Rivers, people, states

Published: December 23, 2012
The writer is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Forman Christian College University and Beaconhouse National University

The writer is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Forman Christian College University and Beaconhouse National University

The Indus Basin, which has sustained civilisations across millennia, presents new challenges to the people and states of the region. The way these challenges are addressed will shape the economic future of the people who share the Indus waters. Let us identify on the basis of the latest evidence; the nature of the water problem at hand.

Three hard facts have emerged: first, the per capita annual water availability in the Indus Basin has declined from 5,121 cubic metres in 1962 to 1,396 cubic metres in 2011. The total annual river flow of the Indus Basin has declined from 119 million acre feet (MAF) in 1960 to 113 MAF in 1997. The rate of decline accelerated in between 1998 and 2011 with the annual flow of rivers in the Indus Basin falling to 102 MAF by 2011. In the case of Chenab, the average annual flow has declined by 12 per cent between 1960 and 2011, while in the river Jhelum it has declined by 17 per cent. The decline in river flows could quite possibly be due to the lower precipitation in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, which constitute the watershed region of these two rivers. In any case, the declining river flows and increased seasonal fluctuations in these flows create the imperative for Pakistan to improve its water management and increase water use efficiency. Collaborative efforts by India and Pakistan for afforestation and management of the watersheds could slow down the increased sedimentation of rivers which reduces the life of dams downriver. Reforestation in the watershed could also prevent devastating flash floods downstream during heavy downpours in the catchment areas.

Second, the monsoons have shifted from the eastern part to the western part of what is Pakistan today, while the timing is delayed compared to the past. There is also reduced glacial melt in August, a month in which glacial melt historically was high. The increased variability in the timing and location of monsoons and the change in the temporal pattern of glacial melt will further accentuate the observed shortages of water in the Indus Basin during planting seasons. It is, therefore, crucial for the people and the Government of Pakistan to realise that Pakistan has shifted from being a water surplus to a water-deficient country and that this shortage is likely to get worse in the decades ahead. This has urgent implications for policy and public action to improve the irrigation efficiency as well as the water use efficiency.

At the moment, out of every 100 MAF of water pulled out from the rivers for irrigation, 63 MAF are lost during transportation before the water reaches the farm gate. It is necessary, therefore, to line canals wherever possible and construct concrete watercourses. The application of water on farms is also highly inefficient due to the lack of land-levelling and wastage of water during its flow to the root zone of the crop. An institutional framework for incentivising farmers to improve on farm water management is required. The actions to be incentivised and supported through extension services are the use of laser-levelling, drip irrigation and replenishing the organic matter in the topsoil so as to reduce the water requirement per acre. It may also be worth considering a change in the cropping pattern towards less water intensive crops.

The third important dimension of water shortage is the imperative to improve the extremely low water use efficiency in the Indus Basin. In the case of the top five food producers in the world (Brazil, China, France, Mexico and USA) the water use efficiency is $23.80 per cubic metre of water used. In the case of the Indus Basin, water use efficiency is as low as $3.34. This suggests the need to devote greater cropped acreage to high value-added farm products such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, inland fisheries, livestock and dairy products. Facing the challenge of water shortage in the Indus Basin requires new initiatives in public policy and interstate cooperation.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Maula Jut
    Dec 23, 2012 - 10:43PM

    The writer has made valuable suggestions. Will the Planning Commission and the Water Ministry respond to this or keep wasting tax payer’s money on interminable cups of tea and samosas. Or when they have the time, someone among them may scribble, “seen, file.” That is what the bureaucracy has been doing for over a century. As for the politicos, their favourite reaction is: what’s in it for me?
    Good luck Professor Akmal Hussain.


  • Avtar
    Dec 24, 2012 - 1:48AM

    This is a balanced article – stating facts. Normally, most Pakistani writers play the blame game of India stealing its waters. It is imperative that both countries, at least the adjoining provinces cooperate in efficient water management projects.

    The writer could have emphasized that in addition to decline in water availability demand has increased in both countries due primarily to population growth.


  • Observer
    Dec 24, 2012 - 3:08AM

    “the per capita annual water availability in the Indus Basin has declined from 5,121 cubic metres in 1962 to 1,396 cubic metres in 2011.”

    This is the critical point, but it is solely due to the fact that Pakistan’s population has grown five-fold in the last six decades. Still, Pakistan has one of the highest population growth rates and thus the per capita water availability will continue to decline.


  • Anonymous
    Dec 24, 2012 - 5:15AM

    Dear sir,
    Your article mentions all things that any body who reads about water issues know about.
    Issue in Pakistan is to settle question of “right of lower riparian and upper riparian”. Here big brother has guns, media and judiciary on its side.
    In case of river Nile Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan are upper riparians. If they block water then Egypt will become desert.
    Many people from big brother’s house does not know the difference between barrage and a dam. Kalabag dam is water consumptive project like a barrage.They make big hue and cry against India about non- consumptive dams but nobody files case in international court for this as they know that indial can make 100 dams without holding a single drop of water, what is right of Pakistan.
    Egypt has a right to wage a war and destroy consumptive dams if upper riparian builds consumptive dams or barrages.
    In Pakistan including judges talk about consensus. Consensus is already there that other 3 brothers don’t want that. Does lower riparian has a right to destroy some thing in Pakistan if it is illegally built! No as big brother has the gun power and power flows from gun. This gun mentality has trunctated us and so forth.
    But “consensus” is not the consensus, but desire of big brother to be fulfilled at any cost.
    One day big brother will make “black snack project” even at the cost of federation. I am saying this because when judges of Punjab are so myopic what to expect from those whose education is only upto intermediate and who own the country.
    I hope that some one is listening “those ear rings are useless, how expensive they may be when they take away ears”
    I hope that sanity prevails and people listen to alternative ideas as dr Saheb has put here.


  • vasan
    Dec 24, 2012 - 6:35AM

    Population control. drip irrigation, check dam building and rain water harvesting are simultaneous measures that Pak/India should take but the author forgot all of them.


  • wonderer
    Dec 24, 2012 - 10:16AM

    The easiest solution to all water problems, which is the one most likely to be wholeheartedly adopted by the Government and the people at large, is to blame India for it all, and sit tight on one’s haunches. See me same time next year in case of any doubts.


  • Mirza
    Dec 24, 2012 - 10:59AM

    @vasan: “Population control. drip irrigation, check dam building and rain water harvesting are simultaneous measures that Pak/India should take but the author forgot all of them.”
    Simple, concise and principled suggestions that do not hurt any party. The rain water must be used and not wasted. It would make a big difference for all. Small dams can be made to collect rain and flood water without chocking the Indus River downstream.
    Drip irrigation would make a world of difference. I have seen farms covered with a black plastic with small holes for plants. This controls weeds (by blocking sun) and evaporation loss. There is only small evaporation from the tiny holes for the plants in addition the plastic cover keeps the soil moist.


  • SM
    Dec 24, 2012 - 12:38PM

    The author talks about a very relevant issue for Pakistan. Happy to see that. I just want to add that Pakistan has water wastage of upto 40% for farm water. If we can just manage our resource more efficiently, our water problem can be resolved however there is little attention on this very important issue amongst the media, civil society and of course consequently the provincial/federal governments.


  • Whatwhat
    Dec 24, 2012 - 6:02PM

    Dear Anonymous,
    Please stick to your Hindus river issue and don’t poke your head in matters that you have very little knowledge and insight about.
    For your information, Ethiopia contributes 86% of the Nile water and provides over 80% of the water that feeds Somalia. We currently use less than 1% of the Nile river and all our attempt to develop our country and use our God given resources has been continually sabotaged by Egypt lobbying the world bank and IMF not to give Ethiopia loans. Please no mistake about it we will use our resources to develop country and lift our people out of poverty. The Nile is ours before it is anyone else’s. What do you mean Egypt has the right to bomb countries???? The Nile is Ethiopia’s . They have no more right to it than us. Go educate yourself before you spout out your useless and incoherent opinion here.Recommend

  • anwar
    Dec 24, 2012 - 8:06PM

    The ultimate solution is of course that our farmers should wear pants and jeans and the planning commission should be Dhoti clad with a pugree. If you get my drift!


  • Khaled
    Dec 25, 2012 - 3:40PM

    @Maula Jut:
    Eygpt Water needs depends more than 95 percent on The River Nile.it has a growing population …I agree that Ethiopia has the right to benefit as it wish by planning projects …BUT there is the well placed principle of No HARM …so cooperation is the key forget about anything else…any threat to Egypt,s Water security is an existential one ..I guess even Ethipoians agree on that …


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