‘Megaprojecting’ out of economic difficulties

Published: December 1, 2014
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

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.

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Reader Comments (10)

  • Don't Take It Easy
    Dec 1, 2014 - 3:12AM

    Excellent proposal.
    Inadvertently, unwittingly, or unintentionally but implicitly you have shown approval for the current mega projects that the Government is undertaking.
    Your fresh proposal of converting the country’s rivers and canals into waterways with connections of ports to the sea is a brilliant idea. Yet, the problem is a very low level of water between December and February when snows do not melt in the Himalayas and the rivers run almost dry. How do you suggest that this disadvantage be overcome?


  • Dec 1, 2014 - 6:54AM

    Pakistan is letting 60% of its sweet water go to waste. Minimal dams are built, let alone the canal work. You have done very little in 67 years because your Military wants no progress or prosperity for their own luxurious survival.


  • Feroz
    Dec 1, 2014 - 8:57AM

    Water could become the most precious commodity of the twenty first century. In all of South Asia the rulers have not grasped the dire threats posed to their survival by poor water management. Any further delay in cleaning up their act will extract a heavy price. Resources allocated in this direction will bring more than multiple benefits.


  • Gp65
    Dec 1, 2014 - 10:30AM

    In 2013 it was reported that only 2 of India’s 28 states had seen a rise in water levels in the last 10 years. Gujarat which has drought like conditions 7 out of 10 years was one of the 2 states. Apart from building Sardar Sarovar dam, Modi had focused on building tens of thousands of checkdams. So at least one South Asian country DOES understand the value of preserving water.


  • abreez
    Dec 1, 2014 - 10:55AM

    Willingly or unwillingly Pakistan will undergo radical changes, and there will be different reasons, like global warming, Pakistan’s new role as a neutral economic facilitator for different countries, world connectivity by rail and road and Pakistan’s role as an important connecting country. I have a dream that one day there will name of a Pakistani among richest man of the world and pray from Almighty that O Lord’ some reasonable name.’


  • vinsin
    Dec 1, 2014 - 1:31PM

    Modern transportation will be on rails and land connectivity. Waterways transportation are great between rivers connecting cities. Anyway thanks for accepting that Indus Water Treaty favours Pakistan and Pakistan got land to feed 25% of Indian Muslims/Indian Population. Indus Water Treaty resulted in lack of food in India for many years.


  • Mohammed
    Dec 1, 2014 - 5:03PM

    If the Brits hadn’t built the canal system, does anyone believe that we had the will,leadership or the intellectual capacity to do it ourselves?


  • Imran Muhammad
    Dec 2, 2014 - 1:40PM

    Pakistan first five year plan (1955-1960) proposed this project in the West Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh). The question is why after 55 years we are talking about this project again while write was one of the economists who set direction of Pakistani economy and development projects.


  • Yo2Da2
    Dec 2, 2014 - 9:38PM

    @abreez: The water problem is due to unchecked population growth which negates any progress in water conservation projects. Both – drastically curbing population and water conservation – should be the highest priority. (In 1969, Biologist Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University wrote a widely quoted book The Population Bomb. While people cite the scientific progress in growing crops to feed the hungry as “destroying” the book’s underlying thesis, the basic warning of the book still applies. Our planet is in die straits because of the population AND lifestyle pressures. Earth with one or two billion people would have been and would be better off with overall a better quality of life for all of Planet Earth’s living inhabitants and life-giving and life-sustaining resources. India will have – shudder!!! – 1.7 billion people before the population stabilizes and starts to decline. Pakistan’s population will continue to grow apace in the same time period (500 million) – and because of much higher fertility rates, it won’t stabilize for some time after that. Education and empowerment of women in South Asia should be given a high priority, too, as educated women have fewer children, as studies from around the world have shown. Long before we saw this problem, there was a novel in the 1970s which imagined how impoverished people from “third world” countries would start migrating in huge numbers in boats to rich countries. That has proven to be prescient!


  • Yo2Da2
    Dec 2, 2014 - 11:31PM

    @Yo2Da2: I did not mean drastically “curbing” water conservation. I meant the opposite. Sorry.


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