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Water conflicts

The reasons for the collapse of the ancient Indus Valley riverine Civilisation are unclear, but most experts are agreed it was probably water scarcity due to the change in course of the Indus River, combined with diminishing rainfall that brought about the demise of this jewel in our history. Today, the legatee of that civilisation, i.e., Pakistan (in its post-1971 form), is arguably faced with a crisis of water scarcity that bodes ill for the future. Given the history of conflicts between the upper riparian Punjab and the lower riparian Sindh on water distribution, it is no surprise that this year’s water scarcity has once again produced arguments, accusations and allegations about injustice and inequality in water distribution.

The issue between Punjab and Sindh is as old as the country. Unlike Punjab, blessed by the waters of five rivers (now three after the Indus Waters Treaty 1960), Sindh is entirely dependent on the waters of the Indus. Complaints of water stoppage or diversion for own use by Punjab have been a constant refrain in Sindh over the years. These complaints fed into, and stymied, the construction of the Kalabagh Dam because of the atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion between the upper and lower riparian provinces (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s objection to the Dam was based on fears of its agricultural areas being subsumed by the reservoir). In 1991, then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif managed a rare consensus of all the provinces in the Water Accord. However, Sindh’s complaint of inadequate Indus River flows downstream Kotri, which had turned the bed of the Indus into a desert and destroyed the Delta flora and fauna plus agriculture, particularly fruit orchards, in Badin, Thatta, etc., could not be allayed because the Accord allocated a minimum 10 MAF per annum downstream Kotri, pending studies to determine the Delta and southern Sindh’s drinking water (the ground water in the province is brackish) and irrigation needs. Politics (the fall of the Nawaz government in 1993) prevented such studies, which have yet to be carried out. The Accord’s 10 MAF per annum minimum was also released in total in the 2-3 months of the monsoon season when storages overflowed with water, leaving southern Sindh in the same dire straits the rest of the year. Sindh also has long standing complaints against the opening of the Chashma-Jehlum Link Canal in Punjab every so often when it is meant only for flood season water surplus times. The Canal has been the source of much heartburn in Sindh throughout its existence since 1974.

This year, interruptions to the traditionally steady rise of temperatures starting in May have incrementally increased water shortages because of slow snow melt in the mountains that feeds the rivers in summer. As a result, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) has increased its calculation of water scarcity from 23 percent to 32 percent for Punjab and Sindh (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan are excluded). Inevitably, IRSA members from Sindh and Punjab (the latter at present also chairman) have clashed in unseemly fashion during a meeting. To their credit, both provincial governments have agreed to have independent inspectors check and monitor the main barrages and headworks in both provinces to put an end to the ugly spat. These inspectors will for the moment be taken from the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), pending permanent arrangements for such independent inspectors. This is a long overdue need, given the inability of IRSA to resolve differences between its provincial members, particularly Punjab and Sindh.

Pakistan suffers from inadequate water storages. Kalabagh Dam is dead in the water (pun intended) and the Bhasha-Diamer Dam is unlikely to be completed for a long time given financial constraints and lack of international funding. Big dams in any case are no longer in favour. Nothing, however, prevents Pakistan from building smaller dams, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the northern areas. In addition, incremental lining of canals and water courses could save three times the water that would have been stored in Kalabagh Dam and prevent waterlogging and salinity that gobbles up thousands of acres of farm land every year.

This year’s ‘interrupted’ summer is an indication of climate change. When we were growing up, you could literally set your clock to the rhythm of the seasons and their predictability. This can no longer be taken for granted. Pakistan’s deforestation rate of 2.1 percent per annum implies the forests will run out by 2050. This would be a devastating calamity, causing rainfall to decrease and turning the whole country into a desert. While planting trees is a good idea of the current Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government, caring for those planted saplings is as critical. And the timber mafia has to be stopped in its tracks if Pakistan is not to suffer the combined catastrophe that deforestation and climate change may bring.

In the 1950s, present day Pakistan boasted of a per capita water availability of 5,000 cubic metres per annum. Now it is 1,000 cubic metres, the threshold of water scarcity. Unlike in our childhood when everyone drank tap water, today only 20 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water. The rest 80 percent have to rely on water polluted by sewerage, fertilizer, pesticides and industrial effluents. Such water is responsible for 80 percent water-borne diseases and 30 percent deaths due to such diseases.

The prospects appear grim, needing the declaration of a fair and equitable water management policy that sheds provincial blinkers and begins to see the country’s and its people’s interests as a whole, irrespective of location. Otherwise we cannot rule out deaths by drought (Quetta is currently literally without even drinking water), drying lakes and rivers, further lowering of the already perilously receding water table, wastage of water, lack of storages, population growth and climate change converging to produce a catastrophe in the future.

If the Indus Valley Civilisation could speak to us across time and space, they would no doubt administer advice to the effect of learning to manage nature’s resources in a sustainable, fair and equitable manner, lest we suffer their fate.

Rashed Rahman, "Water conflicts," Business Recorder. 2021-06-01.
Keywords: Social sciences , Nawaz government , Climate change , Kalabagh Dam , PTI government , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Baluchistan , Pakistan , WAPDA , MAF

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