Pakistan’s inter-provincial water conflicts

Pakistan is facing worst form of water crisis because of environmental factors like global warming, melting glaciers


Dr Moonis Ahmar February 06, 2024
The writer is former Dean Faculty of Social Science, University of Karachi and can be reached at amoons@hotmail.com

In terms of water conflicts, Pakistan is a unique country because apart from having water issues with India and Afghanistan, it has water conflicts involving its own provinces. According to reports, caretaker Chief Minister of Sindh Justice (retd) Maqbool Baqar has recently written a letter to caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul Haq Kakar expressing serious concerns over a “covert plan” of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) for extension of irrigated agriculture in the Cholistan desert of Punjab.

It is not just the prevailing water conflict between Punjab and Sindh over provision of extra water to irrigate parts of the Cholistan desert, the two provinces have a history of leveling allegations against each other. Sindh is blaming Punjab for depriving its share of water under 1991 IRSA accord whereas Punjab terms it a baseless allegation. For years the issue of Kalabagh Dam remained a bone of contention between Sindh and Punjab. As a lower riparian province, grievances of Sindh are reflected in statements of Sindhi nationalists who blame Punjab for not releasing adequate amount of water to preserve flora and fauna as well as marine resources in its Indus delta region south of Kotri.

In his letter to the caretaker PM, the caretaker Chief Minister of Sindh regretted, “The Punjab government had presented a proposal for issuance of ‘Water Availability Certificate’ for extension of irrigated agriculture of Cholistan. The proposal involves construction of feeder channel with designed capacity of 4,122 cfs (cubic feet per second), offtaking from Suleimanki Headwords to feed areas of districts of Bhawalnagar and Bahawalpur.” Concern was expressed that the ‘Water Availability Certificate’ proposal was made without seeking consent from Sindh. At least, IRSA should have deferred the issuance of certificate till the completion of general election and the assumption of new governments at the Centre and in provinces. When the issue of water share among provinces was settled under the 1991 IRSA accord, Sindh argues as to why “the maximum utilization of the Punjab during Kharif season was 37.7 MAF in 2007 against allocation of 37.67 MAF which means that the existing canal capacity of the Punjab province was more than its Water Accord allocations.”

Pakistan is facing a worst form of water crisis because of environmental factors like global warming and melting of glaciers. At a time when water at the upstream level, which is dependent on the melting of glaciers, is facing growing mitigation, how can water reach the lower stream like in Sindh province, particularly the Indus delta? The summer of 2024 is expected to be harsh in Pakistan because of less than average quantum of snow accumulated on glaciers and in the northern parts of Pakistan. Facing acute water shortage, the federal government, particularly IRSA, should have taken preventive measures to save water for irrigation. Instead, IRSA has triggered a new conflict in the form of ‘Water Availability Certificate’ benefiting Punjab’s desert region of Cholistan. Had the issue been taken up with the Sindh government before the grant of additional water to Punjab, we wouldn’t have seen Sindh pitched against IRSA and Punjab.

At a time when Pakistan is bogged down in water conflicts with India and Afghanistan, opening another front, within the country, on water distribution is unfortunate. Why was IRSA desperate to issue ‘Water Availability Certificate’ to Punjab before elections as it could have, as suggested by the Sindh’s caretaker CM, waited for new elected governments to take charge. It means that there is lack of professionalism and fairness on the part of those who are supposed to manage distribution of water among provinces. The seriousness of intra-state (inter-provincial) water crisis needs to be analysed from three angles.

First, the absence of a water management mechanism in Pakistan tends to further augment the prevailing water crisis in the country. IRSA, which should have been responsible for ensuring water management, is itself a source of conflict particularly between Sindh and Punjab. Balochistan, which gets a meager share of water from the Indus source, also suffers because of the unfair distribution of water. When Sindh has grievances that Punjab not only steals its share of water, but its control over national resources further undermines its legitimate interests related to the adequate supply of water from the Indus source, it means the federal government is not properly performing its duties. Otherwise, the caretaker Sindh CM wouldn’t complained to the caretaker PM in writing about IRSA’s unfair issuance of ‘Water Availability Certificate’ to Punjab.

Second, it is high time that instead of further ignoring polarisation and conflict over water at the provincial level, a water management mechanism at federal and provincial levels should to be adopted at the earliest. Amid the looming drought threat, if adequate availability of water is not ensured for irrigation, a policy to efficiently use water and prevent its wastage and stealing should be adopted. It is estimated that 30% of water supplied for irrigation is either wasted, evaporates or is stolen by water ‘mafias’. Instead of indulging in blame game and pursuing an irresponsible approach, Sindh and Punjab need to resolve the conflict through dialogue, with the federal government playing a proactive role. Before the arrival of summer, which will augment water and energy crisis in Pakistan, the need is to seriously adopt a water management mechanism for a permanent solution to the grave water predicament.

Finally, there is a need to evolve consensus over the construction of Kalabagh Dam which has been pending for six decades. Undue and unreasonable criticism against the Kalabagh Dam, particularly by Sindh and KP, further aggravates the issue of water scarcity in Pakistan. From any standpoint, Kalabagh Dam is still the most feasible water project in Pakistan which can ensure irrigation water amounting to millions of acre feet as well as 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Unfortunately, the project was politicised. It became a victim of factually wrong assertions that its construction would inundate Nowshera in KP and deprive Sindh of water. Since 1974 when Tarbela Dam had been made operational, no mega dam has been constructed in Pakistan and it is yet to be seen how feasible Diamar-Bhasha Dam will be, given its mountainous terrain in Gilgit-Baltistan.

When there is an early warning about a severe water shortage in Pakistan in view of global warming and melting of glaciers, it is time for IRSA and other relevant authorities to take preventive measures along with resolving intra-state water conflicts, particularly between Sindh and Punjab. Otherwise, one is bound to see further erosion of agricultural production in the country with a negative impact on industries and economic growth.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2024.

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