Conserving our precious water

How much more can we mine the Indus for our uses without considering how we have destroyed its ecology.


Ahmad Rafay Alam March 26, 2013
The writer is the Vice President of the Pakistan Environmental Law Association

In 2010, the Planning Commission (PC) of Pakistan announced its Framework for Economic Growth (FEG). The FEG aimed to replace the PC’s previous 10-year development plans with a new paradigm for economic growth. It remains to be seen whether the FEG will outlast the previous government and entrench itself in the planning process or whether it will be replaced by the old or even a new approach.

Central to the FEG is the idea of creative cities. It is argued that the Pakistani people and economy are fast becoming urban phenomena and that for the Pakistani economy to continue to grow and provide for the needs and demands of its rapidly growing population, for it to prosper in an increasingly complex and specialised urbanised global economy, the economic efficiency of our cities — measured in terms of how  ‘creative’ they allow one to be — should be a priority.

There are other themes in the FEG, like the need for quality governance, vibrant markets and an energetic youth and community. As a layman lawyer, I can find no objection to the approach of the FEG, but find that its reference to creative cities has drawn it the most criticism.

IA Rehman once described the typical argument in Pakistan as one party making wild assumptions about the other’s argument, sweeping in with rhetorical flourish and then claiming victory. But there is more to the back-and-forth on the FEG.

Critics of the FEG will point out that even though Pakistan’s population is rapidly urbanising and may reach 60 per cent urbanisation in the coming decades, more than half of the labour force remains involved in agriculture. They will point out that even though services, industry and manufacturing — all essentially urban activities — contribute to nearly two thirds of GDP, Pakistan’s economic development has always been linked to its agricultural productivity. They will tell you that the FEG, by ignoring Pakistan’s rural and agricultural character, is a flawed document that needs revisiting.

I am no expert in economic planning, but I write this column in light of World Water Day, which happened on March 22, and can’t help but notice how the back-and-forth on the FEG also involves water and how water is central to whatever course better minds have in plan for Pakistan’s economy.

Throughout history, large basin civilisations like those along the Nile, Indus, Euphrates and Yellow rivers have evolved hydrological societies characterised by labour-intensive water management, rigid and stratified bureaucracies and authoritarian government command. These characteristics were necessary in order to produce a surplus that could sustain a large population and ensure security. In contrast, the narrow valleys of the northern Mediterranean were not able to produce the surplus necessary to sustain large populations and so, the people of those areas took to navigating the relatively stable waters of the lake-like Mediterranean and looked to trade to generate their surplus. These practices, in turn, evolved the society into one premised on market democracy and private property.

The use of the waterwheel and better drainage practices in Europe, from the Middle Ages, coupled with the inability of any ruler to hinder water supplies (on the Nile, all it took was an order from the Pharaoh to close a canal), spurred the growth of multiple, autonomous, decentralised regions and market-centric towns that, in turn, shaped the political and economic norms of that society.

A reference to water in the debate on the FEG brings out some of the changing contours of Pakistan’s own society. It is without doubt that we are an Empire of the Indus and all “Children of the Monsoon” (a phrase I first heard used by the learned Ayub Qutb). But how far can we stretch the surplus of the Indus Basin, our nourisher, our giver, our home? How much more can we mine it for our own uses without considering, for a moment, how we have destroyed its ecology and are on the brink of rendering it unproductive? The world is changing and so are we. Perhaps, there is room to consider the lessons water teaches us through history.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 27th, 2013.

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NDada | 7 years ago | Reply | Recommend

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Feryal | 7 years ago | Reply | Recommend

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