THE ushering in of a new government has generated excitement in Pakistan for a political paradigm shift, with the promise of strengthening public institutions, good governance and accountability to advance citizens’ social and economic well-being and to protect our environment for future generations. Will we see a paradigm shift in the water sector? What should such a shift look like?
In his Aug 19 address, Prime Minister Khan highlighted numerous infrastructure-oriented solutions (the Diamer Bhasha dam, canal lining, etc) for our water woes. This should not be the paradigm shift. While such measures are important components of our water planning and management framework, they do not adequately address the socioeconomic and environmental sustainability challenges we face. In fact, romanticising infrastructure-oriented solutions shifts the focus from long-standing issues of poor management, substandard water quality and inequitable delivery. These problems are a consequence of our static water policies, poor governance, institutional weaknesses and lack of accountability — and the magic wand of infrastructure development is not the solution.
If the goals of the paradigm shift are socioeconomic well-being and environmental sustainability, the focus of any water solution should be on i) provision of clean water for drinking and domestic use to all Pakistanis, ii) equitable water supplies to all farmers (and industrial users) as per predefined water rights, and iii) extraction of water from the Indus basin to levels that are environmentally sustainable. The means to these ends are revisions of key policy documents (especially the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord and the 2018 National Water Policy) and institutional reforms.
The magic wand of infrastructure development is not the solution.
The policy framework should first see a revamp of the 1991 accord between the provinces. In his address, Mr Khan rightly pointed out that sustainable water supply to large cities (especially Karachi and Quetta) is the foremost challenge. While introducing new water treatment plants, desalination, etc, mentioned in the PTI’s Karachi plan, may be important cogs of an urban water solution, explicitly introducing urban budgets and entitlements in the provincial water accord is inevitable and will usher in a sustainable, economically feasible source of water supply to large urban centres. A city like Lahore, for instance, could then rely less on groundwater extraction. There is already precedence for this: in 2016, all provinces agreed on allocating 200 cubic feet per second of water to Islamabad and Rawalpindi from the Indus at Ghazi Barotha.
Reliable and equitable water delivery for farmers and industry is another key challenge that requires a paradigm shift towards institutional reforms of water institutions. There is a genuine lack of service-oriented accountability among our key water delivery institutions. Water for agriculture, for instance, is to be delivered by irrigation departments (within provinces) through an equitable distribution mechanism, also referred to as the rotational plan. While ensuring delivery according to the rotational plan is the prime responsibility of each department, are these institutions held accountable for ensuring equitable delivery according to water rights and the rotational plans? Are these institutions well equipped, in terms of human resources, technologies for water monitoring, and systems and standards for accounting, to ensure reliable and equitable water delivery? Unfortunately, no.
The 2018 National Water Policy is a landmark document that provides an opportunity to initiate reforms for our federal and provincial water institutions. However, it needs a major revisit if fostering water reforms is a key objective of the paradigm shift (the name should also be changed to ‘national water reforms’). In its current form, the policy highlights the importance of strengthening institutional capacity. However, when tangible timelines and solutions are proposed for the next decade, the document heavily leans towards infrastructure development, and the mention of institutional reforms is negligible.
In this regard, we can definitely learn from Australia, who in 2004 proposed their National Water Initiative, a blueprint of their water reforms. The foundation of this reform was introduction of a standardised system for monitoring and accounting of water rights. The blueprint pledged a timeline for incorporating this reform and successfully did so by 2014.
Climate change and the drought of 2018 have compelled the nation to rally behind our leaders in support of the Diamer Bhasha dam fund, and rightly so. However, there is a great risk that a genuine paradigm shift will drown in the waters of the Bhasha reservoir. Hopefully, this won’t be the case.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in water resources systems engineering and management.
Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2018