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May 18, 2006

Big cities out of water


May 18, 2006


Dr M S Jillani

The gravity of the water-supply situation in the country necessitates immediate steps and a permanent resolution. The problem threatens the entire nation but large cities being centres of power, and more vocal, attract more attention. Karachi, Hyderabad, Faisalabad, Multan, Peshawar, Quetta, Lahore and Islamabad/Rawalpindi are the worst-hit cities and very little is done to ameliorate their problems on a sustainable basis.

Tube wells, water tankers and rhetoric are the most popular remedies prescribed to placate the public. Everybody knows from experience that shortages in a corrupt society are instantly transformed into new avenues for making loads of money. Indeed some shortages are created for that very purpose.

The problem of water supply in the case of Islamabad and Karachi is quite different from other cities of Pakistan: both these cities do not have large sources of permanent water supply and it is a failure of the leadership over the years that despite this fault these cities were allowed to expand phenomenally in all directions.

There has also been wastage of massive amounts of fresh water due to bad planning. The main culprit in this regard is the construction industry with its emphasis on the luxury of swimming pools and gadgets that guzzle water

Since the planning process was not allowed to function objectively and honestly, both cities have been in the grip of serious water shortages almost permanently. A further tragedy is that nobody is prepared to listen to sane arguments or advice to solve the problem. With the advent of the great construction boom, chances of objective decision making have become bleaker than ever, especially in the case of Islamabad where the stakes and influence are bigger.

This article intends to concentrate on Islamabad which has been facing severe water shortage every few years. The 1994 shortage was so acute that families started moving to other areas of the

country. This writer, at that time, wrote an article about the water situation in Islamabad. It would be pertinent to recall some excerpts from that article which remain relevant even after twelve years:

"Islamabad was established after thorough studies and state-of-the-art know-how. The Doxiadis Associates, the master planners of the city, made water supply the cornerstone of their plan. At a later stage too the Capital Development Authority had been worried about the water supply situation due to the increase in demand even beyond the generous projections made by Doxiadis. Unfortunately, like most of our major projects, these plans were never implemented in full. The result is the drought faced in the summer of 1994 which may reoccur every summer.

"There are many questions that arise with regard to this situation. But the objective here is to give some constructive suggestions rather than point an accusing finger at the long line of officials involved in the development of Islamabad for over four decades. The following points need attention:

"There is more than 30 per cent wastage of water through leakage both in private and public sectors. This should be minimised immediately through a plan for door-to-door and pipe-to-pipe inspection and short courses for plumbers -- whose slipshod work is mainly responsible for the leaks -- especially when no qualification or training is required for a person engaged in this rather complicated trade

"The general public has to be taught to conserve water like everything else irrespective of status and position. We have become a nation of wasters. But let people know that no water means no life. The water rates for different uses should be compared with those in other cities and made commensurate with the cost. If people do not feel responsible, let them pay for their irresponsibility and carelessness.

"Let us start a separate supply of untreated water for gardening green areas. It will be expensive in the beginning but a start has to be made if this city is to be saved and people are to be spared the problem of depleting potable water supply.

"According to the original plan, the cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad were expected to have a population of 1.5 million by 1985, of which Islamabad was supposed to have about 300,000 people. While the Islamabad population now is around 0.50 million peaking to 0.65 million during the day due to commuters, the city of Rawalpindi has multiplied much faster. This has resulted in the diversion of Islamabad's water resources to Rawalpindi area. Steps should be taken immediately to develop water resources for Rawalpindi so that Islamabad can stand on its own feet. In addition, supplies from Khanpur and more dams on Soan and other nullahs should be constructed to increase the supply of water to Rawalpindi.

"The expansion of Islamabad should be restricted. Uncontrolled expansion without adequate water supply will starve even the existing population as new sectors will have a significant share. Particularly, new areas at levels lower than the present sectors will suck both surface and ground water, rendering the present sectors barren.

"Large-scale and heavy industries were never planned for Islamabad and this was an important aspect of the policy. Islamabad does not have enough water for big industries. They can create serious environmental pollution as the city is surrounded by hills on two sides. The city cannot accommodate all the labourers employed by industries, and in case they commuted, it would lead to traffic problems. The permission for large industrial units has created many problems for the city. Future industrialisation should, therefore, be very selective and restricted, if not completely banned.

"Crisis management is not a substitute for long-term planning. We tend to extend meagre resources to a breaking point, which leads to deterioration in the quality of services. Applying this approach to water is lethal for the health of the population. Sound plans should be formulated now to meet the needs of (hope not) expanding population with strict observation of quality. Semi-treated and poor quality water can result in serious health hazards. The basic principle is that the demand for water should be restricted to a level lower than that of the lean period supply; the mechanism has been outlined above –the core point is not to expand the city beyond its means, especially water!"

One does not have much to add to what was recommended during the early nineties, except to lament that little progress has been made to improve the water situation in Islamabad. We must start a media campaign on water conservation (not casual exhortations and news items), train and register all the personnel concerned with water supply, check wastage, regulate water-tanker service, block attempts to tamper with water supply to oblige the influential, and dig out old files, plans and suggestions.

Last, why not excavate and deepen the presently dried beds of Rawal Dam and other reservoirs in the area now, before the rains fall? An increase in their capacity would help lessen the severity of water shortages in the coming years.

The writer is a former federal secretary with an academic background in Economics and Sociology

Email: [email protected]




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