The Indus failure

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THE World Bank recently declared its $73 million Water Sector Capacity Building & Advisory Services Project in Pakistan as unsatisfactory.

Our water sector has a much longer history of boondoggles: deep tube wells of the Salinity Control & Reclamation Project were to be divested for being unsustainable; the Left Bank Outfall Drain turned into an environmental disaster in Badin; the expensive Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition system for Pehur Canal is mostly dysfunctional; Irrigation Manage­ment Transfer projects have idled for over 20 years; Mangla Dam’s walls had to be raised because of reservoir choking; 40 per cent of Tarbela’s reservoir has already been lost; the 2010 floods breached billions of dollars of flood protection works and amplified river avulsions; despite the Indus Waters Treaty (coupled with mega infrastructure projects), mistrust and water disputes between Pakistan and India two countries continue; the menace of local and regional water conflicts, societal discords, water logging, salinity, erosion, etc, seem to have no permanent fixes in sight; the list goes on.

In sum, unceasing project failures and other issues plague Pakistan’s water sector.

The physical and institutional infrastructure of our water sector today is a conglomerate of mega projects conceived and developed since the 1850s. Mega projects evolve through a vision that conceives the project; a power structure to make executive decisions; a knowledgebase to design and construct the project; and the finances.

Why is our water sector plagued by chronic issues?

Historically, the vision behind all mega projects in our water sector has lacked indigenous thinking and local stakeholder involvement. Initially, projects for canal colonies were motivated by British colonial interests of controlling the local populace and generating revenue. After 1947, water disputes emerged between Pakistan and India. Foreign outfits quickly moved in, motivated by business and Cold War interests, and conceived yet more mega projects for the Indus Basin.

The power to make executive decisions on proposed projects was finally grabbed by dic­tatorship. Interest groups were then faci­litated; they wanted local stakeholders (espe­­cially downstream communities) kept away from their projects. Proceedings of executive decisions were kept, and remain, secret.

The knowledge base for designing these projects violated basic principles of hydrology, environmental sustainability and agronomy. First, planners considered water flowing into the sea as wastage. This conflicted with the basic continuity equationin a basin’s mass balance, ie the difference between inflow and outflow (of water, silt and salts) equals change in storage (of the same) within a basin.

For sustainable hydrological systems, mean changes in mass storages have to be zero. Megastructures aimed to stop water from flowing out to the sea disrupted the basin’s mass balance — resulting in water logging, salinity, silting and erosion. This post-1947 mega project drive was carved out by completely shutting down three big rivers — unprecedented in the world. From colonial times until the 21st century, water distribution to farmers’ fields has been engineered to serve the ‘warabandi’ system rather than agronomic crop water requirements — making the Indus Basin irrigation system the least water-efficient on the planet.

The financial models adopted for these projects were mostly based on foreign currency interest-based loans and grants, which pushed our economy into a perpetual cycle of debt servicing. External costs and economic externalities were never transparently evaluated.

The bureaucracy evolving from colonialism and dictatorship inherited authoritarianism and secrecy. The former helps political power plays of control on water; secrecy helps corruption thrive. Social uplift has hardly been helped; most in canal-irrigated areas live below the poverty line and lack facilities as basic as potable water.

Mega projects that uplift nations are conceived through the vision of great leaders and thinkers, decided though democratic processes, designed with sound science and financed by locally circulating wealth. Pakistan’s mega projects, however, have been the opposite; vision borrowed from foreign conquerors and interest groups, decisions made by dictators, knowledge base flawed all along, financed with resources begged and borrowed.

How can systems raised in secrecy handle transparency? How can institutions evolving from dictatorship handle democracy? How can bad science fix technical issues? How can environmental destruction lead to sustainability? No intervention can survive in the existing Indus Basin irrigation system as long as the current conglomerate of infrastructure and institutions behind these projects fights against these principles to prolong its survival.

The writers are experts on hydrology and water resources.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2020