The politics of provinces

September 26, 2021

Water can be managed by dividing the land into agro-climate zones instead of a provincial division

The politics  of provinces

In 2018, it was revealed that Pakistan could become water-scarce by 2025, meaning that the country will not be able to provide enough water due to physical shortage of it. About three-quarters of Pakistan receives less than 250 millimeters of rain per year, and there are many areas that face droughts due to a lack of water availability. Therefore, much has to be done in this area if the country does not want to run out of water completely by 2025.

Even the crowdfunding method, initiated in 2018 to address the shortage of reservoirs and large dams in the country, was largely unrealistic. There is an imminent need for new reservoirs as the amount of water available in the dry season is limited. Scarcity of reservoirs also causes flooding during the monsoon season as there are fewer dams to absorb the excess water.

Pakistan’s predominantly agrarian economy accounts for much of the country’s high water demand. Almost 70 percent of the population works in agriculture, which accounts for 26 percent of the country’s gross domestic output. Pakistani farmers cultivate 21.2 million hectares of land, of which more than 80 percent is irrigated. Agriculture is dominated by four water-intensive crops: rice, sugarcane, wheat, and cotton. Therefore, 93 percent of the water consumed in Pakistan is used for agriculture as compared to the global average of about 70 percent.

The problem with Pakistan’s irrigation system is that it is vast but very much a thing of the past with extremely poor maintenance. A system of flooding irrigation is still used which uses canals and tubewells that are not properly lined and results in further seepages of about 40 percent.

The problem is not only with the shortage of water but also, the quality of the water available. Out of the total population, less than half of the people have access to safe drinking water. Much of the rural population does not have access to clean water. A report by the World Bank suggested that bacterial contaminants have considerably increased in the last 15 years and these, when left untreated, have been causing major health issues. The water quality issues can be resolved through wastewater treatment facilities. However, only two of these exist in Pakistan and even those are not fully functional. Even while operating at a full capacity they would be able to treat only eight percent of Pakistan’s wastewater.

Water politics, in addition to physical impediments to water security, have worsened the problem. As a result of colonial-era water laws and a lack of serious governance, Pakistan’s water policies have come to be dominated by three main factors: a reliance on increasingly archaic laws and frameworks to solve water issues; a strong preference for large-scale engineering projects to solve water issues (the recent push to build two large dams, despite concerns, is an example); and loosely defined water rights. In many situations, the right to water is determined by who owns the land. Much of Pakistan’s water infrastructure is also in ruins as a result of a public works management mentality of “build/neglect/rebuild”. That is true even for large-scale engineering projects in Pakistan, such as dams, the failure of which may be disastrous.

A report by the World Bank suggested that bacterial contaminants have considerably increased in the last 15 years and these, when left untreated, have been causing major health issues.

Another dilemma is caused by the management of water resources at the provincial level. Since all provinces elect their own governments – and mostly the provincial ruling parties end up being different from those in the centre – disputes occur, which does not allow for the development of the much-needed water reforms.

Although the 1991 Water Accord alleviated some provincial concerns (by allocating water to provinces according to a specific formula), the implementation system – which is overseen by the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) – is deficient, and there is no way to monitor flows in the event of a dispute. Criticism of the IRSA has grown in the previous decade as a direct result of its failure to handle the demands of all provinces, which has resulted from the continuing decline in water supplies. Other reform efforts have resulted in the formation of a number of entities with overlapping tasks and responsibilities, resulting in inefficient administration and decreasing the prospect of good water governance.

Although the existing water management patterns are concerning, there have been some possibly encouraging signs for the future. Pakistan’s Council of Common Interests ultimately adopted the landmark National Water Policy (NWP) in 2018. The comprehensive 41-page document stipulates, among other things, that 10 percent of funding from the national Public Sector Development Programme would go toward water infrastructure, as well as targets to decrease water loss due to deteriorated infrastructure. While the paper marks a water management accomplishment, there have been worries that there are just too many suggestions given by the policy, resulting in portions that are inconsistent and unclear. While the NWP may assist to improve water management and alleviate conflicts between provinces, without effective administration and enforcement, nothing is likely to happen, leaving Pakistan’s water security in jeopardy.

Lastly, water should be managed by dividing the land into agro-climate zones instead of this provincial division. Hence, rather than providing water on the basis of land it should be provided on the basis of the crop; this will reduce wastage and improve overall efficiency. Also, more funds should be allocated towards this project as otherwise, the situation will further deteriorate and by 2025 Pakistan will face a water shortage crisis.


The writer is an   environmental journalist. He tweets @itssarfrazali and can be reached via [email protected]

The politics of provinces