Water security has been defined by Wikipedia as “the reliable availability of an acceptable quantity and quality of water for health, livelihoods and production, coupled with an acceptable level of water-related risks.”
Do we have reliable availability of water in Pakistan? This question has both regional and local dimensions. In a country where 75 per cent water share originates from foreign lands and the same amount of renewable water is already being used, nothing can be said with confidence about the future reliability of water in terms of acceptable quantity and quality required.In an article published in Dawn on December 3, Ashfak Bokhari has written about our collective failure to defend our riparian water rights. This conclusion is drawn by presenting India’s well-documented and consistent efforts to build as many dams as possible along three western rivers allocated to Pakistan.
There’s no doubt that a special provision in the Indus Basin Treaty of 1960 allows India to build run-of-the-river dams to generate electricity but within specified storage limits along each tributary to the main rivers. However, the same term, the run-of-the-river, also means that India must not influence the quantity of water flowing in time.
As India continues to build dozens of such dams, without even informing Pakistan in most cases, the capacity being developed to influence the stated principle will jeopardize the water security of the lower riparian state of Pakistan.
Along with India, we should also share the blame regarding the unreliable water availability in time for the users. Our river flows are highly skewed on seasonal basis. From summer to winter, our river flows amount to approximately 85 to 15 per cent, respectively. Before blaming outsiders, we should question ourselves: Did we do enough to make these most uneven river flows even to address the emerging crisis about the water security in the country? Obviously, we have failed.
Our provincial irrigation departments have also messed up water availability on a spatial basis. In 1984-85, a CSU team conducted flow measurements along four secondary canals, one in each province, for many months using data-loggers. Data shows that every referred canal was drawing more than its due designed discharge — about 50 to 120 per cent. However, all canals had their tail sections — 25 to 40 per cent — dry when required, while fully flooded when there was rainfall in the area. .
Do we have acceptable quantity and quality of water for health purposes? To be fair, serious efforts have been made in this context, but a lot more is still needed.
Most of the densely populated area of Punjab that was served by the Sutlej and Ravi rivers has brackish groundwater that is not fit for drinking or irrigation. Moreover, large cities in the upper sections of these rivers keep pouring almost all their untreated sewerage and industrial wastewater into these dry rivers. This practice has a devastating impact on health, livelihood and environment on downstream side of the two stated rivers.
Some case studies conducted by International Water Management Institute reveal an alarming increase of water born diseases in Bahawalnagar area. This is happening because of polluted water being used for drinking as well as for uses like washing clothes, taking shower, sanitation, etc. In case of living rivers, this pollution gets diluted but it still does not eliminate serious health concerns.
Generally, it is true for all contexts, but for the arid and semi-arid countries in particular, water security is a huge risk factor for food security. What does this unreliability of water availability mean in the context of food security? Globally, about 70 per cent water is consumed in agriculture sector but in an arid or semi-arid country like Pakistan, 90 to 97 per cent water is reported to be consumed in meeting crop-water requirements.
Since unreliable water availability creates a rain-fed scenario, it becomes a serious risk factor for food security by not availing the full potential of irrigated agriculture. This is why a water security crisis is really termed as food security crisis in developing countries where local agricultural production supports food needs of the entire population.
In 1996, the National Defence College of India defined national security as “— (It) is an appropriate and aggressive blend of political resilience and maturity, human resources, economic structure and capacity, technological competence, industrial base and availability of natural resources and finally, the military might.” Obviously, with the mention of natural resources in the stated definition, water security is made part of national security.
However, in the context of Pakistan, water insecurity becomes even a serious threat to the national security where we need guaranteed control over water resources to keep the defence lines functional on our eastern borders based on a system of canals and rivers.
Letting control of water slip away even for a month or just for few days can have serious consequences for the country.
Whether it is a challenge of food or national security, the importance of water security can only be overlooked by risking perilous consequences. In reality, the crisis relating to water security is essentially an outcome of an absolute absence of political will and poor water governance at different levels of water supply system.
In a hostile environment, an upper riparian may take advantage of its position, but who can stop lower riparian to counter such tactics by taking proactive actions at right time instead getting embroiled in a futile blame game?
For example, we can easily frustrate most of the manipulations of the upper riparian states aimed at affecting the run-of-the-river flows through appropriate proactive actions like building reservoirs and / water banks on the lower riparian side. The same logic can be extended to the national as well as provincial levels. However, there is tendency to hide inactions, incompetence and poverty of innovative solutions behind a victim’s syndrome.
The problems of water governance in Pakistan have multiplied over the years because ‘the agents’ have managed to become ‘the owners’, disabling internal checks and balances embedded through laws and the constitution to prevent ‘the agents’ from misusing powers and resources of ‘the actual owners/water users’ — the people.
Since there is a lack of knowledge about the state of water governance at different levels, the ‘agents’ are either incapable or become negligent. In an environment of disabled checks and balances, coupled with greed and self-interests, the agents fail to defend the rights of lower riparian at the international level and to ensure Pakistan’s water security.
For effective water security governance, the starting point is to establish centres of excellence or institutes for water security policy and research to generate authentic body of information for taking proactive actions to safeguard the rights of stakeholders.
At present, our reluctance to take effective counter measures needs to be replaced by hard facts instead of ongoing political rhetoric. There is no alternative to a body of highly competent professionals and researchers to produce documents on hard realities and different options to address such challenges. By behaving like an ostrich, how long can we afford to keep hurting our own interests?