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Left high and dry

March 26, 2018


THE Constitution. Foreign policy. Econo­mic planning. Social safety nets. Terrorism. The ‘Bajwa doctrine’ seemingly has an opinion on everything, with a critical exception: Pakistan’s acute water shortage.

We have heard alarm bells in recent days about the Kharif season starting with water shortages up to 40 per cent that will likely result in crop losses, and Jhelum river flows at a 42-year low. But this is only a footnote to the horror story.

Pakistan is the third most water-stressed country in the world, with the fourth-highest water consumption. Groundwater reserves are dwindling as the Indus Basin aquifer is the second-most overdrawn globally. The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources has forecast that Pakistan will run dry by 2025 in the absence of government action to secure water resources.

Growth is dependent on water availability.

The water shortage is driven by population growth and rapid urbanisation. But it is exacerbated by climate change, crumbling infrastructure and bad policymaking. Pakistan’s vast canal system is leaky and inefficient. The government subsidises water-intensive crops and facilitates wasteful practices such as flood irrigation. Although agriculture accounts for 90 per cent of Pakistan’s water use, the sector remains largely untaxed, leaving few funds to invest in improving water storage or upgrading the irrigation system.

Access to clean water is a human right. Sadly, a rights-based argument is unlikely to motivate the powers that be to tackle the water crisis. Perhaps they will be moved by the economic angle?

Pakistan’s water intensity rate — the amount of water used per unit of GDP — is the highest in the world — our economy runs on water. Pakistan’s economic growth has become an obsessive matter: political parties see it as an election winner; the military has reconfigured it as a way to ensure ballooning defence expenditure in perpetuity. But our institutions overlook the fact that economic growth is dependent on water availability, not only because of our agriculture-based economy but also because of the need for water to secure energy supplies. In December, a Chinese diplomat pointed out that China’s plans to expand its supply chain within Pakistan were hindered by water shortages. We may be too distracted to deal with our water scarcity, but our key investors are well aware of the scale of the challenge.

Water is, of course, intrinsically linked to security too, which is why it’s surprising the issue was not part of our army chief’s wide-ranging doctrine. The Pacific Institute, a think tank focused on water and security issues, has found a fourfold increase in conflict over water over the past decade. Most major rivers in the Middle East and Asia — the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, Mekong, Jordan, Indus, Brahmaputra, and Amu Darya — are associated with conflict. Experts have started to reframe the war in Syria as a water war; the conflict erupted after an intense and prolonged drought across the region. Water shortages also fuel criminality and corruption in urban areas — think of the tanker mafia in Karachi.

Though not touted in the ‘doctrine’, the military is aware of the water-security link. Former army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani would cite Pakistan’s water scarcity to justify the country’s India-centric security policies. Back in 2011, when the US and Pakistan were on better terms, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee called for water to be put at the centre of the bilateral relationship so that the US could help Pakistan and India avoid a full-blown conflict over water. But awareness has not translated into action.

This is because water management is, rightly, a civilian concern. Securitising Pakistan’s water crisis will not lead to solutions; indeed, it will only lead to narrow focus on water-related disputes bet­ween Pakistan and India.

The fact is, there are robust international mechanisms to ensure that states don’t go to war over water. Most water-related conflict occurs at the sub-national level, between ethnic groups; tribes; upstream users in one province and downstream users in another; famers and industrialists; rural populations and city dwellers. The UN and the Indus Waters Treaty will keep a check on Pakistan-India water tensions, but what will prevent inter-provincial, inter-ethnic or urban-rural conflict over water use within Pakistan?

Innovative and comprehensive water policies — developed in coordination between the federal and provincial governments, and tackling all aspects of water management — are the only answer; they must be complemented by public-awareness campaigns to prevent water wastage. These are the responsibilities of a functioning government, one that isn’t mired in an existential crisis or beholden to the vested interest of feudal elites who comprise the political class. It seems Pakistan’s thirst for a functional democracy will have to be quenched before its water woes can be addressed.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2018