Life without water is inconceivable. Humans are born in water and their body contain about 65 percent water. Life on any planet is not viable without water. Water provides security in more ways than one and clean drinking water forms an essential requirement for human survival and is a prerequisite for agriculture for food production, while hydel energy and its nexus with water is key to sustainable development.
Pakistan is blessed with water resources from about 7250 glaciers in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; the western and eastern rivers flowing from India and Afghanistan; rain in large areas of the country; and a coastline of 1,046 kilometres in Sindh and Balochistan. It has water infrastructure comprising the Indus Basin Irrigation System – the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system stretched over a distance of about 2,880 km; large dams like Tarbela and Mangla; barrages at Guddu and Sukkur; network of canals; and several smaller dams, barrages and canals in its large territory of 881,917 sq km irrigating an estimated 45 million acres of farm lands.
The country has educational institutions producing engineers, scientists, business and public policy graduates to manage its water resources. This human resource has manned our globally recognized institutions like Wapda. In 1960, the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) was inked with India to share river waters. There are laws in place for the management, preservation and development of water resources, as well as several policies to plan, implement and govern. The country has reasonable infrastructure, institutions and instruments to manage its water resources for providing security and sustainable development of life for the people of the federation.
In the last five years – 2014-2019 – significant progress was made in the water sector with construction and commissioning of small reservoirs, building of barrages, and lining of canals for seepage control and to provide for the over 210 million population with yearly growth rate of about two percent. In early 2018, a comprehensive National Water Policy was released and is being implemented by the federation and its provinces. Later in 2018, to protect the environment, a five-year 10 billion tree plantation project was launched. However, this period (2014-2019) faced several challenges.
The first and most threatening challenge has been the population explosion, bringing down water availability and directly affecting agriculture, food, and energy. A 2015 IMF report indicated the increasing demand of water which is projected at 274 million acre-feet (MAF) by 2025, while supply is expected to remain stagnant at 191 MAF, resulting in a demand-supply gap of approximately 83 MAF. Therefore, it is imperative to control population growth by launching incentives, creating awareness of family planning and strict management of our borders for illegal inward migration, since that too places an additional burden. This and several policy measures, especially the appropriate pricing for use of water in agriculture, industry, homes and offices, need to be addressed on a war footing.
The total river inflow between 1979 and 2015, reported by Wapda, is an average yearly of 193.3 Million Acre Feet (MAF). Out of this water availability, a yearly average of 15.6 MAF is reportedly lost due to evaporation and ‘others’ as it reaches Kotri barrage. This water transmission loss is equivalent to two to three large storage dams, while we have been clamouring for additional dams. In 2005, the Parliamentary Committee on Water Resources tabled in the Senate of Pakistan a unanimous report endorsed by the then four chief ministers and federal water power minister. The key recommendation was to build the Diamer-Basha (DB) Dam with 6,500 MAF water storage capacity. Even though accepted by the then governments, it has been delayed for all these years resulting in adverse economic and human consequences.
Budget 2019-20 with a total outlay of Rs8,238 billion has allocated Rs16 billion for the Diamer-Basha Dam. If we believe water is an important security element, then just like we spend on our security, we need to strongly invest on water to build new reservoirs for increased water availability and also invest in the old water infrastructure for their protection.
In the next five years, our challenge is to implement the country’s vision and plans for water development with singular attention – without regard to party, regional and personal considerations. A serious commitment is needed in the water sector by the government, supported by parliament, for our security and survival. Urgent action with strong leadership is needed to raise the quality of life of people. The following must be the focus: population control for increased water availability; stern actions against officials involved in losses and leakages of water, similar to actions when defence information is lost or leaked; make clean drinking water available for all to fulfil our national and international commitment; train the youth and women for water preservation, on the lines of compulsory military training for defence as practised in many countries. We must focus on water not with two eyes, but with the five I’s – Infrastructure, Institutions, Investment, Innovation and Information.
In 2015, the UNDP established 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), of which Goal 6 is ‘Clean Water & Sanitation’ to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Goal 2 is ‘Zero Hunger’ and Goal 7 is ‘Affordable and Clean Energy’. Thus, in the form of these SDGs the international focus on water and its nexus with food and energy becomes clear. Let’s remember that climate change is an overarching challenge to water, food and energy and is important for human life and requires a separate deliberation, thus not dealt herein in detail.
Water resource governance is summed up well by the Global Water Partnership in these words, ‘Managing the world’s water resource is foundational to development. If you want to feed the world – and contribute to poverty reduction, human health, and economic prosperity – pay attention to water.’
Water governance requires fair distribution of water, both within the country and within the transboundary. At the regional level, we must continue to build on the Indus Waters Treaty, irrespective of the election mongering and threats by Indian PM Modi to stop waters flowing into Pakistan. We are on high moral ground and our Foreign Office must mobilize international support to strengthening the Treaty.
Not only that, we should also engage in earnest with Afghanistan for use of about 18 MAF from Kabul River we receive from our brotherly, western, upper riparian neighbour. In case of River Kabul, we are the upper riparian when the Chitral river enters Afghanistan to join the Kunar river which then flows into River Kabul which later enters Pakistan from north west. A joint study, plans and any future structures should be undertaken with Afghanistan for a win-win situation for both countries which will also bring the two people together for peace, development and progress in the region.
Water is a trust for our coming generations and therefore we should invest in it for development and progress to preserve our sovereignty, particularly in the current self-inflicted difficult times of economic hardship and uncertainty.
Water is a development tool and if any adversary was to use it as weapon, we must desist with all might and determination. Water is an instrument of peace and development and the governments should recognize this to fulfil their international obligations. Let history judge this generation as a responsible custodian and not a plunderer.
The writer is chairman of the Water Environment Forum, Pakistan and former federal minister and senator.