Water crisis

Turning a blind eye?

By Rana Fawad Posted: November 3, 2008


WASHINGTON: Nov. 23, 2008: Pakistan is in a critical condition in terms of the availability of fresh water.

This warning came from a Pakistani expert Simi Sadaf Kamal during her presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on Friday (Nov. 20). Asia Program Director Robert M. Hathaway conducted the proceedings on this occasion. Simi Kamal is the chairperson of a Karachi-based non-profit Hisaar Foundation.

Other speakers of this day-long event ‘Running on Empty: Pakistan’s Water Crisis’ included, Dr. Kaiser Bengali, Samia Altaf, Feisal Khan, James L. Wescoat, Jr., Anita Chaudhry, Adrien Couton, and Sarah J. Halvorson, Shahid Javed Burki moderated the first panel presentations titled The Water Crisis in Pakistan’s Countryside whereas ambassador William B. Milam was the chair during the luncheon address. Michael Kugelman moderated the second panel presentations on The Water Crisis in Pakistan’s Cities.

President and director WW Center Lee H. Hamilton offered welcoming remarks at the start of the post-lunch proceedings.

Karachi-based Fellowship Fund for Pakistan collaborated in organizing this event.

Expatiating upon the challenges faced by Pakistan in the water sector, Simi Sadaf told the audience that there is incremental demand for more and more irrigation water, environmental flow requirements have become a big issue, there is no plan to deal with the salt and pollutants, and urban domestic needs are growing very fast.

Simi commented, “While the realities of water availability, water regime, climate, and delta conditions have changed, our ways of water use have not. And that is what creating the water scarcity.”

She illustrated that the Indus plains are 25 percent of the total land area whereas irrigated areas still support 65 percent of Pakistan’s population. “This irrigated area which is about 80 percent of the total cultivated area produces 90 percent of food and fiber requirements and contributes 25 percent to the GDP (Gross Domestic Product),” she added.

Referring to more statistics, she said that Pakistan’s current population is 165 million, 98 million rely on agriculture, 49 million are below the poverty line, 54 million do not have access to safe drinking water and 76 million have no sanitation.

She told the gathering that 40 percent to 50 percent of the entire development expenditure in the federal as well as provincial budgets is focused on water resources development.

Raising another red flag, she told the gathering that Pakistanis are mining their ground water faster than it could be replenished naturally. “Particularly the decline in water table in Balochistan is so alarming that I think in the next five or seven years there will be no water supply for Quetta, which is the capital of Balochistan,” she remarked.

She informed the participants that the Himalayas are the third largest mass of ice and snow in the world and that mass is melting very fast.

Simi regretted that very little thinking has focused on alternative sources and right now there are no plans to tackle this situation.

“Pakistan has the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system…but has bee turned into a big mess”

“Pakistan’s population is 165 million, 54 million do not have access to safe drinking water and 76 million have no sanitation”

She commented that the fact Pakistan has the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system is something of which we should be proud of but we have turned it into a big mess.

Questioning the argument that the storage capacity of Pakistan’s reservoirs is only 30 days, therefore we need to build more
infrastructure, she opined, “We have to ask ourselves where this water is going to come from. And if we build this infrastructure,
how are we going to take care of efficiency.”

She was of the view that due to insufficient financial resources, the country cannot take care of the existing infrastructure and it
leads to inefficiency. “Only 45 percent of the cultivable land is cultivated at any given time. Though 97 percent water is used for
agriculture, it is not able to cultivate all cultivable land,” she explained.

Simi regretted that the politics of water in Pakistan is still built around access to river water for traditional methods of irrigation

that do not disturb the feudal-land relations and we don’t get out of this debate.

Venting her frustration, she remarked, “I’ve been banging my head about this for 15 years. It is so hard to be heard. It doesn’t
matter that I’m an international expert on these things. When I talk to the government of Pakistan on these issues they don’t want to move beyond these things.”

Speaking about the ground water supply, Simi said the Indus basin has fresh ground water reserve of about 55 MAF whereas ground water accounts for half of all on farm irrigation requirements. “So, it supplements about 34 MAF of surface water that actually gets to the farms and lot of it is lost on the way.

The conjunctive use of surface and ground has been hailed as a giant step forward. Even the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in its research study has termed this conjunctive use in the Punjab particular as a means to help reduce poverty which has also been challenged by many quarters.

We have five hundred thousand tube wells but there are strong indications of aquifer mining because we are not allowing these aquifers to recharge themselves which means we are going to lose them.

As for the environmental repercussions, she informed the gathering that downstream from Kotri barrage the mighty Indus is no more. “It’s just sand and people drive there,” she said, and added that the sea water intrusion has reached 225 kilometers (140 miles approx.).

As for the laws on water issues in Pakistan, she highlighted that the country does not have a comprehensive set of laws that cover use, value, principles of pricing, subsidies, conservation, penalties, etc.

Mentioning the water accord of 1991 that outlines the distribution of water among the provinces, she said the environmental flow to keep the river Indus flowing and take water to sea is a major source of contention between the Punjab and Sindh. She remarked that the popular perception in the Punjab is that if a drop of water is shed into the sea it is wasted and that it should be used for agriculture.

Simi illustrated that the political parties of the country do not have any coherent positions on water in their manifestoes. “So, it doesn’t matter who comes into power.” She added that sometimes nothing happens beyond the campaign slogans.

Explaining the water rights and entitlements she said land ownership is the proxy to water right in Pakistan. “So, it excludes all landless people and landless farmers who are responsible for managing irrigation water. They have no rights to that water. A few women own agricultural land but don’t control their land so their rights to water are very ill-defined.”

Simi Kamal expressed her dismay over the politicization of the water issue. “Every river in the world has a Punjab and Sindh – upper riparian and lower riparian. It’s not peculiar to Pakistan.” She remarked that there are different models in the world that could be studied but the basic principle is that there are always safeguards for lower riparian areas. “So, we have some safeguards in the water accord but they don’t go far enough and I think there could be many more.”

She emphasized that there are many possible solutions out there only if we could de-politicize the whole issue and put it where it should be. Explicating the water sector reform efforts, she told the gathering that the country’s national water policy has been in the making since 2000. “It started with a
water resources strategy that was prepared in 2002. But each year this water policy deteriorates and the last version I saw in
2006 it just had some series bullet points and action items. It was not a policy  at all.” “I think the people want to stay away from
the water debate. They don’t want to be seen to have any opinion on this because the issue is so politicized,” she regretted.

As far as the value of water is concerned, she was of the view that “There is partial recognition in Pakistan that water has some
value. But common perceptions do not include awareness that irrigation water and water for other uses is currently provided far
below the economic value and people don’t understand that. And they don’t appreciate it and very low irrigation service charges
in Pakistan and very low consumer charges in urban areas put severe constraints on the kind of service that could be delivered.”

She said that there is a perception that water is Allah ki naimat (gift of God) and should be available free of cost. “We are trying
to work very hard to explain to people that fine water is free but conveying it from one place to another involves certain cost and
someone has to pick up that cost.”

Simi pointed out that as far as the benefits of infrastructure improvement and low water charges are concerned, a very narrowly defined class of land owners is likely to continue benefiting from the current situation. She said she was very optimistic about improving the situation but the country needs a big paradigm shift to be able to reframe the whole discourse on water.

She suggested that the policy should be comprehensive and inclusive and should shift from provincial distribution to users and uses of water, and users should be asked to pay for the service they get to maintain the infrastructure.

“I believe that we have to really shift from management of water supply to management of water demand,” she recommended.

She argued that that the emphasis of the argument for more irrigation infrastructure which is so far based on an uncritical capitulation to the demands for more irrigation water for agriculture emanates from our landed aristocracy. “We have to change that.”

Simi suggested that we need to have this argument the agriculture sector gets 97 percent of the water but still we get very low agricultural activity. “Why?”

As for the question, “Can we reduce this demand of water to producing more by using less water,” she answered, “Of course,” and added we all know that in 1999-2000 we had a drought but we got a bumper wheat crop.

Responding to a question, where will this paradigm shift come from: do you need an external force or a grassroots campaign, she commented that it’s going to take some time and efforts at various levels including local governments have to be made.

To a another question that the small farmers in the Punjab pay for water use and there already exists a system water charge [aabiana] collection through the village head, Simi said, “Yes, water is valued and people understand that.”

She added that the problem begins when we talk to people about paying for water services, or paying for obtaining water. “What you’re talking about are some of our more traditional systems.”

Simi explained that people simply don’t pay their water tax and that is why we have tried everything from irrigation department officials to farmer organizations in several parts of Pakistan. She said the aabiana collection is dismal and one reason the infrastructure is poor because nobody pays. I know an example where an official of the irrigation department went to collect the charges but he was tied the whole day by a powerful land owner.

Responding to another query about water distribution and affordability in urban areas, she told the audience that in Karachi poor people pay 12 times more than those people who get pipe water. She said many people get water through vendors, tankers, and some have come up with ingenuous ways of theft.

Analyzing the situation, she added that main problem is that in a city of 60 million people, which is much bigger than many countries of the world, there is only one institution that is responsible for its policy, regulation, and water supply. “You can’t have the same institution doing that. The governance has to be separated from management and utility functions,” she argued.

When asked about environmental flows, Simi commented that environment flows are hard to swallow because people think that water is only for agriculture. She remarked that though environmental flows are part of our water accord among the provinces. “The problem is that flow of our rivers varies so widely and it is very hard to maintain the same level of water flow every year.”

Simi pointed out that when additional water is available it is released but in years when there is aridity the system becomes dry. She regretted that the situation is justified by saying that well over 20 years the average was fine in terms of the water accord. She reiterated her view of awareness for everybody to understand in Pakistan that it is in the interest of the Punjab as well that there are environmental flows because if you destroy a part of the system, the destruction will begin to move upstream.

“Sometimes when I’m on a low flying plane, you see canals are replete with water and all the rivers are dried up. The river Ravi is just a drain. So, I think something is fundamentally wrong,” she added.