More Than Kalabagh, Water Usage And Abuse Need National Rethink

Jun 7, 2018 (BE2C2) — Pakistan has the world’s fourth-highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate — the amount of water, in cubic meters used per unit of GDP is the world’s highest. This suggests that no country’s economy is more water-intensive than Pakistan’s. Household water consumption (like food consumption) in the country is also one of the highest in the region.

Over the last 48 years, no new dams (small, medium or large) were built to support the water situation for various known and unknown reasons.

We have only two big reservoirs and we can save water only for 30 days. India can save for 190 days.

According to the IMF, Pakistan’s per capita annual water availability is only 1,017 cubic meters — perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Back in 2009, Pakistan’s water availability was about 1,500 cubic meters. It’s alarming that thought-leaders choose to sleep over the matter for 48 years.

Several experts say the time-tested concept of “reduce, reuse, recycle” is the first way to look at the issue at this stage. Costly, long-term based solutions may work ultimately but time is of the essence now.

Resource allocation is an issue. The bulk of Pakistan’s farmland based in Punjab and Sindh is irrigated through a canal system, but the IMF says in a report that canal water is vastly underpriced, recovering only a quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs. Meanwhile, agriculture, which consumes almost all annual available surface water, is largely untaxed.

Experts say water and agriculture need to be taxed so that the revenues generated can be recycled and reused for water management.

Experts also say that population growth and urbanization have also added to the crisis but that’s marginal. In Karachi, a coastal city, water consumption can be gradually switched to desalination plants.

The countrywide issue actually has been exacerbated by poor water management, lack of political will to deal with the crisis for decades and climate change.

“Pakistan is approaching the scarcity threshold for water. What is even more disturbing is that groundwater supplies — the last resort of water supply — are being rapidly depleted. And worst of all is that the authorities have given no indication that they plan to do anything about any of this,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center, told DW in a 2015 interview.

Qazi Talhat, a secretary at the Ministry of Water Resources, said the situation is “scary” for Pakistan.

Water scarcity is also triggering security conflicts in the country. Experts say the economic impact of the water crisis is immense, and the people are fighting for resources. Only about 2 percent of households own nearly 50 percent of land.

On top of all these, arsenic is polluting the groundwater table in huge parts of Punjab and some parts of rural Sindh— the contamination levels in Pakistan are said to be one of the highest in the region, according to a recent study.

Climate change

Water scarcity in Pakistan has been accompanied by rising temperatures. “Heat waves and droughts in Pakistan are a result of climate change,” Mian Ahmed Naeem Salik, an environmental expert and research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad said.

“The monsoon season has become erratic in the past few years. The winter season has shrunk from four to two months in many parts of the country. On top of it, Pakistan cannot save floodwater due to a scarcity of dams,” Salik said. “At the time of Pakistan’s birth in 1947, forests accounted for about 5 percent of the nation’s area, but they have now dropped to only 2 percent. Pakistan must invest in building water reservoirs and plant more trees,” he added.

Water politics

The Tarbela and Mangla dams, the country’s two major water reservoirs, reached their “dead” levels last week, according to media reports. The news sparked a debate on social media over the inaction of authorities in the face of this crisis.

“We have only two big reservoirs and we can save water only for 30 days. India can store water for 190 days whereas the US can do it for 900 days,” Muhammad Khalid Rana, a spokesman for the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) said.

“Pakistan receives around 145 million acre feet of water every year but can only save 13.7 million acre feet. Pakistan needs 40 million acre feet of water but 29 million acre feet of our floodwater is wasted because we have few dams. New Delhi raised this issue with international bodies, arguing that it should be allowed to use the western rivers because Pakistan can’t use them properly,” Rana said.

In 1960, the World Bank brokered the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) that gives Pakistan exclusive rights to use the region’s western rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenaub — while India has the authority over three eastern rivers.

Kugelman says that the Pakistani authorities need to step up efforts to overcome the water crisis, which is partly man-made. “First of all, Pakistan’s leaders and stakeholders need to take ownership of this challenge and declare their intention to tackle it. Simply blaming previous governments, or blaming India, for the crisis won’t solve anything. Next, the government needs to institute a major paradigm shift that promotes more judicious use of water,” Kugelman emphasized.

According to a recent report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Pakistan ranks third in the world among countries facing acute water shortage. Reports by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) also warn the authorities that the South Asian country will reach absolute water scarcity by 2025.

“No person in Pakistan, whether from the north with its more than 5,000 glaciers, or from the south with its ‘hyper deserts,’ will be immune to this [scarcity],” said Neil Buhne, UN humanitarian coordinator for Pakistan.

Researchers predict that Pakistan is on its way to becoming the most water-stressed country in the region by the year 2040.

It is not the first time that development and research organizations have alerted Pakistani authorities about an impending crisis, which some analysts say poses a bigger threat to the country than terrorism.

In 2016, PCRWR reported that Pakistan touched the “water stress line” in 1990 and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005. If this situation persists, Pakistan is likely to face an acute water shortage or a drought-like situation in the near future, according to PCRWR, which is affiliated to the South Asian country’s Ministry of Science and Technology. It has been asking for Rs50m from the federal government to carry out research and development for creative solutions.

Experts say building huge dams just won’t fit the forward-looking scenario.  The effects of climate change include surface water and groundwater reduction must be taken into account while thinking of big dams. Those on the drawing table, like the proposed Kalabagh Dam ought to be revisited with new available hydrological data and future conditions as well as their cost/benefit calculus compared to building many smaller dams with redundancy built into the overall water management.

Other things being equal, a paradigm shift is needed in water resource usage and management, experts say. Most importantly, more supply won’t address demand-side causes of the crisis (wasteful consumption, pricing policies, leaky infrastructure etc).

A Chinese expert suggested last year that Pakistan should switch from agriculture economy to an industry-based. There has been no discussion or debate on this.

(Based on original reports in DW, Dawn, Hydropower, and the IMF Report)

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