Water has become Pakistan’s number one development and governance issue. While water availability in our river systems has remained fairly stable and predictable, the per capita water availability has diminished from about 1500 to nearly a 1000 cubic meters, owing to fast growing population. This will come further down to a little over 650 cubic meters by 2047, when we will be celebrating our first centenary. Already a contested issue internally between the provinces and externally with the neighbors - Afghanistan, China and India – the government and the parliament need to move with speed and decisiveness to avert escalation of the brewing crisis into an open conflict.
Focus on Blue Economy: On this world Water Day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has an opportunity to set the direction for Pakistan’s water economy. As Pakistan aspires to join the high middle income country’s club in the coming years, we will need to lay foundations for the blue economy. We will need water to fuel our economy, create water jobs, invest in water efficient technologies, create water markets for water savings and systems. It is critical for Pakistan to make water as the central plank of our development agenda, if we are to meet our SDGs targets dealing particularly with the clean drinking water or the Vision 2025 goals. The nation is thirsty for action on five issues to set the direction, and your government Mr. Prime Minster, has the mandate to move forward.
We Need Water Policy:
Pakistan has no water policy. We desperately need one. The Ministry of Planning & Reforms as well as the Ministry of Water and Power circulated two different drafts, one after the other, and both have been withdrawn quietly. The Council of Common Interests is perceived as a spoiler and not an enabler. Hence there is a visibly weak resolve to convene the CCI meeting and presenting the draft policy for approval. In the meanwhile, the provinces have begun to fill the void and some have started working on their own provincial polices. The best of provincial policies cannot be a substitute to a comprehensive National Water Policy.
Regulate & Protect Groundwater:
The country’s groundwater reserves are not regulated. We need to protect groundwater. Pakistan’s agriculture meets about 40 percent of its water needs by extracting ground water. But the water table is fast depleting and getting contaminated both in agricultural and urban areas. Our cities will not be habitable or livable, nor our agriculture is tenable or sustainable if the present rate of groundwater depletion and contamination continues. It is a very poorly governed, or misgoverned, area that has seen no meaningful legislation in decades. In fact, subsidy to have solar energy run tube-wells will accelerate depletion unless clubbed with drip irrigation. Groundwater reserves should be seen as strategic assets, just the way the nuclear capability or glacial waters are. Significant investment needs to be made in mapping, recharging, pricing, and regulating individual and commercial usages. It has increasingly serious implications for our ecosystems, cropping patterns, terms of trade, and transboundary aquafers.
Reform Transboundary Water Institutions:
Water is a transboundary issue for Pakistan. Treat it as one. Water resources are shared with three of our four neighbors in some very significant ways. Any upstream developments can have adverse or even detrimental implications for us. With growing completion on water resources, our neighbors have elaborate plans for infrastructure development. While it is sometimes suggested that we seek their concurrence on our plans, we do not even try to engage with them about their plans. We have failed to engage with them proactively or to explore benefit sharing on the shared basins. Afghanistan and China still offer opportunities for collaborative approaches. Focus on India or the Indus Water Treaty is important, but it should not be at the cost of other water neighbors. In fact, the IWT has provisions for collaboration between the two neighbors but a zero-sum approach, pursued both by India and Pakistan, spoils the atmosphere for additional instruments of collaboration. As lower riparian we cannot afford this and must generate additional policy options for better mechanisms of collaboration. Pakistan Commission for Indus Waters (PCIW) has failed us more than once in negotiations and court cases and we must reconstitute it by converting it into an independent constitutional authority, with strong capacity for technical and legal studies and with strong partnerships with universities and think tanks in such areas as hydrology, meterology, climatology, glaciology, early warning, remote sensing as well as social and economic sciences. Rivers for us have cultural heritage and their sanctity and integrity must be protected. The Commission’s mandate needs to be expanded to cover all transboundary water issues with all neighbors.
Address Interprovincial Trust Gap:
Water is an interprovincial issue. It needs careful political approaches. All provinces are now entangled in subtle water wars. KP aspires to construct more dams than it will need to lay the foundation of inter provincial water markets. While Punjab feels that it is voluntarily surrendering its due share to lower riparian smaller provinces, the smaller provinces led by Sindh accuse Punjab of non-transparent transaction. The seeds of mistrust are also sown by early varieties of water intensive crops in the pre monsoon months when canals run empty and the dams are at dead low levels. Emotions run so high that a reasonable rational conversation on the construction of new reservoirs, even when they are not contested ones, have become hostage to political bickering and expedience. The institutions charged have failed to generate trust amongst the shareholders as well as the stakeholders. Telemetry or other instruments at locations where the water shareholders change hands have remained an elusive dream despite availability of technologies, funds and technical resources. IRSA has shrunk to a small club of well-regarded but retired officials who lack in political clout, clarity of vision, or the sense of urgency to translate the IRSA mandate into action necessary to manage water as a shared national resource. The dysfunction of IRSA is rooted in the fact that water is treated as an orphan issue. As part of Ministry of Water & Power, it has failed to get the same attention that power or energy issues get. Water certainly deserves to be a separate ministry, or at least an independent commission with a constitutional status.
Climate Change is the Biggest Threat to Development:
Climate change poses a more serious threat to Pakistan’s water supply than India. India cannot stop Pakistan’s water beyond a certain number of days even if it wanted to. At the risk of international isolation it can suddenly release water in some of our rivers and cause damage, or deny water to some of our thirsty crops by exploiting timing. And these issues can and should be handled by our water diplomats. But Climate Change poses many more existential challenges to Pakistan’s water governance equation. The changing patterns of monsoon is making the water supply erratic and increasingly unstable and unpredictable. It has started reaching to the upper reaches of our Himalayan ranges and parts of Baluchistan that were not traditionally covered by monsoon rains. Karachi and other coastal areas have begun to receive more frequent warning about cyclones and Tsunamis. Changes in the rain patterns have begun to pose questions about the long-term food security issues and the need to invest in climate smart agriculture. While we have greater incidence of hydro metrological droughts in parts of Baluchistan, Punjab and Sindh, urban and rural flooding is fast becoming a recurrent phenomenon. In fact, torrential rains in Jammu and upper reaches of Kabul River basin, have flooded Sialkot in Punjab and Noshehra in the KP province, drawing our attention to the emerging transboundary risks stemming from climatic changes. As the glaciers recede, we face the threat of permanent reduction in our water life line. Climate Change will be very wet for Pakistan. Let’s now allow it to drown us.
Let Water be the Fuel of Economic Growth:
The Prime Minister will be best advised to have a fresh look at Pakistan’s institutional landscape. The mandates and governance of some of the major water related institutions such as PCIW, IRSA and MOWP need to be revisited. The Prime Minister may like to constitute a national commission to look at water as a source of national cohesion and trust internally, between the provinces. Water also deserves to be an essential component of regional foreign and economic policy. We need to base our energy, food, and DRR policies based on climate change projections. We must address the sticky issues of water access, water equity, and water as a hazard to our development as a national priority. Our vision for Pakistan as a middle income country can only be fueled with water.
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh