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June 22, 2018

Water sense


June 22, 2018

Nature has endowed South Asia with over 1500 MAF of the world’s fresh water supply. Both India and Pakistan get around 800 MAF of it through rains and glacial melt through the year. Of that, Pakistan’s share is around 145 MAF while India has the rest. Of this 145 MAF we store only 16 MAF, and that is a rather relaxed estimate. It makes up for about a month of water supply that the 200 million plus Pakistanis need.

Our routine need is around 40 MAF but we have already rendered our people water scarce from water stressed because of criminal neglect. We just didn’t plan sufficiently to store this elixir of life. Tarbela was commissioned in 1974, and we have only slept through since. Chashma was a meagre addition, only 0.3 MAF.

This inability to harness water towards gainful use in our economy translates into some $70 billion loss. That’s big, almost equivalent to 23 percent of the GDP. Our per capita supply of water continues to dwindle because of an increasing population. We sit on the verge of being lost to history if urgent steps towards its conservation are not taken. Without water countries have broken up and anarchy, strife and rampant poverty have dissolved nations into non-existence. From such devastation rose anarchists who hitched onto global crime syndicates and devastated the parched landscape and its hapless people with their predation. The countries ceased to exist, societies became extinct and widespread, hunger, disease and poverty replaced them instead. When water dries up, civilisations are lost.

There are other issues too. Despite losing 110 MAF water, on average, to sea and wasteful use – additionally despoiled by dumped industrial waste – the state of the Indus Delta at the mouth of the Indian Ocean only speaks of callous inattention. Thousands of acres of arable land have been desertified while a whole ecology is lost to such vacuous neglect. If not 35 MAF, that many contest, at least 10 MAF is still meant to flow through the delta to keep it alive and arrest ocean encroachment. It doesn’t. Wealthier and influential political landlords upstream poach on it beyond their share to benefit their lands at the cost of lower riparian users while devastating the delta.

So as fields from Sukkur to Nawabshah go greener by the day and produce more, Thatta in the south is a desert. This then handily morphs into an opportune nationalist slogan for Sindhi political feudals laying the blame at the door of big brother Punjab. This maze of parochialism also conveniently shifts the spotlight away from the soulless exploitation of a common resource by the ‘influentials’ at the cost of their people. This is also why Kalabagh Dam will always remain an unfulfilled dream because of the obfuscation it enables to a nationalist sentiment against it – and to scapegoat Punjab for political gains in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

There are at least four major storage spots where Pakistan can conserve water to keep its economy and life going. Some may be more inaccessible or expensive to build because of the terrain, but that priority can always be established. The Kalabagh Dam itself could easily add another 6 MAF storage capacity along with over 4000 MWs of cheap electricity. A political consensus on it is desperately needed which the new government must take on as a national imperative. If political capital must be expended, before it is frittered, this is one issue where it must be gainfully used.

The new government must do all it takes to get all on-board and alleviate apprehensions of various stakeholders by including foolproof assurances in the mechanism of its agreement. Let the majority of its water be awarded to Sindh. Let KP keep the key to it and the royalties that go with it. Simultaneously, the Bhasha dam needs an effective focus and an early completion. For funds let the nation contribute. Let IK go on the roads to collect donations. He must now build a dam. It is a matter of our life and death. Similarly, work must begin on Dasu and Bunji and in due course Katzara. Dasu and Bunji may not give us much storage but will be a good source for cheap electricity. Katzara, they say, can offer 35 MAF storage, though Wapda is known to have shelved it for other reasons.

Conservation needs additional steps at the national level. People need to be made aware of water’s criticality in consumptive use. Statutory control will be needed and violations must incur significant retribution. Around 80 percent water gets used in agriculture. This needs extensive rationalisation. Drip or sprinkle must replace flood irrigation in all type of farming. The government must make it feasible for all alike to change their methods of irrigation. Similarly, underground water has been irresponsibly overused both for agriculture and consumption. This will need to be controlled. It must begin by mapping aquifers and by developing techniques to resupply those. Rainwater harvesting is a useful means to help.

We need to establish a separate ministry for water resources and appoint a minister with a reasonable water sense. He should be responsible from conservation to usage to fair division among provinces. Pakistanis can currently survive only 30 days with the water they have; the Indians can live for 190 days, while most other nations have storage to meet their needs of at least a couple of years. Pakistan needs scientific management of its diminishing water resource. Hydrology should be introduced as a subject in Pakistani universities to develop a resident intellect for specialised intervention and management.

What stares at us in the absence of the above is ominous. Here is a brief narration. Through history civilisations have evolved around water sources, mainly rivers. When those sources have dried up and the food and water has vanished, disease, hunger and poverty have forced civilisations to migrate. Migrations in such huge numbers are disruptive and ultimately lead to conflict. Civilisations thus cease to exist while states evaporate in thin air. We must ward off such calamitous end while there is time.

By 2050, Pakistan will be a country of 350 million people. Either Robert Malthus will be proven right if nature drives its own economic logic, or mankind will be ingenious enough to once again disprove Malthus. Water to us will be our main determinant to save life. The land west and north of River Jhelum to the foothills of the Salt Range was patently arid; just in the last decade one has noticed its red undersoil ploughed over. This is virgin land and extremely fertile. All it needs is water and when the rains have been flattering it has portended promise. If somehow it remains supplied with water it will soon spew gold with wheat and citrus expanding to the base of the hill-range.

Pakistan has large tracts of such virgin land which – when put to use – can prove Malthus wrong. The Indus Valley must remain not only a granary but a cradle of civilisations. Water is the elixir that will keep it that way.

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