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Scorched earth, parched lands

Updated May 03, 2018


FROM Badin to Rahim Yar Khan, reports are pouring in of water shortages so severe they have left devastation in their wake, and episodic scuffling over the diminished trickles of drinking water coming out of the reverse osmosis plants that the PPP government of the province installed with such reckless glee.

Earlier, the Met office had warned of an unusually warm and the early onset of summer, but with below-average snowfall in the hills during the summer, the elevated temperatures would not bring water inflows into the dams. And now, we hear that the city of Nawabshah has possibly endured the hottest April temperatures ever recorded anywhere on Planet Earth, with the mercury breaking past 50 degrees Celsius in the first month of summer.

Crop damage reports are extensive. Burnt sugarcane fields, destroyed chillies and vegetables, and in the cotton belt, some farmers tell us that they have had to sow cotton three times thus far, only to watch the crop die since the precious water needed right after sowing never arrived. The dams both sit at dead levels, to the point that the situation has caused a power crisis in the country since the government routinely relies on activating its hydroelectric plants in April, but has not been able to do so this year. This is nature’s vengeance: a scorched earth, a parched land.

There is an old theory about the monsoon, and the changing weather patterns of the subcontinent that says there are decade-long swings between the wet season and drought. The monsoon oscillates, according to this theory, between 10 years of abundant rainfall followed by 10 years of drought. Considering the previous decade has given us five consecutive years of catastrophic flooding, might we now be poised at a moment where the pendulum is preparing to swing in the opposite direction?

The Indian Met Department puts out a seasonal forecast of the upcoming monsoon season early in April, and this year they have forecasted abundant rainfall. So perhaps not. But the pendular shifts appear to be increasing in ferocity, as well as decreasing in regularity.

The new water policy merely skirts around the challenges that confront our water economy.

Only three years ago, in 2015, we saw a cloudburst in Chitral so intense and so sudden that the ensuing rainfall triggered multiple simultaneous outbursts of glacial lakes, unleashing torrential floods so powerful they destroyed an entire district in a single night. The gathering clouds that caused the event did not even register on the Met office’s radars, since the few radars that look west were either not operational or did not have reach above the mountains where they gathered.

We are not as powerless before this elemental force of nature as we might believe. Pakistan is a hydraulic society, driven by water, and it possesses the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. Whether measured in terms of quantity of water commanded, or the acreage of lands irrigated through the system, what has been built since Partition is a truly massive and impressive water command system that underlies our food security.

There are two problems though: the water bureaucracy is unable to come up with any suggestions for the future that are not technical, or brick-and-mortar solutions like building more water storages, and it has created the intractable problem of the politics of water sharing.

Once significant quantities of water in the Indus river system are brought under human command, politics necessarily raises its head. Who gets how much becomes a question only in an age when the mighty river has been chained. One big failure in addressing this politics is the failure to bring about a water-pricing regime, to replace bureaucratic decision-making on allocations.

Another big failure is the inability to generate more precise measures of how much water is going where. The sad end to the telemetry system installed in the early 2000s is testament to this: it had to be dismantled because it began detecting and revealing the patterns of water theft by powerful landed interests.

The new water policy announced last week ought to have addressed these problems, not just paid lip service to them, especially considering the mounting scale of the challenges confronting our water economy. Instead it skirts around them. It acknowledges the need for a telemetry system, but leaves it indeterminate as to who will instal and operate it, and how its data will be used.

It mentions pricing reform, to sensitise the agrarian populations to the preciousness of water, but adds the caveat that in irrigation water at least (where 90 per cent of our water is consumed), the new pricing regime need not follow the principle of ‘full-cost recovery’. The application of that principle is left for urban consumers only, where the costs of urban water distribution and sewage removal systems can be recovered fully from the consumer.

Yet it calls for ramping up the scale of investments in our water infrastructure, to reach 20pc of development spending by 2030. Isn’t this urban consumers and taxpayers subsidising rural consumers? Why is the principle of ‘full-cost recovery’ being pursued so eagerly in the power sector, where costs of future expansion are to be recovered from consumers, but not in the water sector? If water is salient to our food security, power is equally salient to our industrial development. Why this discrimination?

Times are getting serious and fierce. This is no time for half measures, and vain attempts to safeguard vested interests. Nature’s fury is indifferent to our politics; we might not be able to arrest its vengeance, but we surely can do a better job adapting to it. A new water policy is where our response to the challenges presented by the increasingly erratic weather patterns begins, along with upgrading our forecasting capability. But in the new water policy, it seems consensus has been forged at the cost of a robust strategy to deal with the coming challenges.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, May 3rd, 2018