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KARACHI, Dec 4: While the Indus Waters Basin Treaty provided no protection to livelihood and ecosystem, Pakistan can claim environmental flows from India on account of climate change, said Dr Zaigham Habib, an independent consultant on water and environment, on the day one of an international conference on water that kicked off here on Wednesday.

She also recommended to the relevant authorities that instead of following India Pakistan should sign the international convention on water and agreements on climate change that could benefit the country.

The two-day conference titled ‘Water cooperation in action — from the global to the grassroots’ has been organised by Hisaar Foundation.

About water cooperation for economic benefits, she said water policy guidelines should come from the provincial governments instead of the federal government.

In her opinion, Pakistan’s low agriculture productivity is not because of water losses but due to low investment potential of farmers.

At the session on building peace through cooperation, former irrigation minister ANG Abbasi said that Pakistan had suffered a lot due to the ‘one-sided’ Indus Waters Basin Treaty for 50 years.

“Giving away three eastern rivers to India has been a catastrophe for Pakistan because India never shared water shortages.”

He said the World Bank, which sponsored the agreement, should revisit the treaty and document the damages Pakistan had to suffer because of this treaty.

Senior environmental expert Dr Pervaiz Amir at another session warned of serious water shortage in Pakistan on account of climate change and said that if dams were not built the country would lose up to 30pc of its water.

He added that India’s water storage capacity was 287MAF whereas Pakistan’s stood below 12.6MAF.

Dr Amir was of the opinion that Article 161 of the constitution, which provided that the net profit from a hydel power project would go to the province where the project was located, was a major obstacle in building more dams.

“The reason for strong resentment is that other provinces don’t get any benefit rather they suffer when a new dam is built. Pakistan has the capacity of generating 6,000MW electricity from water and there is no reason that we suffer,” he said.

“I think the civil society needs to take up this matter and demand the government that they want cheapest source of electricity. The government needs to set up a commission on water security,” the expert said.

Dr Nilufar Islam from Bangladesh, Simi Kamal of Hisaar Foundation, Anis Haroon of Women’s Action Forum and former regional chair of Global Water Partnership Sardar Mohammad Tariq also spoke.

On the occasion, three books namely Sindh at the Crossroads of the Disasters by Nasir Panhwar, Water Management in Vulnerable World by Danish Mustafa and Women in Water Sector Profession in South Asia (a compilation of different case studies) were also launched.

Arsenic contamination

At yet another session during the conference, it was pointed out that research showed that lead and arsenic contamination posed serious threat to public health in Pakistan.

Drinking water sources especially those located close to the river have been found to be widely contaminated with arsenic while cooking utensils are shown to have higher levels of lead. Short and long-term exposure to these chemicals could seriously affect health.

Giving a presentation on water and health, Dr Zafar Fatmi said that 20pc to 40pc of hospital beds in Pakistan were occupied by patients having water-related diseases and water samples had been often found to be contaminated with human fecal organisms.

Citing data from a Unicef nation-wide research, he said it found that 9pc water samples from across the country were found to be contaminated with arsenic. The level of contamination in some districts was found to be as high as 25pc.

“Most of the affected areas were located close to the river and that was because of the deposition of the chemical in the river bed over the years which gradually contaminated underground water,” he explained.

Arsenic, he said, naturally occurred in the environment and though it was hard to remove or put an end to its contamination, exposure to the chemical could easily avoided by inexpensive intervention as was done in other countries like Bangladesh.

“Presence of arsenic could be checked with a help of a Rs70 kit and then one can mark the well with a colour code so that people do not consume it,” he said, adding that the Sindh government took an initiative a few years ago to address the arsenic issue but the project was abandoned later.

International organisations had classified arsenic as carcinogenic, he said.

“A survey has shown that more than 48pc of water schemes launched under Khushhal Pakistan are non-functional while 98pc of those working are supplying contaminated water. No clean water means more deaths, less cognitive development, less education and less economic growth,” Dr Fatimi said.

Referring to another study, he said that most mothers and newborns tested during the research showed higher levels of lead in blood. Lead could seriously impact mental health of a newborn/foetus which could be mental retardation in its severe form. Earlier, the opening session “Setting the Scene and Identifying Challenges” was addressed by chairperson of Hisaar Foundation Zohair Ashir and Khalid Mohtadullah, a leading authority on water issues, who outlined the risks and challenges being faced by Pakistan and suggested a roadmap for future course of action.