Given the present leadership’s interest in megaprojects and China’s willingness to invest in large undertakings, I would like to put forward a proposal that may help revive the country’s economy and, at the same time, bring about a significant structural change. I would suggest massive investments in developing the country’s river and canals into waterways. In order to make my point, I will start by referring to an interesting recent work by Peter Zeihan titled The Accidental Superpower. As the book’s title suggests, it is about some of the inherent advantages that made it possible for the United States to remain the world’s dominant economy for more than a century. What helped the country in a significant way are its rivers.
Civilisations have always flourished around rivers. It is 12 times cheaper to transport goods by river than by land. It is especially advantageous if bulk commodities can be transported for export over the waterways to the sea.
Two of the three conditions that contribute to the development of an extensive system of waterways exists in Pakistan. It has a large system of rivers with a total length of 4,000 kilometres. The Indus Waters Treaty has further improved the irrigation network. The approach was to build ‘link canals’ to transport water from the western part of the system to those in the east. There are now 10 link canals with a total length of 800 kilometres. This has increased the potential length of what could be a national waterway to more than 5,000 kilometres.
The second criterion is also fulfilled by Pakistan in that it has the largest contiguous irrigated system in the world. Fed by the Indus River System, this area covers 31 million hectares of land most of which is devoted to the production of cash crops. Most of the output is marketed, sometimes over long distances. Some agricultural commodities also enter international trade. Pakistan, for instance, is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice — by far the largest for the high quality basmati variety. The country’s competiveness would improve immeasurably if these bulk commodities were moved over rivers rather than over land — by road or rail. The only condition Pakistan does not have is an extensive network of ports to connect the river system to the sea.
Why has Pakistan not developed an extensive system of waterways given its favourable environment? The answer lies in the way the irrigation infrastructure was developed over time. Much of the irrigation system was built by the British rulers as part of their effort to solve the problem of recurrent famines in the eastern part of their Indian domain. Importing grain to provide the needed food when shortages occurred in Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Orissa was an expensive proposition. The cost-conscious British administration chose to develop the vast Indus plane as India’s granary. Not with enough rainfall, this plane could produce only if it was supplied with irrigation water. This was done by the construction of a system of barrages that diverted water into canals. Consequently, some 18 barrages — six on the Indus, five on the Chenab, three each on the Jhelum and the Sutlej and one on the Ravi — cut the river system, making it unfit for long-distance navigation. It is not surprising that the British chose to move the surplus food grains the Indus plane began to produce by road and rail rather than by river.
Having turned to the Chinese to help the country by investing in the development of physical infrastructure, Pakistan could add development of waterways to the megaprojects to which Beijing has committed itself. The Chinese would be the ideal partner for developing this particular system of communication. The ancient Grand Canal was a major source of commerce in the densely-populated parts of the country. In developing its own rivers for irrigation and power, the Chinese have spent considerable amount of money to ensure that navigation was not interfered with.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 1st, 2014.