The fuel of economic growth

March 22, 2016


The writer is CEO, LEAD Pakistan, a think tank focusing on climate and water issues.
The writer is CEO, LEAD Pakistan, a think tank focusing on climate and water issues.

WATER has become Pakistan’s number one development and governance issue. While water availability in our river systems has remained fairly stable, per capita water availability has diminished from about 1,500 to nearly 1,000 cubic metres, owing to a fast-growing population.

On World Water Day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has an opportunity to set the direction for Pakistan’s water economy. We will need to lay foundations for the blue economy. We will need water to fuel our economy, create water jobs, invest in water efficient technologies, create water markets for water savings and systems. It is critical for Pakistan to make water the central plank of our development agenda, if we are to meet our SDGs targets. Action on five issues to set the direction is needed.

Water policy: Pakistan has no water policy. The ministries of planning & reforms and water & power circulated two different drafts. Both have been withdrawn quietly. The Council of Common Interests is perceived as a spoiler and not an enabler. Hence there is visibly weak resolve to convene the CCI meeting and present the draft policy for approval. Meanwhile, some provinces have started working on their own provincial policies. The best of provincial policies cannot be a substitute for a comprehensive national water policy.

Groundwater: The country’s groundwater reserves are not regulated. Pakistan’s agriculture meets about 40pc of its water needs by extracting groundwater. But the water table is fast depleting and getting contaminated both in agricultural and urban areas. Our cities will not be habitable, nor will our agriculture be tenable if the present rate of groundwater depletion and contamination continues. It is a poorly governed area that has seen no meaningful legislation in decades. In fact, the subsidy for solar energy-run tube wells will accelerate depletion unless clubbed with drip irrigation. Groundwater reserves should be seen as strategic assets. Significant investment must be made in mapping, recharging, pricing and regulating individual and commercial use. It has serious implications for our ecosystems, cropping patterns, terms of trade, and transboundary aquafers.

On World Water Day, the PM has an opportunity to set the direction of Pakistan’s water economy.

Transboundary water institutions: Water resources are shared with three of our four neighbours in very significant ways. Any upstream developments can have adverse implications for us. Our neighbours have elaborate plans for infrastructure development. While it is sometimes suggested we seek their concurrence on our plans, we do not engage with them about theirs. We have failed to engage proactively or to explore benefit-sharing on shared basins. Afghanistan and China still offer opportunities for collaborative approaches.

Focus on India or the Indus Waters Treaty is important, but should not be at the cost of other neighbours. In fact, the IWT has provisions for collaboration but a zero-sum approach, pursued both by India and Pakistan, spoils the atmosphere for additional instruments of collaboration. As the lower riparian we cannot afford this and must generate additional policy options for better collaboration.

The Pakistan Commission for Indus Waters (PCIW) has failed us more than once in negotiations and court cases; we must reconstitute it by converting it into an independent constitutional authority, with a strong capacity for technical and legal studies and with partnerships with universities and think tanks in such areas as hydrology, meteorology, climatology, early warning, etc. The Commission’s mandate needs to be expanded to cover all transboundary water issues with all neighbours.

Interprovincial trust: All provinces are entangled in subtle water wars. KP aspires to construct more dams than it will need. Punjab feels it is surrendering its due share to the lower-riparian, smaller provinces that led by Sindh accuse Punjab of non-transparent transaction. The seeds of mistrust are also sown by early varieties of water-intensive crops in the pre-monsoon months when canals run empty and dams are at low levels.

Even a rational conversation on constructing uncontested reservoirs has become hostage to political bickering. The institutions have failed to generate trust. Telemetry or other instruments at locations where water shareholders change hands have remained an elusive dream despite availability of technologies and funds. Irsa has shrunk to a small club of well-regarded but retired officials who, among other things, lack the sense of urgency to translate Irsa’s mandate into action to manage water as a shared national resource. As part of the Ministry of Water & Power, it has failed to get the same attention that energy issues get. Water deserves a separate ministry, or at least an independent commission with constitutional status.

Climate change: Climate change poses a more serious threat to Pakistan’s water supply than India’s. India cannot stop Pakistan’s water beyond a certain number of days even if it wanted to. At the risk of international isolation it can suddenly release water in some of our rivers and cause damage, or deny water to some crops by exploiting timing. These issues can be handled by our water diplomats. But climate change poses more existential challenges. The changing monsoon pattern is making water supply erratic. It has started reaching the upper reaches of our Himalayan ranges and parts of Balochistan not traditionally covered by monsoon rains. Karachi and other coastal areas have begun to receive more frequent warnings about cyclones.

Changes in rain patterns raise questions about food security and the need to invest in climate-smart agriculture. While we have a greater incidence of hydro-metrological droughts in parts of Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh, urban and rural flooding is becoming a recurrent phenomenon. In fact, torrential rains in the Jammu region and the upper reaches of the Kabul river basin have flooded Sialkot in Punjab and Nowshera in KP, drawing attention to emerging transboundary risks. As the glaciers recede, we face the threat of permanent reduction in our water lifeline.

Economic growth: The prime minister should take a fresh look at Pakistan’s institutional landscape. The mandates and governance of water-related institutions such as PCIW, Irsa etc should be revisited. He may want to constitute a national commission to look at water as a source of national cohesion and trust between the provinces. Water should also be an essential component of regional foreign and economic policy. We need to base our energy, food, and disaster risk reduction policies on climate change projections. We must address the issues of water access, water equity, and water as a hazard to our development as a national priority. Our vision for Pakistan as a middle-income country can only be fuelled with water.

The writer is CEO, LEAD Pakistan, an think tank focusing on climate and water issues.

Published in Dawn, March 22nd, 2016