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June 13, 2021

Join hands to build storages, instead of finger-pointing

The unwelcoming exercise of finger-pointing between Punjab and Sindh over sharing meager supplies starts fading away early this month with improvement in river flows. It leaves a lesson for all of us: We should increase round-the-year water availability by constructing storages wherever technically feasible with the sole purpose of ensuring ample water supplies at the time of need. This was the crux of a candid discussion over water scarcity and rift among the stakeholders.

During the discussion, Mohsin Leghari, Irrigation Minister Punjab was very much clear about the negative impact of water shortage on agriculture as well as making relations among federating units sour.

In the same breath, he also expressed his unflinching support for fair distribution of water among the provinces and increasing water efficiency.

“We fully agree with the decision taken by the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on Water Resources for appointing 85 independent inspectors at key infrastructure on rivers for monitoring water distribution among the provinces as we have been the keen proponents of maintaining transparency and fairness in sensitive exercise of river flows sharing among the federating units.” However, he observed, essentially the problem lay with the fact that the country had been in the grip of water scarcity primarily due to silting up of major reservoirs.

The lower the water supply, the greater the chances of having wrangling over limited flows, he said.

Belonging to seraiki belt of South Punjab, Muhammad Mohsin Khan Leghari has been a member of the Punjab Assembly thrice since 2003 in addition to serving Senate of Pakistan during 2012-18.

Having keen interest in water issues, climate change, current affairs and policymaking, Leghari always stresses on efficient use of available water resources to ensure their equitable sharing.

Talking about the grave nature of declining water storage on rivers, Leghari said construction of water bodies was an effective way of ensuring greater variability of flows in accordance with varying consumption patterns.

“Hence, water storages are indispensable for yielding additional usable river flows in the vast Indus basis system.”

He hastened to add that after meeting domestic, agriculture, and other needs with more sustained flows out of dams, water escapages to the delta could also be ensured on regular basis.

Such a holistic approach towards inclusive water partnership has been imperative for the sake of better risk mitigation with a view to strengthening water security of the country.

To a query about why it is so important to increase water storage capacity in the country, the veteran politician said, “There is great invariability in flows of Indus River both within a year and year-on-year basis, necessitating the construction of storages for meeting round the year needs on sustainable basis”.

As around 80 percent of the flow of Indus River was registered during June-September period in snow melting seasonal, there was a dire need to store a sizeable quantity of surplus seasonal supplies to use it in the lean winter months when particularly strategic crop of wheat is sown coupled with meeting critical requirements of early Kharif season, Leghari said.

Moreover, he said with increasing population, Pakistan needed to have at least one carryover dam for meeting multi-year requirements given the fact that mean annual flows fluctuate by massive 70 to 130 percent, he said adding that such a major year-wise variation in river flows posed serious challenges for sufficiently meeting drinking, irrigation and hydropower needs of the entire country.

“Unfortunately, we have not been able to even out seasonal variations in river flows let alone yearly invariability that have been pushing us in the vicious cycle of droughts and floods,” Leghari said.

Referring to this year's water shortage, the provincial Irrigation Minister said, at the start of Kharif season 2021-22, just 1.50 MAF of water was available in the dams on April 01 against last year's corresponding level of 5.38 MAF. This meagre storage was reduced to a critical level of just about 0.8 MAF on May 12, 2021 as snowmelt was yet to pick momentum due to cloud cover and unusually plummeting temperatures, sparking an unfortunate row among the provinces over water distribution, he added. However, when water levels start to improve by the end of May, noise begins growing louder.

Being an upper riparian, he said, Punjab had been on the receiving end as far as unwarranted levelling of allegations over water theft, which is deplorable in the sense that “we have always tried our best to share accurate data to provinces and Indus River System Authority (IRSA)”.

He pointed up that teams from Sindh Irrigation Department and IRSA visited several barrages in Punjab province last month to conduct surprise raids but found nothing suspicious about water distribution. All these exercises for ensuring transparency in water sharing had been documented, Leghari maintained.

On the other hand, he lamented that besides complaints of inequalities within the provinces in water sharing, Sindh even failed to provide daily flows of the Indus River at Guddu Barrage during the month of May 2021. This was established from an official correspondence by the IRSA, the apex water regulatory body of the country.

The management of IRSA recently asked Sindh to provide data of 10 days that had been missing from the reported gauges of the month of May, he claimed.

In addition to highlighting discrepancies in water sharing data, Leghari passionately impressed upon IRSA management and representatives of all provinces, especially leadership of Sindh, to address the root cause of water differences among the federating units.

To a question, he said, “Almost all our water woes stem from low invariable water availability out of major rivers particularly from the largest Indus River”.

On the mighty Indus, water can only be stored at Tarbela Dam and its water holding capacity has been dwindling day by day due to siltation.

Over the years, the water storage capacity of Tarbela has gone down to 5.98 million acre feet in 2021 from original conservation volume of 9.68 MAF.

According to an estimate, the fast-paced sedimentation is set to bring it down further to 4.20 MAF by 2025 with a loss in the storage capacity to about half of the original conservation level.

Consequently, he said, one could imagine how difficult it would be for the provinces to manage burgeoning water requirements by 2025 with such a meager conservation level. To another query, he said, the under construction Diamer Basha Dam would not be sufficient to deal with the emerging potentially catastrophic water paucity.

He elaborated that the construction of Diamer Basha Dam would take around ten years to complete and even after its completion, the combined water storage capacity would be around original 16 MAF plus, achieved back in 1976 with construction of both Mangla and Tarbela Dams.

Moreover, he warned, with almost a three-fold increase in population from the level of 1976, it would be impossible to meet water needs of all Pakistanis by then with such meager water resources.

Echoing inclusive approach of a typical seriaki inhabitant, Mohsin Leghari endorsed the idea that the menace of pointing fingers by federating units over poor water distribution would only fade away by addressing the challenge of water shortage prudently not only through fair distribution of available supplies but also by augmenting them as per seasonal and yearly demand.

“I have high hopes from Sindh leadership especially Murad Ali Shah, a highly qualified professional and Chief Minister of Sindh in ironing out differences over ways and means to optimally utilise water resources,” Leghari said.

The role of incumbent IRSA Chairman, Rao Irshad Ali, a seasoned technocrat, could also be helpful in removing misunderstandings among the stakeholders, he maintained.