode of transport particularly when neighbouring India is vigorously pursuing such systems. India promulgated the 2016 National Waterways Act, declaring 111 rivers as national waterways. Later, the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) added Indus national waterways (NW-46), Jhelum (NW-49), and Chenab as national waterways (NW-26).

What is the implication of this for Pakistan? Well, the Indian IWT in these rivers means a death knell for the economic, water and food security of people downstream. Navigation in these rivers is economically not feasible but India seems committed to using water as a weapon amid conflict over the Kashmir region.

Coincidentally, India has also set a precedent for Pakistan to encounter this detrimental move: when China tried to develop 60,000 megawatts hydropower on the mighty Brahmaputra River at the ‘Great Bend’, a few kilometres upstream of the India-China border, India came up with IWT project to establish transboundary waters rights over the river.

Another challenge for Pakistan is the establishment of ‘Water Rights’ over the Kabul River. During the Ghani regime, the Kabul River almost became India’s next weapon against Pakistan as New Delhi funded several multipurpose dams near Kabul. These dams can potentially control water flow to Pakistan.

In the absence of major dams on the Kabul River, except for the Warsak dam, navigation from Attock to Kabul City will not only establish the waters rights but also offer an efficient transport route. Navigation is technically and economically possible from Kabul city to Kotri Barrage — and in major canals, especially in the BRB canal that has a width of 148 feet and depth of 15 feet. However, there are a few challenges, such as the absence of navigational locks in Warsak dam and Kotri barrage, braiding and meandering in rivers, water velocity, fluctuation of the water level, and bridges over canals and rivers. However, these challenges can be overcome, with a careful design of channels.

Can Prime Minister Imran shift the billion rupees he announced for the Indus Basin climate-resilient project to IWT? The PM must remember that Pakistan adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) under the 2030 agenda for sustainable development back in 2015. IWT can help Pakistan meet SDG-1 (ending poverty) and can assist in achieving SDG-6 (ensuring availability and sustainable management of water) and SDG-17 (developing global partnerships for sustainability).

IWT can be a game-changer for Pakistan only if it defeats the deeply entrenched forces of the status quo i.e. on-land transporters, the fuel lobby and the bureaucracy. Initiating IWT will be the first step to the real blue economy era in Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 27th, 2022.

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