Pakistan without water

By Hamza Hasan
Fri, 07, 18

How many of us knew about ALS before the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral?


How many of us knew about ALS before the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral? Serious topics don’t get the attention they deserve. You want people to know about a cause these days, you dare others to participate - preferably challenging them on social media. Of course, there have been other moronic activities as well, like the Tide Pod Challenge, which displayed more of desperate attention seeking behaviour. So is it just the views, the ‘fun’ element or can we stress on the educational aspect of these activities as well?

Recently, The Climate Group and C40 Cities have launched Zero Emission Vehicle Challenge; ahead of the Global Climate Action Summit to be held in September 2018. The aim is to urge the rapid adoption of electric vehicles worldwide to help fight the climate change.

At the moment, the effects of climate change are being felt through water. Extreme temperatures cause floods/droughts, which means deteriorating water quality, which leads to poor health and hunger breakouts, which influence the political and economic dynamics of any country. It’s becoming difficult to predict water availability and Pakistan, for one, is at risk of becoming water scarce by 2025 (Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resource) as discussed at a seminar titled “Nexus Matters - Institutionalizing the Water-Energy-Food Narrative in Sindh Province” held in Karachi.

Agriculture receives almost 93 percent of available freshwater according to Pakistan Agricultural Research Council. By extension, that means water is a major source and hence needs better policies, better management. With the Supreme Court’s directives for immediate construction of Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand dams while appealing to general public and Pakistanis living abroad for donations, let’s take a look at the history, the laws and what we can do together (except accuse each other) to deal with this issue.

Water laws in colonial India

The first experience of colonial law on water came with the Northern India Canal and Drainage Act (1873) and the Bombay Irrigation Act (1879). The former subsequently became the Punjab and KP’s irrigation document while the latter eventually became the Sindh Irrigation Act. The laws are roughly the same: water of any river or stream or lake or any other natural collection of still water or subsoil water should be applied or used by the provincial government for the purposes of any existing or projected canal. It’s an absolute handed-over control of all natural resources relating to water to the provincial government to do with it as they will in the late 1870s. The Acts also included a whole range of English common law regarding the private rights of water between property owners, but these rights and law don’t stand against the provincial government.

In 1919, the Government of India Act 1919 (aka Montague-Chelmsford Reforms) introduced diarchy for the Provincial Governments, dividing provincial subjects into reserved and transferred categories. The subjects that were thought to be of key importance both for maintaining peace and order and for the welfare of the masses (land revenue administration, irrigation, famine relief, law and order, administration of justice, etc.) were classified as reserved whereas subjects that were of more local interest (education, public works, public health and sanitation, medical services, etc.) were treated as transferred.

In the Government of India Act 1935, we see water in the Provincial Legislature List: water, that is to say, water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage and water power.

Post partition

Freshwater resources are not mentioned in either of the legislative lists of the Constitution of 1973. So, technically, they fall under the provincial governments.

Later, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) Ordinance 1992 establishes the IRSA to monitor the distribution of water between the provinces.

Significant changes in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan (2010) for devolution and empowerment of the provinces included sharing of ownership in oil, gas and territorial waters.

However, one of the important things that constitution says is that the Council of Common Interests, which was created in 1973 to harmonize federal-provincial relations, sets policy for Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). WAPDA is responsible for irrigation, water supply and drainage; the recreational use of water resources; the generation, transmission and distribution of power; the construction, maintenance and operation of power houses and grids; flood control; the prevention of waterlogging, and reclamation of waterlogged and salted lands; and inland navigation. Subject to the provisions of other laws, WAPDA also controls the underground water resources of any region in Pakistan, as well as the operation of all power houses, grids and ancillary facilities.

Building an effective narrative

The media has obviously briefed the masses on there being a water crisis. But, there is more noise than real information that it puts out. Where it should be serious issue, the discussions we hear on TV - or on radio or cinema or theatre - we don’t see them bringing in experts even though we have excellent researchers and institutes in Pakistan that work on this subject and can discuss the facts and provide authentic information.

If the research fraternity “is not engaging with the media”, these journalists, these media persons should use the Right to Information (RTI) laws to access the desired information from relevant departments, the point being, if somebody is proposing something then it’s the media’s responsibility to fact-check it, to ask the right questions. If we’re hearing from the Supreme Court that we don’t have the storage capacity or that ground water is depleting, then without blaming anyone, did we question the poor infrastructure maintenance?

For example, in Layyah (Punjab), 99 percent of irrigation water is misplaced due to poor management. And that’s just one district! Now imagine if we use these mediums properly, creatively, the impact it would create on the society. It’s okay if people have different political narratives - it’s only natural to have different viewpoints - and there may be disagreements, so it’s definitely not going to be an easy journey to ensure the matter does not get politicized. But, the media has to make sure the narrative is accurate and thus make it easier for the consumers to form a sane opinion.

Other solutions

Water plays on a number of scales - there’s water in the sky, under the ground, in oceans, in the air. At each scale or level, water operates under different governance platforms. Like, the irrigation side is very different from the drinking water side. The importance of each level depends on who you are, where you come from.

Climate changes are there, so are demanding lifestyle changes. We have the experts, we have the end users; we can come up with solutions that can help Pakistan to tackle challenges such as water harvesting and recycling, water supply for cities, and ensuring efficient agricultural water management and distribution. In addition to promoting a well-researched Water-Energy-Food narrative through media, it’s essential to empower small-scale farmers with the knowledge of this nexus, while private sector should invest in and come up with unique, innovative products.