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February 8, 2020

The Indus Basin and our water crisis

Opinion

February 8, 2020

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) organized a stakeholders’ conference for the Pakistan chapter of the Upper Indus Basin Network (UIBN) last week in Islamabad.

This two-day conference was attended by water experts, academics, environmentalists, civil society representatives, journalists and government functionaries to discuss the progress of the technical working groups of the UIBN which were formed earlier to conduct scientific research and produce relevant knowledge on various aspects of the Indus Basin.

The technical working groups shared their progress against the key tasks assigned to them which included preparation of baseline data on cryosphere, ecology, socioeconomics and multiple vulnerabilities as well as formulation of a roadmap vis-à-vis the potential for resource mobilization, partnerships, monitoring mechanisms and effective communication strategies. In addition to deliberation upon the progress and strategies of technical working groups, the key experts of the ICIMOD delivered some thought-provoking presentations on the evolution of the UIBN, its objectives, strategy of gender mainstreaming and theory of change.

To me the conference was important and timely for five reasons. First, it could bring together well-poised policymakers, experts and enthusiasts to influence their host institutions to play a pivotal role in generating an informed and relevant discourse on the Indus Basin vis-à-vis real issues of people affected by the Basin. Second, the conference could produce an alternate debate on water management/governance in Pakistan contrary to the conventional policy mantra of water scarcity.

Third, it helped produce integrated and multidisciplinary scientific knowledge and institutional synergies for applied research on Basin-wide interconnected issues of hydrology, environment and economy. Fourth, the conference brought forth a roadmap of people-centric regional integration for collective action against the imminent threats to cryosphere, biodiversity, agriculture, livelihoods and environment at large. Fifth, the conference led to the imagining of a gender sensitive theory of change and impact pathways to foster support and partnerships for resilience.

On the sidelines of this conference, High Asia TV – an alternate digital media channel – organized a talk show of water experts, academicians, researchers and practitioners on key issues of the conference. The discussion revolved around the importance of the Upper Indus Basin for Pakistan and the region at large, knowledge production, integration and its application for national wellbeing, water conservation, governance and management, water rights, gender mainstreaming and role of media in environmental sensitization. Let me briefly highlight the salient points from these discussions for the readers.

The Upper Indus Basin is shared by Afghanistan, China, India and Pakistan and is the source of seven rivers; five of them are available for Pakistan to meet 95 percent of hydrological needs. Pakistan also has the largest share (47 percent) of the Upper Indus Basin followed by India (39 percent), China (8 percent) and Afghanistan (6 percent).

This means that Pakistan must play a proactive and lead role to strengthen the country chapters as well as the regional network of the Indus Basin. Pakistan is an agricultural country and hence its economy depends mainly upon uninterrupted supply of water to meet its growing food requirements. Water is the most important factor which has necessitated the creation of country chapters and a regional network of the Indus Basin. It was initiated by a community of scientists to produce knowledge sans frontiers for the larger objective of regional integration on scientific principles.

Pakistan’s chapter of the Upper Indus Basin Network was formally launched in Passu, Upper Hunza in 2012 with the support of the ICIMOD, government of Pakistan, international researchers and national academic institutions. From then on the network has been able to attract a huge membership from academic institutions, government, civil society and media and these members work in various technical working groups to produce an interdisciplinary and integrated roadmap for regional cooperation.

Faced with the disruptive effects of climate change, the Basin and its population need an integrated framework to mitigate the adverse impact on its cryosphere, biodiversity and traditional sources of livelihoods. The overall ecosystem of the Indus Basin is at great risk but the greater risk is that we do not know exactly what needs to be done.

We do not know what needs to be done because there is huge knowledge gap about the actual challenges and there is less or no integration in the existing research on the Basin. Though universities have churned out research and there are more than 350 published research papers in the Karakorum International University (KIU) alone on the impact of climate change, they are far removed from the practical domain of policymakers and development practitioners. However, in recent years the KIU has made some impressive efforts to bring together policymakers and practitioners to benefit from its research resources under the ambit of the UIBN through joint ventures.

The second dimension which was emphasized during the discussion was about the relevance and applicability of research to Basin-wide real issues which ultimately affect the lives of millions of people living across the Indus Basin. The UIBN provides an opportunity not only for the integration of existing knowledge but also helps a great deal in the production of applicable and practical knowledge.

During the discussion, the experts were of the same mind that the key water-related issues faced by Pakistan were that of management, governance and huge population growth more than water scarcity itself. Pakistan still has 145 maf of water flowing annually while its current water requirement is 40 maf. This means that there is no water scarcity in Pakistan but there is certainly something fundamentally wrong with the governance and management of its hydrological resources. Pakistan has the world’s largest irrigation system but it is also one of the most inefficient irrigation systems of the world. Seventy percent of water is lost before it reaches the end users. This means that even if Pakistan manages to have 300 maf of water it will still not be able to meet its water requirements because of its primitive and underdeveloped water conveyance and carrying system.

Another challenge is our population growth of 2.4 percent which if it continues to grow at the same pace for another 30 years the per capita water availability will be reduced to less than 800 cubic meters which is really alarming. Around 95 percent of water from the Indus Basin is directed towards agriculture even though we require not more than 30 percent of the amount that is currently being used for this purpose. At least 70 percent of this water – 110 maf – has been wasted, given the total volume of output from our current agricultural practices.

However if governance, management and distribution of water is improved to bring it at par with even middle-income countries, the crisis may be avoided. In our mainstream technical discussions and scientific research on water issues we usually condone the important debate of riparian rights on waterways.

This also entails downplaying the role of women who usually ensure water availability for domestic use while their labour remains unaccounted-for in the complex econometric studies. With the help of the ICIMOD the UIBN is playing a pivotal role to broaden the scope of research from purely technical dimensions to its socioeconomic applicability. Engaging the media to disseminate research and new leaning to policymakers and other relevant stakeholders is another important aspect of translating knowledge into practice for a better tomorrow.

The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AmirHussain76