Human history records settlements around the rivers which flow from snow-peaked mountains. The Indus River basin is one such basin; and on it depends the survival of Pakistan.
This basin is truly transboundary since it is shared by Pakistan (47 percent), India (39 percent), China (8 percent) and Afghanistan (6 percent). The Indus River basin is identified as the Upper Indus Basin (UIB) in the mountain ranges and the Lower Indus Basin (LIB) flowing in the plains of Pakistan and flowing into the Arabian Sea.
The Indus Basin has witnessed common history, shared culture, ancient civilization and faced common challenges. It is for the people and leadership of the countries of the basin to convert these challenges to opportunities. The countries must understand that the positioning of heavy armaments in the high glaciers is detrimental to the glaciers, and in turn affects the water security of the human settlements for which they move in those difficult terrains at a high financial and human cost.
The Indus basin is home to about 215 million people with six large rivers originating from the glaciers of western Himalaya, Karakoram and the Hindukush. The basin is already water scarce with 1,329 m3 per capita due to increasing population, improper management of water resources, and meagre resource allocation to combat the global climate change challenges. It irrigates over 39.5 million acres of agricultural land.
The basin is estimated to have the potential to provide clean hydropower of 55,000 MW; and currently about 15 percent potential is harnessed. These facts speak clearly of the importance of the basin to the socioeconomic development of the basin countries and the need for optimal utilization and prudent management of the precious water resources of this basin. This is only possible with close communication and collaboration within the region.
Burning of fuel and cutting of trees for livelihood deprive the natural cover of oxygen and release of carbon in the atmosphere and increase temperatures, resulting in glacier melts and glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) which engulfs living human and animal population and natural fauna and flora, causing untold miseries of death and destruction to the already under-privileged people, and forcing them to migrate from their way of life. In 2010, the Attabad Lake formation in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region is one such occurrence.
Besides these floods, the reservoir of water in the form of glaciers and ice is decreased. In addition, the movement of large glaciers also occurs, compounding the threats and depleting the neglected natural treasures – assets which truly belong to our future generations.
National, regional and international governments have come together to address the global environmental neglects that cause climate change which further exacerbates the problem with the impact of temperature increase affecting all humanity irrespective of whether they are in mountains, plains or coastal areas. Efforts by the UN have brought countries to sign various protocols starting with the 1992 Rio Declaration and finally the 2016 Paris Agreement signed by 195 countries, with the commitment to face these challenges with action.
At home, various national and international institutions have been addressing the UIB challenges. The national institutions engaged in the Upper Indus Basin are: the Pakistan Meteorological Department, Wapda, the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, Karakorum International University, National University of Science & Technology, Mehran University Centre for Advanced Studies, University of Agriculture Centre of Advanced Studies, the Federal Flood Commission, and the national and provincial disaster management authorities.
In addition, international organizations like the Aga Khan Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, The Asia Foundation etc are engaged in the UIB. The private sector has also been participating with their programmes in these national efforts.
There is also a regional and global convergence on programmes with ongoing efforts on the objective to help the communities face these challenges, based on extensive research and sharing of the knowledge. The funding of which is sourced by various governments, the key being: Australia, China, Norway, US, UK, Switzerland, Germany.
The experts working together on the UIB have identified that the challenges can best be addressed by technical undertakings in the following areas: framework of data collection; quality and standardization; climate change, air pollution variability and black carbon; cryosphere monitoring and modelling; surface and groundwater hydrology, water availability and demand; understanding and managing hazards and risks; and managing gendered socioeconomic impacts through adaptation measures.
The key challenge which needs our attention is to link all researchers to make them aware of each other’s work and avoid duplication and also increase the productivity of each dollar spent on research whether funded by the annual budget, PSDP or foreign countries. This must be coupled with connecting scientific community with policymakers to share their work. Lastly, people – the key stakeholders – must be in this entire loop to get the necessary results for them.
We ought to know the tremendous human resources we have both in the country and outside the country who are engaged in research projects; for this we could create a portal. This will help create a knowledge-based merit society with openness and trust. A good practice within the country will also help build regional collaboration for the benefit of communities.
The UIB is one part of the Indus Basin; the Lower Indus basin (LIB) is another part which will make the story of this mighty River Indus basin complete and should be reviewed separately.
Are we looking at the Indus Basin with the attention it deserves for national security? I believe closed focus on it in our discourse, policies, programmes and national narrative shall help overcome the enormous socioeconomic and climate challenges we are facing today.
The writer is chairman of the WaterEnvironment Forum, Pakistan and former federal minister and senator.
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