A crisis of our own making

June 08,2018

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The print, electronic and social media narratives on the Kishanganga Dam would have the citizens believe that Pakistan’s water crisis is because of the dams being built by India in Occupied Kashmir.

For sure, under the current virulently anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim government, India would go to any extent to weaken us. However, blaming India for our water woes is a convenient alibi for the decades of neglect and mismanagement of our water resources. Our water crisis is largely of our own making.

First, because of an uncontrolled population explosion and absolutely no efforts to reduce fertility and population growth rates, the per capita availability of water dropped from 3,000 cubic metres in 1980 to about 1,200 in 2018. In another 30 years, unless there is a dramatic reduction in our population growth rate, water-availability will fall to 500 cubic metres per capita – a level at which water availability will become a constant constraint, as happened in Mohenjodaro and Harappa. But well before that time, the federation will unhinge as provinces will begin fighting each other over water. Even if India does not build any dams on the eastern rivers we will still be facing a water crisis.

Second, this water crisis is a result of our leaders’ indecisiveness, incompetence of institutions, corruption and outdated and wasteful agricultural practices. There are many strategic blunders that have resulted in the aggravation of this crisis. Initially, in1999, the Neelum-Jhelum project was a$1 billion project, scheduled for completion in five to six years. It was the governments’ and Wapda’s incompetence that turned the project into a $4 billion project that took 20 years to be completed. The plant is still not fully operational.

Moreover, the cost of electricity from the Neelum-Jhelum project is probably one of the highest, but the delay has caused a colossal damage to our national interest. Indian planners must be overjoyed at this delay, because it gave them a freehand in designing their dams upstream of Neelum-Jhelum. Had we completed the project in time we would have had far more credible legal (and moral) rights under the Indus Waters Treaty to ensure that the designs of India’s dams upstream incorporated the water requirements.

In 2006, I had advised Gen Musharraf to build the Bhasha Dam using our own resources (excluding Wapda), rather than seeking support from donors. Since the dam was huge in size and was located in a disputed area donors had to seek a No-Objection Certificate from India, this gave both India and the donors a chance to stall the project on one pretext or the other. At that time the Bhasha Dam was going to cost about $8 to 9 billion over 10 years, which we could clearly afford from our resources. It was as strategic a project as our nuclear programme hence, it was better we built it on our own.

However, the civilian government wrongly advised him that all the major donors were at Pakistan’s doorsteps willing to pay billions of dollars for the project. Twelve years later, the dam is still a dream, and will now cost almost double the original amount. Had we embarked on the project then, we would have had the dam completed by now.

It was in Pakistan’s long-term interest to request China to include the entire cascade of dams on Indus – Bhasha, Dasu, Pattan, Thakot – in CPEC. The total cost of this cascade is about $35 billion, which China could have completed in 10 to 12 years. But our government chose to include in CPEC the more expensive imported thermal option and other low-priority projects – mainly because they could be completed within their tenure. Long-term national interests were sacrificed on the altar of short-term political expediency.

So where do we go from here. The recently approved National Water Policy is a good start. Using that platform, two areas should be prioritised. First, we should embark upon building the entire cascade of dams from our own resources, keeping Wapda out of the implementation. Between the federal and provincial governments, we annually spend close to $15 to 16 billion on development. If we allocate even 20 percent of this into the Indus Dams Fund we should be able to build the entire cascade in 10 to 12 years. In addition, we should consider imposing an ‘Indus Dams Tax’ on every economic activity to raise funds for the dams. People will more willingly pay for this earmarked tax, rather than the normal taxes which go down the sinkhole.

As for India’s dams on the eastern rivers, we should continue to fight for our rights under the Indus Waters Treaty. However, to be successful we need a far more competent legal and technical team. Our teams comprise mediocre officials as compared to those from India – because we allowed our institutions to rot while the latter strengthened its institutions. At the same time, efforts should also be made to inform the public about the facts. While India has, and will, take advantage of the ambiguities in the treaty, we also need to recognise that the guarantors of the treaty do not have soldiers or stealth aircraft to enforce the treaty. When the chips are down, two countries have to resolve issues bilaterally. Our current narrative is patently grandstanding, to keep the public hyped up rather than informed of the facts.

Second, and more important than building dams, is reforming our water management system. We have mismanaged the system and shied away from improving the governance and introducing water-use efficiency. Pakistan requires many difficult, but necessary, institutional and policy reforms to conserve water and improve water-use efficiency.

Pakistani farmers still flood their lands because irrigation water is virtually free and diesel is subsidised. For example, a Pakistani farmer produces one tonne of wheat using 2,800 cubic metres of water. For the same level of production, an Indian farmer uses 1,300 cubic metres and Mexican farmers 1,000 cubic meters. In case of rice and sugarcane, our water use is 50 percent higher than India’s. Saving water will have a much greater impact on water availability than building dams.

One essential tool for water conservation, besides better farming practices, is to increase the price of canal water. Farmers, just like electricity users, will reduce wasteful consumption once price of water rises. Moreover, as a water-scarce country Pakistan should not be cultivating sugarcane or low-value rice. We are better off importing sugar from Cuba, which is cheaper than the domestically produced sugar, and shift our cultivable area to ‘low water-use high-value crops’. We should aim to shift farmers to these other crops in a decade.

Pakistan needs to invest in improving its canal infrastructure, and strengthen governance so that water allocation is equitable among the head, middle and tail ends of the system. Investment must also be done to improve the quality of inputs, seeds, crop husbandry and post-harvest processing. Equally crucial is the need to improve irrigation and cropping technologies.

In conclusion, the only way Pakistan can manage the looming water crisis is to put its own house in order. The ‘blame-the-enemy’ narrative may be great to cover our own incompetence, but it diverts the attention and undermines the urgency for fixing problems. Without losing more time, our leadership should build a national consensus on actions to conserve water, improve water use and build the Indus dams cascade using our own resources.

The writer is a former adviser to the World Bank.


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