Tuesday August 16, 2022

Rethinking water management

October 28, 2018

Many world leaders have already predicted that the next world war will be fought for clean water. Numerous countries in the world are trying to make substantial policy and management alterations for better utilisation of water.

Various countries sharing international waters have come up with new policies and governing rules for equitable usage and to limit their global-warming footprints to save nature, water resources in particular. Pakistan too is in the midst of a water crisis. According to the IMF, it is the third most water-stressed country in the world. Pakistan faces a number of water-related challenges to Pakistan, including vulnerability to climate change, belligerent neighbours, difficult hydro-politics, and inter-provincial conflict on distribution of water. Like many other countries, Pakistan too has to shift from conventional water usage and management policies to more advanced and sustainable ones if it wishes to avert this colossal crisis in the making.

Rising temperatures, flash floods, long droughts, heatwaves and untimely monsoon showers are some of the reverberations of climate change, but the most acute challenge to Pakistan today is the effect of climate change on the flow of the Indus Basin. Being an agrarian economy, 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture on arable lands is sustained by this basin. The Indus water resource, supported by ice and snow melt in the Karakoram and Hindukush ranges, also plays a significant role in steering the country’s domestic usage, industrial power and energy needs.

Statistics by the IMF paint a rather dingy picture for Pakistan’s water needs. A 2016 report asserts that the water capacity of Pakistan has reduced from 5600 cubic meters at the time of independence to currently at an alarming 1070 cubic meters only. Similarly, the Global Climate Risk Index ranked Pakistan at number 7 in the list of countries most vulnerable to global warming. At such a critical junction, Pakistan cannot afford the implications of climate change on the Indus Basin and its tributaries. It is essential for Pakistan to design a pragmatic framework to limit the repercussions of climate change, particularly on the Indus water resource.

Another major hindrance to Pakistan’s water security is the water dispute and other regional hydro-politics with India. The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) between India and Pakistan, which was signed in 1960 via mediation by the World Bank, was hailed as one of the most successful treaties that have averted potential conflict between two hostile nations. However, as time passed by, the rigid nature of the treaty and loopholes within it have overshadowed its success.

Contemporary obstructions between the two nuclear-armed nations are India’s continuous construction of dams over the three western tributaries that were allocated to Pakistan. India seems to be exploiting the loophole of the IWT that allows it to use 20 percent of the water of the western tributaries for hydroelectric purposes and domestic use. Additionally, the comments made by Indian PM Nadrendra Modi (to stop the water supply to Pakistan) have further fuelled the fire. Moreover, Modi has recently formed a task force to ‘review’ the IWT, an indication that India could be repudiating the IWT at any point. Pakistan maintains a stance that any alteration in the present IWT is not acceptable. If the neighbours are to live with harmony, they ought to let go of this negativity and come back on the table to renegotiate the terms of the treaty.

The water dispute within the country is equally detrimental; provinces often resort to blame game against each other. For instance, issues regarding the construction of the Kalabagh Dam were a wakeup call for the federal government to ensure that all federating units are on the same page. For example, Balochistan, being a low-riparian area, had the view that Sindh would get its share of water if the Kalabagh project were realised. Similarly, Sindh had the same opinion against Punjab. Punjab was the only province in favour of building this new dam. The Kalabagh Dam was merely one of the many issues that underscored the dire need for national unity.

The blueprints of Pakistan’s chronic water challenges are manifold. First, with respect to climate change, the national climate change policy must be implemented in letter and spirit. Moreover, forestation along the banks of rivers and canals are the need of the hour. According to the WWF, River Indus has lost 90 percent of original forest cover owing to agriculture extraction. To deal with the threat of climate change, awareness on individual, local and governmental levels is essential. Furthermore, in order to safeguard the water of the Indus Basin, Pakistan needs to build more dams.

Statistics by Wapda show that Pakistan has a water storage capacity of merely 30 days. India, on the other hand, has storage capacity of over 170 days. Despite this, no new major dam has been constructed since Mangla and Tarbela, whereas, the population of Pakistan has increased six-fold since Independence.

Second, India and Pakistan must renegotiate the terms of the IWT and come up with solutions that would include many contemporary factors, including climate change which has severe adverse effects on water. The International Law Association’s Berlin Rules, which replaced the Helsinki Rules in 2004 could be a good guiding set of laws – Pakistan and India do not have to reinvent the wheel when its already out there. Furthermore, they can work out a way from other examples in the world, including, River Nile (flows between 11 countries), the Amazon river (flows between 6 countries) and the Danube river (flows between 10 countries) to implement something similar for the Indus Basin.

And, finally, the current times call for greater national cohesion to defeat the water crisis for good. Pakistan has to revisit the already formulated water policy of equitable distribution of water to all the provinces, but this time keeping in mind their contemporary requirements and climatic challenges. Being at the brink of being declared a water-stressed country, it is high time that our provinces rose above their nationalist rhetoric and worked in harmony to defeat this challenge. Failure on this is out of the question; it will be extremely disastrous if Pakistan fails to overcome these water-related impediments.

The writer is a Young Development Fellow at the Planning Commission, and is an associate researcher with the chief economist of Pakistan.

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