Sunday April 21, 2024

The coming drought

By Raashid Wali Janjua
October 21, 2016

Pakistan is currently beset with a clear and present danger – the desertification of its agricultural heartland along with a concomitant drought that would parch the burgeoning population of one of the fastest growing populations on the planet. The looming crisis is partially of our own making and partially a result of climate change.

One would hardly find a population so steadfastly adhering to the ‘lemming code’ of self-immolation through a sedulous rejection of measures to mitigate the coming calamity. The desertification of its fertile soil and the water shortage forecast a tragedy that can only be averted through a water management emergency in the country. But for that to happen, the somnambulism of policymakers has to be jolted out of its inaction through some cold and harrowing facts.

Pakistan has 21.29 million hectares of arable land which would shrink to 14 million hectares if the water flow from the eastern rivers and their irrigation canals gets reduced even by a margin of 30 percent. Through unbridled pumping out of sub-surface waters the aquifers stand in mortal danger of depletion while the water logging threatens the fertility of soil due to unregulated and wasteful irrigation practices.

Pakistan’s decrepit irrigation infrastructure results in an annual loss of 4 maf of water through evaporation and 37 maf through water seepage alone. Though Pakistan has 80 percent share of the Indus Water Basin Rivers due to the generous flow in its three allotted rivers as per the Indus Waters Treaty, the country has only utilised 25 percent of its total hydel power generation and water storage potential so far. The comparable hydel utilisation ratio in India, the US and China is 50 percent, 60 percent and 40 percent respectively.

Pakistan’s agricultural sector, which contributes 21.8 percent of its GDP and 40 percent of labour force, needs an additional arable land of 0.5 million hectares every year to produce the requisite quantity of food to feed a population that is growing at a rate of 2.1 percent per year. Based on population growth and concomitant need for more arable land by 2021, there would be a requirement of an additional national storage capacity of 17 maf. That means construction of all three mega dams – Kalabagh, Bhasha and Dassu – in the coming five years a food security compulsion.

When viewed in the context of the commissioning time of big dams – 5 to 10 years – the future does not appear too promising. India has constructed 4,000 dams since independence and is now amongst the top five dam constructing countries of the world including the US, China, Japan and Spain.

Pakistan’s current energy mix, with 29 percent hydel, 67 percent thermal, 3 percent nuclear and 0.43 percent renewable energy, speaks of the unsustainability of the prodigiously expensive power production. While the coal-based power plants in India run on a tariff of 3-3.5 US cents per unit of electricity, the corresponding tariff in Pakistan stands at 9 cents/unit. Compared to the cost of electricity produced from indigenous hydel resources at an average rate of seven cents per unit, the cost of electricity produced from furnace oil based power plants stands at 14 cents per unit. The resultant expensive electricity in the country makes our industrial goods so costly to manufacture that our exports are priced out in a competitive international market.

The result is an industrial stagnation and poor exports performance. Our Wise Men in Gotham from the planning and water and power ministries should realise the magnitude of threats facing our economic growth as well as food security as a consequence of the wrong energy mix of the national power matrix.

The Indus Waters Treaty that was signed after a decade-long deliberation in 1960 is a guarantor of the water rights of our three allotted eastern rivers. The right of the upper riparian ie India to water use for domestic, non-consumptive, agricultural, and run of the river projects stands clearly defined in the treaty, which was essentially an agreement between engineers from both the countries – duly overseen by the World Bank.

Pakistan as a lower riparian, therefore, is disadvantaged due to the ill-intentioned Indian water storage and power generation project spree. India has displayed operational celerity in the execution of the Kishanganga Hydel Project while Pakistan’s Neelam-Jehlum project is still hanging fire! Our tardiness in the execution of the project has already cost the country dearly.

It is the need of the hour that a water emergency be declared in the country and the ministries of planning and development, and water and power tasked to plan a national energy mix heavily weighed in favour of hydel projects. We desperately need more dams, both run of the river as well as storage, in order to store water for our agricultural and domestic needs besides generating cheap electricity to shore up our stagnant industrial growth.

If we ignore the warnings of our water Cassandras shouting hoarse about the coming drought we would be guilty of an egregious omission imperilling the security of our future generations. It is time we securitised the water issue because, more than anything else – even more than terrorism and extremism – it is the water threat that imperils our national security.

The writer is a PhD scholar at Nust.