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Dammed if you do

September 08, 2013

Pakistan is one of the most arid countries in the world; most of its water supply comes from the Indus system, which is composed of six major tributaries: the Indus, Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej. All these rivers are fed by glacier melt, snowmelt, rainfall and runoff. Rainfall in this region averages around 494mm a year and comes mainly from the summer monsoons — otherwise rainfall is unevenly distributed and varies a lot by season. Today, Pakistan faces unprecedented stresses on its water resources due to inequitable distribution, population growth, urbanisation, shifts in production and consumption patterns and climate change.

Over the last decade, Pakistan has become a water-stressed country; the UN currently estimates an annual per capita availability of 1,090 cubic metres (m3). The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation measures the pressure on national water resources by calculating water withdrawal as a percentage of Total Renewable Water Resources (TRWR). Stresses are considered high if the TRWR value is above 25pc. Pakistan’s water pressure amounts to a staggering 74pc. The country is expected to become water scarce (less than 500m3 per capita per year) by 2035.

Solutions to Pakistan’s looming water crisis must focus on addressing unsustainable practices and gross mismanagement, says Dr Danish Mustafa, who teaches at King’s College London in the Department of Geography, and has recently written the book Water Resource Management in a Vulnerable World. He is also one of the lead authors of a recently published report, Understanding Pakistan’s water-security nexus.

According to Dr Mustafa, “There are two Pakistans; one is the fresh ground water zone found near rivers in Central and Northern Punjab and near the Indus in Sindh and the other is the saline ground water zone. It is in the saline ground water zone where water is a problem, not in the other zone”. The freshwater zone encompasses the extensive surface canal irrigation system in the country, the foundation of which was laid during the British colonial rule. The Indus basin system is the largest contiguously irrigated area in the world. A massive social engineering project built thousands of miles of canals between 1885 and 1947 in an arid landscape. More than one million people migrated to the newly irrigated lands, and the region is today one of the most densely populated and agriculturally productive in South Asia.

In the freshwater zone, Dr Mustafa points out, “the main issue is that of mismanagement. Water intensive crops like sugar cane, rice and fruits like mangoes are grown and they take up a lot of water. It is part of an inequitable system of irrigation between head reaches and tail reaches. Structural inequities have not been addressed over the years”. The British, in fact, built the irrigation system in such a way that the more ‘loyal’ or supposedly distinguished tribes or castes were given preferential access to the head reaches of canals and watercourses while poorer and more marginal farmers were allotted lands in the tail reaches of the canals. Farmers located at the tail ends of canals have less assured access to water. Dr Mustafa also warns against damaging subsidies that are resulting in the overuse of groundwater in the freshwater zone: “Electricity subsidies used to run tube wells should be withdrawn immediately”. The unsustainable tube wells pump up the groundwater that is replenished by seepage from all the canals and rivers in the freshwater zone; according to some studies 80pc of the water used in agriculture comes from groundwater and we need to do a better job of “regulating this groundwater by introducing proper water rules”.

He points out that in central Punjab, on a legal basis farmers are allowed to get irrigation water according to 62pc cropping intensity. However, with the use of chemical fertilisers the cropping intensity has now gone up to 120 to 200pc and the extra water comes from tube wells and diesel run Pieter engines. In his view, “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.

In the saline groundwater zone (80pc of Sindh has saline groundwater), where there is real water scarcity, Dr Mustafa says: “there should be investment in infrastructure improvement”. Unfortunately, “no attention is being given to this zone”. Overall there is 64pc freshwater arable area and 35pc saline arable area in the country (out of which 80pc is located in Sindh). “The saline water problems need to be addressed immediately.”

As for 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, 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 overcome water shortages.” The key, he feels, is to look at improving ground water management in Pakistan. In his view, the country’s water problems cannot be solved by the construction of dams. What is needed is an “overall restructuring of the irrigation system to make it more equitable, more responsive and more demand based”.