Vawda’s unfunny joke

16 Jan 2020


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT is easy to forget that water scarcity presents Pakistan with one of its most serious existential challenges when the country’s own water minister is busy making a clown of himself on late night TV talk shows night after night.

What possessed Imran Khan to appoint Faisal Vawda as minister for water only two weeks or so after giving a televised address in which he said water was the most serious challenge that he sees the country facing? And this from a man who had repeatedly said in his dharna speeches that he would restore merit in appointments. What merit has Vawda brought to a ministry that oversees the country’s most important natural resource next to natural gas?

Jahangir Tareen was a little more honest in one of his television appearances when he was asked this same question. How does he justify Vawda’s appointment to such a crucial ministerial position, he was asked. His response was that Vawda has “done a lot for the party”.

In case people still need to be persuaded that growing water scarcity is one of the biggest challenges facing this country, I draw their attention to the work of two people who have done a great deal to raise awareness around this problem: Zofeen Ebrahim, a journalist whose reports give a human face to the growing problem, and Simi Kamal, a water expert whose work highlights the nature of the challenge as well as the policy response needed and areas where work is badly needed.

What possessed Imran Khan to appoint Faisal Vawda as minister for water after saying that water was the most serious challenge the country faced?

“Here in the delta, the sea is fast swallowing up our land,” says Tanzeela Qambrani, member of the provincial assembly in Sindh who hails from Badin district in the delta region of the Indus River. She was quoted in one of Ebrahim’s reports carried by Reuters. “The government must come up with a sound plan now or we will have a huge population of climate refugees to deal with,” she says.

Climate refugees may be the next big migratory push of people into our cities, the earlier ones being poverty and war. But climate protests have already taken place, one of which was covered by Ebrahim, so feel free to look up her full report. A group of people fed up with persistent erosion of their agricultural land by seawater in the delta region marched 140 kilometres on foot to Thatta to protest. When they started they were about 40 or 50 in number. By the time they reached Thatta, reports put the number at 1,500.

Participants gave different reasons for the severity of the water shortages they were experiencing. Some blamed the ongoing Zulfiqarabad project, for which they said they were being forced to vacate their land through an artificially created water shortage. Others blamed the climate, especially the poor rate of melting due to unusually low temperatures late in the spring season in the north, which led to lower river flows in the Indus. Yet others blamed upstream theft, particularly in Punjab.

What was common was that nobody had a clear idea as to why water was so short, but everybody had a theory based on what fit their perspective. Whatever the truth, one fact was evident: water shortages had set people into motion, activated a protest and mobilised powerful politics. As time goes on and these shortages intensify, they will disrupt cropping cycles to the point where livelihoods are threatened, where protests spill over into violence, and where the narratives invoked to explain what is happening will be so varied as to become politically intractable. In short, a perfect recipe for enduring civil conflict will be created.

How can we respond to this challenge today? This is where the work of Simi Kamal provides some clues. Here is what she said in an interview to a local paper a few weeks before this march took place. In the interview, she first highlighted the scarcity of data in the water sector. “As you know, Wapda has been a moribund organisation for many years now. The research landscape on water sources and their consumption over the last 20 years has been quite barren,” she told the paper.

Meaning we have only the barest of ideas of where the water in our river system is coming from — rain, snow or glacial melt — and where it is going, whether to agriculture or the cities. Whatever data we have is based largely on projections based on measurements taken decades ago.

“The problem is in the attitude,” she said. “Bureaucrats rarely pay heed to subject experts from the private sector. Moreover, due to the elite capture of the political economy, those in power don’t want available data becoming public, as they fear repercussions for their excessive use.”

I recall here a story about the telemetry system that Wapda had installed on the Indus during the 2000s, which was staunchly opposed by the big feudals of Sindh because it began to yield precise flow data which revealed where water theft was taking place. The system was quickly dismantled and discarded.

“Pakistan needs to develop robust ways of collecting real-time data; whereas the existing database needs to be shared with research organisations and academia to advance the knowledge base,” said Kamal. “The idea is to have the best brains coming up with the solutions and advising the government. But as things stand, currently we have no credible numbers on agriculture’s share in water consumption.”

Here’s the picture in a nutshell. Pakistan’s water economy is set to dry up by the year 2025, according to almost every international organisation that has looked at it. This scarcity can create conditions that can potentially foster civil war. In order to avert this outcome, we need to put the best brains we have on the problem, and start taking proper measurements as a beginning.

Instead, what we have is Faisal Vawda as the minister for water, and he has brought nothing more than a boot to the table. So once we’re done cracking jokes, let’s ask one more time: what merit led to his appointment?

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @khurramhusain

Published in Dawn, January 16th, 2020