Water-sharing row

Published October 13, 2021

SINDH’S rejection of the federal offer to revisit the Water Apportionment Accord of 1991 betrays the province’s suspicions that the other stakeholders — particularly Punjab — intend to deprive it of its just share of water. Hence its insistence on the implementation of the 30-year-old interprovincial water-sharing agreement in ‘letter and spirit’. In a meeting with Federal Minister for Water Resources Moonis Elahi, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah did not mince his words: his province would not accept any other water-sharing scheme except the 1991 accord. He is reported to have said after the meeting that successive water-sharing formulas had restricted Sindh’s share. He demanded measures to strengthen the Indus River System Authority for the fair implementation of the water accord. This was despite assurances extended by the federal minister that Sindh’s share under the new arrangement would not be reduced.

Mr Elahi’s proposal for redrafting the arrangement between the provinces is based on the idea that the 1991 accord distributed more water than was actually available in the system and had planned water reservoirs that could not be realised. No water-sharing agreement, national or international, is without problems. The 1991 water accord is also not without its problems as reflected in the growing interprovincial water conflicts between Sindh and Punjab. The accord allocates water between the provinces on the basis of their historical use. Its wording is also ambiguous, allowing stakeholders to interpret it differently. Three decades is too long a time to carry on with a document that does not provide an effective mechanism for resolving disputes. Irsa, which is the sole arbiter under the existing plan for dispute resolution, has also become controversial. But it isn’t the right time to redraft the accord as it would only exacerbate tensions between Sindh and the centre that are already at loggerheads over several matters. It would only make the issue of water distribution more controversial.

Pakistan’s water problems stem not only from the conflict between provinces over their share from the Indus but also from rapid climate change manifested in erratic weather patterns across the country. The 1991 accord was expected to tackle both issues. But it hasn’t. Sindh’s concerns over minimum environmental river flows through the province into the sea or large dams upstream further stripping it of its share of water remain unaddressed. Differing interpretations of the accord means Sindh demanding its share on the basis of assumed availability of water, with Punjab insisting on distribution on the basis of historical use. Despite the flaws in the existing scheme of water-sharing, the authorities have sufficient room to find solutions to various issues and conflicts within its framework. Rather than dumping the entire document and replacing it with a new one, the better option for the centre would be to strengthen Irsa and start using technology. That should address most of the grievances of the stakeholders.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2021

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