A scarce resource: Plugging the leaks on Pakistan’s lifeline

If we are not proactive, soon we may not have water resources to feed our agrarian economy or quell the power crisis

Khurram Baig July 15, 2012


Environmentalists and many scientists predict that water is going to get scarcer, for several reasons: a growing global population, increasing wealth in the developing world and climate changes that could create more severe weather and disrupt rainfall patterns.

Water demand in 2030 is expected to exceed current supply by 40 percent, the 2030 Water Resources Group, a World Bank-backed panel of businesses, predicts. Some even say the next great war will be over water.

Since its birth, Pakistan has faced grave water challenges. Nowhere, perhaps, are water issues more complex than in Pakistan. Chief among these has been obtaining access to the headwaters of the Indus and rivers of Punjab, which were, at the stroke of a British pen, committed to other countries.

A second major challenge has been dealing with water-logging and salinity in the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system. The installation of diesel-powered tubewells in the Ayub era gave farmers a measure of independence because they no longer needed to rely on surface water from the Indus for all their irrigation needs but groundwater resources are becoming scarce now.

A third challenge is to build infrastructure and institutions which can maximise welfare and manage risk from floods, droughts and environmental degradation.

In this scenario there has to be a lot of focus on what needs to be done to try and plan for the future. Key areas that need to be focused on include climate change and how it will affect the Himalayan glaciers and how both will affect the quantity and timing of river flows. Two other areas that are equally important but also trickier are possible options for a new Indus Water Treaty (IWT) and for a Pakistan-Afghanistan Treaty on the Kabul River.

Pakistan’s Problems

In some years, Pakistan—with 180 million people to feed and annual rainfall averaging less than 9.5 inches—suffers severe droughts and shortages of electrical power. A particularly bad drought gripped the country between 1998 and 2002. In other years, it is ravaged by floods. In 2010, some 20 million people were displaced by a flood that covered one-fifth of the country’s land area. Just a year later, a pattern of water shortages reasserted itself.

The challenge is that Pakistan depends not only on one river, but on one major dam — the second largest in the world by structural volume. Tarbela Dam is managed for one purpose: agricultural irrigation. The problem though is that while dams can be operated to store water; to generate hydropower; or to mitigate flooding but a single dam cannot prioritise all three at once, and a dam’s flow parameters are chosen to serve the primary purpose for which it has been designated.

In Pakistan, for example, where there are two cropping seasons, one in summer and one in winter, most of the water flow comes in the summer, so you must store as much water as you can in that period to have enough for the winter season. At Tarbela, that means filling the dam as much as possible during the summer. By August the dam needs to be full which is why when the floods came in the summer of 2010, there was very little storage available to attenuate the flood peaks.

The only solution is to build another very large dam, or dams. Pakistan clearly needs more agricultural-storage capacity, more flood-control capacity, and more electrical generating capacity. Only 14% of its economically viable hydropower potential has been developed compared to more than 70% in advanced economies.

The country’s current plight is at least partly due to the fact that loans for infrastructure projects have given way to funding for social goods such as healthcare and human rights. This is a mistake. The core need is to first build its basic productive capacity. Critics of dam construction need to figure out where their loyalties lie. But lack of funding — the billions of dollars required to invest in solutions — is not the only problem in Pakistan. The biggest source of the nation’s water problems is lack of political will.

Part of the problem is also the Water Accord of 1991, a document of just two pages that was supposed to enhance cooperation among the provinces. Ambiguities of interpretation that govern the distribution of water during shortages have heightened mistrust, preventing or delaying the construction of mutually beneficial dams: no province, for example, wants to participate without knowing what its allocation from a new dam might be. And the accord could be more comprehensive in several other respects. For instance, it privileges agriculture, and even though that is sensible for a largely agrarian country, there are other national challenges for which the provinces need to find a workable mechanism. Hydroelectric storage, for example, is not mentioned. Flood control is not mentioned.

The answer is simple, Pakistan needs more dams. We all know there are trade-offs in the water management business. But think of the alternative. Try living in a flood, or a drought.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 16th, 2012.


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Dr. Mahmood Ahmad | 8 years ago | Reply

Yes we need dams, but has become a long term dream, we keep talking about, but lack of political will and fiscal space would not let is happen till one day we wake up and like energy we find there is not enough, not only to meet our basic needs-- agriculture, domestic and industrial but also the growing environmental needs, the article missed that part. In short to medium term, like energy there is urgent need for water demand management meaning rationalize water use in agriculture (sugarcane is an uneconomic crop from water use perspective) that use good 90 to 95 % of supply , public awareness to save water and more importantly value the resource (canal water) with price that reflects it value and stops rent seeking.

alok | 8 years ago | Reply

we the natives of poor nations have failed miserably to harness ample natural resources available with us and are harming our own public and are helping rich economies by imports. We never used infinite solar energy which is free if not used through solar electricity route . We never use infinite free rain water at consumption point . We all are foolest one.

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