Despite Pakistan boasting one of the largest irrigation systems in the world, river water disputes with India and then between the provinces have given headaches to successive governments over the past 70 years.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency on the eve of World Rivers Day, which is being observed on Sunday, Feisal Naqvi, a Lahore-based water expert, said Sindh and Punjab have been squabbling over water distribution even before the independence and partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.
"This is not a new issue. It was inherited by Pakistan at the time of independence [in 1947]," said Naqvi, who has also represented Pakistan as an attorney in its legal battle on water dispute with India.
The thrust of the dispute is over the distribution of water from the mighty Indus River, which together with other western rivers — Jhelum and Chenab — go to Pakistan in line with a 1960 water-sharing agreement between India and Pakistan brokered by the World Bank.
The waters of the eastern rivers — the Sutlej, Beas, and Ravi — have been allocated to India under the said agreement. These rivers irrigate around 18 million hectares of arable land.
Punjab and Sindh have been at loggerheads over the distribution of water from the Indus River for decades.
Balochistan also accuses Sindh of stealing its water.
In 1991, an accord was arrived at to settle the decades-long controversy. But according to Naqvi, the different interpretations by the provinces fizzled the spirit of the agreement.
Punjab and Sindh get 55m and 48m acres feet water (MAF) annually out of a total of 142 MAF under the 1991 water accord.
Water accord fails to end discord
"According to Punjab, the 1991 water accord upholds the historic share of each province, whereas the new distribution percentage depends only on the extra water. However, Sindh interprets otherwise, insisting that the new percentage is based on the entire quantity of water," he said.
Idris Rajput, a Karachi-based water expert, said Sindh's objections are "valid".
He said the construction of two major canals to divert the water from the Indus River by Punjab is one of the major reasons for the curtailment of Sindh's share.
"Punjab contends that it has the right to distribute water within the province through canals, which is the wrong interpretation of the water-sharing agreement. It cannot construct canals to divert the water from River Indus, which is [the] share of Sindh," Rajput, who also served as secretary in the Irrigation Department of Sindh, told Anadolu Agency.
According to official figures, around 27 per cent of Pakistan’s 796,096 square kilometre land area is cultivated.
Punjab, Pakistan's breadbasket, shares 63pc of the total cultivable land followed by Sindh, which owns 18pc of the arable land.
The latest showdown over water distribution took place in May when the Sindh government accused the federal government of diverting water supplies to Punjab and providing 37pc less water to Sindh than its due share from the Indus River for the current season, wreaking havoc on the agricultural lands, particularly at the tail ends.
Punjab rejected the allegation, saying the additional flows were diverted to Sindh at the time of crops sowing.
"This technical issue has unfortunately been heavily politicised," said Naqvi contending that the 1991 accord is not a "perfect" way to resolve the water sharing disputes.
"It needs to be revisited. Otherwise, the simmering argument will further deepen in years to come,” he added, claiming that the makers of the 1991 accord were not water experts but engineers.
But Rajput described the 1991 accord fair enough to address the inter-provincial water disputes. "If this accord is implemented in its letter and spirit, the long-running disputes can be settled to a large extent," he said.
Experts blame river authority
He said the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) — a government body that oversees the water distribution among provinces — was responsible for the dispute, as it had failed to implement the water accord.
Khalid Rana, director of operations for Irsa, however, rejected the charge.
"Irsa having representation from all the federating units decides the regulation and accordingly issues regulation directives to Wapda (Water and Power Development Authority) for making such releases as per Water Accord 1991. Smaller provinces i.e., KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Balochistan, as they can’t utilise their full allocated share due to lack of infrastructure, are exempted from sharing of water shortages, " he said in a written reply to Anadolu Agency.
He said Irsa releases full water share to Balochistan including conveyance losses.
“However due to some operational constraints of Sindh, as Balochistan gets its share from Sindh barrages, they cannot divert full share to Balochistan province, so Balochistan always faces a shortfall of water in its canals," said Rana.
Naqvi said that although Pakistan is on the brink of water shortages, it still has enough water to cultivate its lands.
The major problem, according to him, is poor water management and storage.
"Changing weather patterns are going to cause major water shortages in Pakistan if we continue to go ahead with existing management and storage systems," he said, insisting that the construction of new dams is essential for water storage, especially floodwaters.
Echoing Naqvi's views, Rana said the country's storage capacity is decreasing, which has also affected the water amount being used by provinces in their canals.
Punjab and the three smaller provinces have long been locked in a controversy over the construction of the Kalabagh dam, a proposed hydroelectric project on the Indus River at Kalabagh in Mianwali.
The proposed reservoir is aimed at storing huge amounts of water and to produce 3,600-megawatt electricity.
Construction of dams
However, some experts oppose the construction of the Kalabagh dam, saying that it will further decrease waters for smaller provinces, mainly Sindh, where large-scale protests have been held against the project in the recent past.
KP claims its two major cities will be submerged if the Kalabagh dam is constructed.
The state assemblies of Sindh, Balochistan and KP have already passed resolutions against the proposed dam.
According to the 1991 accord, five MAF of water is required to fall into the Arabian Sea through downstream Kotri annually.
"There is no need to waste time on this dead issue anymore. Instead, the government should pay attention to the construction of small dams to store water as the Indus River has already silted 40pc," Rajput said.
The government has already initiated the construction of several dams across the country, including Diamer-Bhasha Dam to cope with the growing needs of water and energy in the country.