Water insecurityBy Naseer Memon (The News, 1st Nov 2015)

Water is considered as one of the most curcial non-conventional security drivers that can have potentially devastating implications for inter-state and intra-state relations. Pakistan, with its shared water lines across and within the borders has endured onerous challenges on both fronts. This explains the paramountcy of water security for Pakistan.

With rapidly multiplying population and unabated urbanisation, water will remain at the centre of internal and external conflicts and will continue to draw country’s political fault lines. The sensitivity attached with water puts the national and communal harmony to the test every year. Water and power development authority (WAPDA) recently held a series of consultative meetings to kick off the prime minister’s initiative on water security. As reported in newspapers, the initiative takes a panoramic vista of water challenge covering both demand and supply side aspects.

According to newspaper reports, the initiative follows a report “understanding Pakistan’s water-security nexus” issued by the US Institute of Peace in 2013. The report was yet another reminder of chronic water woes of Pakistan and made a portentous forecast that “because of overuse and misuse, Pakistan is headed toward a serious water crisis. The UN is expected to downgrade Pakistan from ‘water stressed’ to ‘water scarce’ country by 2030.

While issues between India and Pakistan often draw attention, water conflicts within Pakistan’s borders have the explosive potential to poison inter-ethnic and inter-provincial relations and turn simmering tension into violence. In a country where livelihoods depend heavily on reliable access to water, effectively managing water resources can transform a common lightning rod for conflict into an opportunity for building intra-communal cooperation and trust.”

If the aforementioned report inspired this initiative, one wonders why it took more than two years to contemplate the initiative, whereas the report surfaced in 2013. Nevertheless, the initiative has its own value if it does not remain limited to consultations only. Mercifully, the ingredients of the initiative involve wider perspective of the issue and not confined to a date-expired antibiotic of new dams, yet the votaries of Kalabagh dam did not miss this heaven sent opportunity to remind everyone about the panacea of all water related problems of Pakistan.

The initiative encompass population control, water efficiency, water pricing, cropping pattern and policy reforms, storage, conservation of water resources, public awareness etc. While the doomsday prophets construed the aforementioned report as an urgent call for new storages, they deliberately glossed over the key message of the report. Interestingly the report skirted the dam mania and ascribed the crisis to “overuse and misuse” of water rather than hysterical ad nauseam of storage deficiency. The attributed cause unambiguously emphasizes on efficient management and use of water to swat the looming crisis of water insecurity.

Whereas storage is an important contributing factor, it is not the only solution on earth as conjured up by certain damo-phobic vested interest. Considering the fact that large reservoirs entail inflammatory political and socio-environmental repercussions, it would be pertinent to decipher the riddle of “overuse and misuse” in the local context to find solutions leading towards convergence and consensus.
Water bureaucracy of Pakistan has an inherent propensity of suggesting new dams, particularly Kalabagh dam as an open-sesame to all water problems of Pakistan.
Water bureaucracy of Pakistan has an inherent propensity of suggesting new dams, particularly Kalabagh dam as an open-sesame to all water problems of Pakistan. Always starting the debate with a non-starter has kept us moving in circles, exchanging stale arguments, stoking acrimonies, trampling trust and widening crevasses among the people and provinces. This explains the frustration of the chairman Wapda that he expressed during the consultation in Hyderabad by lamenting that “unfortunately, there is no harmony among provinces on water issues”.

Achieving the fervently desired harmony needs a process of meaningful engagement with all federating units without smacking premeditated solutions. Disharmony on water issues is rooted in decades of inapt and partisan policies of water bureaucracy nestled in Wapda itself. Over the years, Wapda arrogated itself to janitor and guardian of the interest of one province only. Wapda, rather than acting as a professional entity to safeguard genuine interests of all federating units, emerged as a proxy representative of Punjab province on the most contentious issue of water.
As a national entity its prime responsibility was to stay neutral on controversial projects and uphold higher standards of professional values and competence.

In a fit of becoming pennant bearer of sanctified Kalabagh dam project, it obliterated its integrity and credibility earned during its formative years. Heavily dominated by Punjab-based officials, it produced contradictory and dubious data to justify a dam that is resented and rejected by elected assemblies and people of the three provinces.

Wapda’s relentless pontification on the project not only brought ignominy for the organisation and discredited it as a premier water development entity, it also cultivated a profound distrust among federating units and effectively slammed the doors of a constructive dialogue to find rational solutions. Wapda merits a critical introspection and objective stocktaking of its institutional conduct. Its tainted past has made it a major barrier in fostering consensus and harmony on water controversy in Pakistan.

Water problem of Pakistan is akin to multi organ failure and cannot be cured with the pill of storage alone. There is any array of issues associated with water security of the country that needs multi-disciplinary measures to secure water future of Pakistan. If today Pakistan’s per capita water availability has perilously tumbled from 5294 cubic metres per person in 1951 to little over 1000 cubic metres today; it is not because water has been siphoned out of our system but mainly because our population has bloated from 34 million during the corresponding years.

Similarly, Pakistan’s ageing irrigation infrastructure and obsolete irrigation practices are another major area of concern. Official data shows staggering loss of 65 million acre feet (MAF) in the system. It includes 32 MAF seeping down in the saline water pockets, rendering it unrecoverable for any other use. This amounts to storage capacity of nearly five Kalabagh dams.

Water bureaucracy never concentrates on conserving these five Kalabagh dams being lost to nowhere but keeps clamouring against water flowing below Kotri barrage which is a prerequisite for ecological health of flood plains, wetlands, riverine forest, communities and Indus delta eco-system. This idiosyncrasy stems from an unremitting obsession with new dams and has served only one purpose of vitiating relations between embittered provinces and federation.

Interestingly, the five key recommendations mentioned in the aforementioned report do not include new storages and dams; it rather underlines policy oriented solutions to address water challenges faced by the country.

Water productivity is another missing dimension of the water discourse. Pakistan consumes 90 per cent of water for irrigation/agriculture purpose. Irrigation depicts only input aspect, which dominates the whole debate on water, leaving more critical aspect of output and productivity completely unquestioned. Amid this ruckus, the real point of discussion i.e. output of water has been completely obscured.

Water is a key ingredient of the value chain of agriculture. Since water has remained a priceless commodity therefore the debate remained centred only around supply augmentation of water. Myopic water bureaucracy remains unfazed on dismal water productivity in the country. Pakistan’s productivity per unit of water is only 0.13 kg per cubic meter, which is almost one third of neighbouring India where water productivity is 0.39 kg/m3. China’s productivity is even higher i.e. 0.82 kg/m3. Likewise productivity per unit of land is another ignored parameter. Pakistan produces 2.65 metric tons of wheat per hectare which is lower than 2.91 MT/hectare of India. Ukraine and Uzbekistan produce 3.09 and 4.43 metric tons of wheat per hectare respectively. Pakistan produces 3.64 MT/hectare of rice compared to 4 MT/hectare in Bangladesh and 4.73 in Indonesia.

A similar scrutiny of cropping pattern is also much desirable.
Pakistan grows rice on 2.8 million hectares and sugarcane on 1.1 million hectares. Both are water greedy crops requiring 1500 mm and 1800 mm of water compared to only 480 mm consumed by wheat. Ultimately water is an input ingredient, therefore its value should be measured with its output. The whole debate of new dams becomes futile in absence of discussion on more fundamental issue of productivity of water and land. Pakistan can achieve the end objective of higher yields by enhancing output of water rather than an endless battle over new dams.

Politically inflammable stuff like water needs diligent handling. The prime minister’s water security initiative ought to be liberated from the clutches of rhetorical platitude of supply side solutions that generates only an endless inconclusive debate.

The initiative should focus on non-controversial and non-conventional aspects of water security with an ultimate objective of increasing yield per every drop of water and per acre of land. The initiative can make some meaningful contribution only if it shuns obduracy of past and desist from taking tunnel-view of the multi-dimensional challenge of water security.

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