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Land of the dispossessed

Updated May 21, 2013

enter image description hereIn an arid country like Pakistan, water in the form of rivers, glaciers and groundwater is life – it is what gives us sustenance and when there is too little we have droughts and when there is too much, we have floods. That is how it has been for centuries in this part of the world – historians say that the cities of the Indus Valley Civilization, that lasted for over a thousand years, were in the end destroyed by disasters such as a river changing course, causing floods in some areas, and droughts in other places. We, the modern day dwellers of this land, have in fact been living with floods and droughts for centuries so the threat of climate change impacts is not something new. We have indigenous coping mechanisms and as Dr Danish Mustafa, who teaches at King's College London, Department of Geography, puts it “indigenous resource management systems are predicated upon extremes. In Balochistan, we have 6000 years of cultural knowledge of droughts.” But what happens when you destroy these indigenous systems by replacing them with capitalist and as it turns out, unsustainable, systems?

Dr Mustafa discusses all this in his new book, “Water Resource Management in a Vulnerable World”. In modern times, he says, “we plan outwards from the mean” whereas historically, people always planned “inwards from extremes” which in fact made them more resilient to climate shocks. Dr Mustafa has written in detail about indigenous systems like the Karez irrigation system in his book, which is a collection of 10 years of his work as a water expert. The book was launched at a ceremony held at the NGO, Leadership for Environment and Development in Islamabad last week. A researcher/academic who specializes in environmental issues, Dr Mustafa is currently on sabbatical for a year from King’s College. He completed his Ph D at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where his dissertation research was on irrigation and flood management in Central Punjab.

Dr Mustafa has published in several scholarly journals on irrigation and flood related issues in Pakistan. “In my book, I have tried to give a broad view of water and how we talk about it”, he explains. He has tried to understand the different cultural, historical and spiritual values attached to water and “recognise different perspectives” so that the “challenges in the water sector can be fruitfully negotiated”.

He says he has attempted to “bear witness to the different stories on water”. Take the example of the debate on dams, which is so controversial in the country – some experts say we should make dams while others say no, it would be disastrous and Dr Mustafa has heard out the arguments on both sides. Personally he finds the debate on the Kalabagh Dam to be “nonsensical”. “It’s certainly not a solution I would like to peddle… to make the dam we would have to re-design the whole system to take in more water. The storage of surface water is the least efficient way to do overcome water shortages.” The key, he feels, is to look at improving ground water management in Pakistan.

Now with climate change bringing in more uncertainty in the future, water is going to become a bigger issue than ever before and Dr Mustafa has looked at contemporary examples of adaptation to extremes in his book. With climate change, he says, “I can promise you that the historical average or mean trends are not going to continue… statistical projections are not going to hold in the future.” In Balochistan, where the groundwater is already depleting in many areas, he says that it is already “game over for the Pishin Lora Basin. In Quetta town the game will be over in 15 years – the population will have to move. In Mastung the game is also over, until something changes drastically in terms of water pumping”. The ground water can be recharged if you leave it alone for 10 years, but with tube wells installed in all these areas, and given the current rates of consumption of water to grow fruits like apples, that is not going to happen. “The Planning Commission had a vision of turning the area into the fruit basket of Pakistan,” he pointed out. The tube wells have instead sucked all the water out of the traditional Karez system.

The tube-wells were installed to increase agricultural production, but they have only made a few farmers rich while many other farmers have become paupers because of the Karez going dry. These smaller farmers have lost their status and standing and their identity. Dr Mustafa has written about the connection between water and identity in earlier articles (

“This is a catastrophe and a dangerous one,” he points out, as these families end up moving to the suburbs of Quetta where the young end up turning to militancy. “A country gentleman is now running a tea-stall,” he says, so imagine the humiliation and frustration. The situation can be improved if there is better regulation of water pumping and proper agricultural extension services in the Balochistan, but what really needs to be done is to “save the Karez system where you can… it provides the cushion that keeps farmers anchored to their community.” The Karez system has been tried and tested for thousands of years and it is more relevant than ever given the threat of climate change.

Dr Mustafa also discusses the irrigation system of Central Punjab in his book, where on a legal basis farmers are allowed to get irrigation water according to 62 per cent cropping intensity. He says that with the use of chemical fertilizers the cropping intensity has now gone up to 120 to 200 per cent and the extra water comes from tube-wells and diesel run Pieter engines. “There is no physical scarcity of water in a country that produces crops like cotton and sugarcane,” he says. “A water scarce country would not just not be able to do it.” No big farmer ever has a shortage of water – it is the small farmer that suffers. Eventually small farmers are not able to continue to derive sustainable livelihoods. Hence the rise of heroin addiction in Central Punjab and the alarming growth of militant organisations like the Sipah-Sahaba. “Invariably the dispossessed farmer, who can’t do much in cities, reverts to activities like militancy or drug addiction.”

“The present scares me,” says Dr Mustafa. He recalls what one dispossessed farmer told him, “I open up the heart of the earth and take food out – if I go to the city what will I do?” The inequities in our water management systems are driving small farmers off their land, making life impossible for them. Water is indeed life, and we are sucking the life out of our country. He says we don’t have to wait for climate change to make matters worse, because “the challenge of the future is already here.”