It is heartening to see articles on Pakistan’s water issues appear with greater frequency in newspapers. The chief justice deserves a great deal of credit for this. His campaign to generate funds for the construction of new dams has brought Pakistan’s water issues to the forefront.
It is now imperative for the government, particularly the Ministry of Water Resources, to step forward and take ownership of resolving the water challenges faced by the country. The minister in charge must inform parliament, the media and citizens about what the government considers are the top issues facing the country in water-resource governance and management; outline the priority in which the government plans to address these challenges; and provide a roadmap of specific actions that the government plans to take to address the challenges.
Pakistan’s water issues are numerous and can seem overwhelming. In such a situation, it is easy to fall into the trap of trying to fix everything at the same time. Or equally, to try and implement individual solutions detached from an overarching strategy. Both will result in the implementation of unsustainable stop-gap measures, diverting precious resources away from deeper structural issues that need to be addressed.
The minister must, therefore, focus his efforts on formulating an overarching strategy on the basis of which all water programmes in the country are implemented. Without a strategy, it will be almost impossible to determine whether the right programmes are being implemented and resources are being apportioned appropriately, and ensure continuity.
The strategy must address a broad set of issues involving technical issues such as dam-building and canal-lining; staffing water-related ministries and departments with water specialists; building sustainable linkages with universities; drafting and implementing new laws on water governance such as those on water-sharing and pricing; and, collecting data and maintaining an up-to-date database of Pakistan’s water uses.
How should the minister go about formulating such a strategy? The first step would be to compile and present the government’s official list of Pakistan’s water issues. Although there are plenty of studies conducted by multilateral agencies and NGOs that list the water issues plaguing the country, the government needs to provide the public with its official list.
A preliminary list should be compiled by the ministry, with input from all relevant ministries and departments. A draft list should then be shared with parliament, academic institutions, military, the media and the civil society for their input. After this is done, the government must present its final list to the public.
With the list formalised, the next step should be to collect relevant data to help gain a deeper understanding of the issues. In order to begin solving problems, we need to bring data into conversations around our water challenges.
Taking the CJ’s campaign as an example, data can help answer questions. What proportion of future predicted demand will the CJ’s dams fulfil? Therefore, how many more dams will be required in the future and at what estimated cost? For the same cost, are there other avenues of water conservation in the agricultural, industrial and household sectors that can help conserve as much water? Can the dams be funded through revenue generated from taxing these sectors for their use of water?
Therefore, once the government’s official list of water issues is finalised, a data gathering and compilation exercise should be initiated to collect, compile and maintain all data relevant to the water challenges affecting the country.
There is considerable data on water issues in Pakistan, which is again mostly compiled by NGOs and multilateral organisations. Unfortunately, it is not known if the government owns up to any of these figures or if it maintains an alternative set of data. What compounds the problem is that it is not known what data, if any, the government uses for planning water programs.
The compiled data should be presented and made available to the public in the form of an official web portal. The database ought to be recognised as the basis on which the government’s water programmes are designed.
It will be acceptable to release the database as a ‘work-in-progress’, with many items identified as missing and earmarked for collection. A half-complete database will still be a giant leap forward in providing the country with some scientific basis on which to understand, debate and chart a course towards an effective water strategy.
Based on an increased understanding of key issues, the government will be in a position to effectively prioritise the order in which it wants to tackle them. It will also be able to identify the necessary actions required to address the problems. The actions along with timelines for implementation should then be presented to the public as a roadmap.
While preparing to embark on this process, the ministry should begin taking immediate steps towards finding personnel who have the right skill-set and expertise to help the ministry formulate a water strategy. This mix of personnel will include experienced government staff from relevant departments, academics, and private-sector professionals from within Pakistan and abroad.
Opposition parties must support the government in this quest. Pakistan’s water issues are a cross-party matter and solutions will require decades of uninterrupted implementation across different governments for success.
The media also has a role to play. It must keep water issues in the forefront of public discourse and ask the government to present its water strategy. Each time the government announces a water programme, the media must question where in the overall strategy the proposed program fits in. It must also ask about the data backing the government’s decision; how the programme is being funded and if the source is sustainable; and what the benchmarks are for measuring the programme’s success.
Although Pakistan’s water issues are challenging, they are not unique. Similar issues have been dealt with effectively across the globe and the knowledge and experience is readily available for others to benefit from. All that is required is for the government, through the Ministry of Water Resources, to invest time and resources at a higher level to strategise and decide how it wants to deal with Pakistan’s water problems.
The writer is a water and environmental engineer based in Canberra.