The large-scale initiation of irrigation in the Indus Basin by the British colonialist is one of the most significant — if not the most significant — features of the history of the region. Few have appreciated the enormity it represents in the trajectory of our history, politics and culture. And fewer still understand the affects it has on the groundwater in the region.
The British irrigation system rolled out in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in a massive injection of water into aquifers. Since this injection was more than the drainage capacity of the aquifers, it led to an unprecedented rise in groundwater levels and to large-scale water-logging and salinity issues.
The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 and the irrigation infrastructure built in Pakistan as a result saw the start of large-scale groundwater exploitation. There were 2,700 tube wells in Pakistan in 1950, and this number increased to over 600,000 by 2003. Now, it is estimated that 75 per cent of the increase in water supplies in the last 25 years has been attributed to public and private groundwater exploitation (private farmers are said to have invested about Rs24 billion into groundwater development).
The next phase of Pakistan’s groundwater development is now to rise to the challenge of preserving the groundwater resource base, its recharge and discharge, upon which, in the words of John Briscoe, “so much life and wealth now depends”.
In a paper titled “Pakistan’s Groundwater Reservoir and its Sustainability” by Muhammad Amin, a former Member (Water) Wapda, the writer states that the groundwater potential in Punjab, Sindh, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are stated as 42.75 million acre feet (MAF), 18 MAF, 3.11 MAF and 1.21 MAF respectively. However, due to the virtual absence of groundwater management, people are free to install tube wells and extract unlimited amounts of groundwater without regard to the detrimental affect on the aquifer. Where pumping is in excess of the aquifer’s recharge rate, the mining of the aquifer will result in accelerated depletion.
At present, it is estimated that five per cent of the area of Punjab and 15 per cent of Balochistan contains groundwater outside the reach of poor farmers who can only afford shallow pumping wells. And this area may increase to 20 per cent in Punjab and 30 per cent in Balochistan in the next 25 years because of the growth in groundwater withdrawals.
Without doubt then, there is a need for a groundwater regulatory framework in Pakistan that will ensure a sustainable and equitable use of our groundwater resource. But the groundwater equation doesn’t end there and is made infinitely more complicated if one considers the affect of groundwater extraction across the border in India.
In the past few years, data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) shows groundwater in North India has been disappearing. The northern states of Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana have all the ingredients of groundwater exploitation: staggering population growth, rapid economic development and water-hungry farms which, because of subsidised tube well tariffs, account for about 95 per cent of groundwater use in the region.
A time-lapse video of groundwater resources in north India taken by the GRACE satellite shows the changes in groundwater levels across the border in Pakistan, raising the question of whether or not groundwater use on one side of the border is affecting the groundwater on the other.
At the moment, Indo-Pak water relations are bound by the Indus Waters Treaty. However, the Treaty is a surface water document and does not relate to groundwater use. The big questions then are: if there is a link between groundwater resources across the border, how will these two countries devise a mechanism to regulate the use of the resource; and will they be able to achieve a regulatory mechanism that is both profitable and sustainable? The law of transboundary aquifers adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2009 sets out the basic obligations of countries sharing a transboundary aquifer resource, and may be of some use in developing an arrangement between India and Pakistan.
The IUCN’s Draft Policy Brief “Beyond Indus Water Treaty: Ground Water and Environmental Management — Policy Issues and Options” identifies the following key policy issues: depletion of aquifers in northern India and impact on Pakistan’s aquifers; entry of effluent into western rivers, growing demand of surface water to recharge aquifers in Indus-India; and seepage losses in lakes and reservoirs.
The current framework, leave alone bitter politics, of the Indus Treaty may not allow for such policy issues to be discussed. But groundwater management is definitely a water issue between the two countries. It is up to governments on both sides, supported by civil society, to seize hold of the agenda on this matter and to initiate a dialogue that can secure the water and food security of future generations.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2012.