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Rationalising water

November 18, 2018

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The writer is a researcher and consultant in water resources systems engineering and management.
The writer is a researcher and consultant in water resources systems engineering and management.

THE drought wars have begun. In a recent National Assembly session, Federal Minister of Water Resources Faisal Vawda went on a rampage against the PML-N, alleging that the previous government stole water from Sindh to give to Punjab. The basis of Vawda’s accusation was that the PML-N closed down telemetry stations that monitored river flows of the Indus during their tenure. This statement is perplexing and irrational, since 1) the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) relies on the manual (legacy) flow monitoring system for distributing water to provinces as per the 1991 Water Accord; and 2) the last large-scale telemetry system installed in the Indus basin was an almost immediate failure in the late 2000s.

The contextual incorrectness of Vawda’s accusation will only escalate the long-standing discord on water distribution. Such accusations are not new. Irrational allegations regarding misreporting and water theft have gone back and forth amongst provinces in the past as well, especially in times of severe water storage. I am calling these allegations irrational not because the ‘claims’ themselves are unfounded, but because the ‘evidence’ attached to them is either non-existent, devoid of logic, or impossible to find. And the root cause of the lack of rational ‘evidence’ is that the provinces themselves operate the physical infrastructure (and report official water flows in canals and rivers) that diverts water to their canals.

Transparent and equitable distribution of water, as per the 1991 accord, requires a comprehensive water monitoring, operation, accounting and auditing framework where the entire distribution workflow — the individual processes of operating barrages, accurately measuring waters diverted to canals, recording river and canal flows and accounting diversions against entitlements — should be the responsibility of a single federal entity. This idea is echoed by emerging experts on our water sector: Muhammad Fraz Ismail, Muhammad Umar Farooq and Syed Haseeb Bukhari. Moreover, most successful inter-state river treaties follow this centralised operation framework. For inst­a­n­­ce, in the US, the Bureau of Reclamation is responsible for planning and operating the Lower Colorado River Basin to distribute water between four states, as per the Colo­rado River Compact. The bureau’s responsibilities include water distribution planning, dam operations, water monitoring and water rights accounting. Similarly, in Australia, the Murray-Darling River Authority is responsible for the operations of the River Murray System, including the system infrastructure — ie the dams and barrages, etc.

Structural reforms are needed to resolve provincial discord.

In Pakistan, Irsa is the federal entity responsible for distribution of river waters to the provinces as per the 1991 agreement. In this regard, Irsa is fully involved in water distribution planning, providing instructions for operation of the Indus River system. However, it does not operate the physical infrastructure that diverts waters to canals. Nor does it manage an independent physical system for monitoring and recording water flows. These key tasks are managed by the provinces themselves, and are the root cause of the provincial water discord.

The blame game on water theft will continue if the responsibility of diverting and measuring water remains with the provinces. It is counter-intuitive. For rationality to prevail, Irsa needs to expand its mandate (via revision of the Irsa Act, 1992) and take responsibility for operating the physical infrastructure that diverts water to provinces. If that is not possible, Irsa, at the very least, needs to develop its own physical flow monitoring system, adhering to a ‘national standard’ for measurement of river and canal flows agreed upon by all provincial stakeholders, and one that could be based on new technologies, like remote sensing, telemetry, sensor networks and state-of-the-art water accounting and auditing systems.

However, the adaptation of technology would require a change of mindset. Experiences of state-owned water institutions across the globe indicate that it is better for state entities to outsource the management of technology to private tech firms, via public-private partnerships. Telemetry has not repeatedly failed in Pakistan due to the PML-N or any other government. It failed because state institutions were either unable to manage it or refused to own it. The US Geological Survey recently outsourced development of their water data management system to a private IT firm from Canada. Moreover, Singapore’s Public Utilities Board outsourced the management of their water quality telemetry network. These partnerships were successful.

Our water sector can also partner with the private sector to successfully embrace technology. And it can inculcate rationality in provincial water distribution through institutional restructuring and technologically informed water governance.

The writer is a researcher and consultant in water resources systems engineering and management.

erita@nus.edu.sg

Published in Dawn, November 18th, 2018