Water worries

Published May 16, 2022

The current water crisis, which has assumed proportions of an existential crisis, did not hit the country out of blue. It built up slowly and steadily over the last four decades, without any check, as a result of policy failure or its simple absence. It happened despite the country receiving ample warnings by international institutions (the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, United States Agency for International Development) as well as domestic water watchers, putting Pakistan on alert with a specific deadline: 2025 would be a gateway to disaster.

The current situation is a practical demonstration of those unheeded warnings and the country now looks to be right on the doorstep of disaster. This year, the month of March set the context. By the end of that fateful month, Tarbela Lake, which had hit dead level in February 22, was still completely empty and so was the minor lake called Chashma barrage. Only Mangla had a paltry 354,000 acre-feet of water against its capacity of 7.35 million acre-feet.

Last year, Pakistan had started the season with 1.5maf — some five times more than this year. The country thus started its new irrigation (Kharif) season on April 1st with a negligible carryover of 0.354maf. April multiplied the crisis when it turned out to be the second driest month since 1961, with rainfall dropping by a whopping 74 per cent.

During the month, the national water planners, after factoring in the anticipated 30pc shortages, were expecting 8.6maf of water to flow into the national kitty. What they actually got was 5.4maf — a loss of another 38pc. With both dams already at dead levels, this meant no water to supplement the loss of rains and the irrigation shortages went up to 51pc.

The water shortage of 51pc created havoc throughout the country as individual barrages and canals in Punjab and Sindh, some suffering from unequal distribution or other difficulties, reported losses of up to 71pc during the peak cotton sowing season

Apart from the loss of rain, the slow snow melting process in the Mangla-Chenab zone completed the calamity. According to metrological data, the Mangla catchment had received 37 inches of snow this winter against an average of 50 inches — a drop of 26pc. Even those 37 inches seemed to have fallen on higher altitudes.

The process thus slowed down to add to the already precarious situation. The Mangla Lake quickly lost whatever little water it had and hit the dead level during that fateful month. Since Mangla and Chenab share a catchment area, the latter also experienced a historical dip, and so did Pakistan.

The water shortage of 51pc created havoc throughout the country as individual barrages and canals in Punjab and Sindh, some suffering from unequal distribution or practical difficulties, reported losses of up to 71pc, and it all happened during the peak cotton sowing season. Farmers from both provinces took to the streets, protested the loss of water (read livelihood) and provincial discord renewed (which is always lurking just beneath the surface) with accusations of mismanagement and theft flying in all directions.

Though the situation has improved, it still contains a warning: if all efforts are spent on the current time of stress, the spillover impact will be felt in the coming Rabi season and the next cropping season will have its due share of troubles. With the high-temperature cycle starting, improvement is evident: an increase from 119,000 cusecs on May 1st to 205,000 cusecs on May 13th, when this piece was written. It is, however, lower than the historical average of 221,000 cusecs for the day. So, the country has still not hit its normal pattern as far as its supplies are concerned.

Individual river patterns are also accentuating the situation: on May 6th, River Indus improved to 95,000 cusecs and gave some respectability to national figures. But the two rivers (Kabul and Jehlum) were still much below their historical average. River Kabul was flowing at 37,000 cusecs against 50,000 last year on the same day and 55,000 cusecs of the historical average. Jehlum was at 39,300 cusecs against 59,600 cusecs last year on the same date and 56,000 cusecs of the 10-year average. River Chenab had improved, but only to meet its routine flows.

Though the Indus River System Authority has started saving small amounts in both lakes to take care of possible dips in the flows in the next few days, lake levels are still a major hiccup in its planning. It had expected Mangla Lake to reach 1,150 feet but it is stuck at 1,083 feet — generating fears about whether Mangla Dam can be filled this year, If not, upper Punjab should expect trouble later this year. Adding to its fears is that the Mangla Zone cannot be supported from the Indus side, and the loss of water in Mangla Lake directly translates into crop loss for farmers of Punjab.

This all happened because there is no manoeuvring capacity in the system. It did not have any water stored and the entire irrigation system has shifted to river supplies, which dry up when both sources (rain and snow) elude the country. These are the scenarios the world had warned Pakistan against for which they prescribed the building of more dams to increase manoeuvrability and absorb water shocks like the current one.

What should make heeding this advice more urgent is the warning that such events will not only become frequent but also worse. So far, Pakistan has responded to the world’s warnings in a novel way — instead of increasing capacity, it lost about a fourth of what it already had. The live storage capacity, which stood at 16.26maf in 1976 has gone down to 13.51maf, or equal to only 30 days of consumption.

This loss has brought per capita water availability to an alarming 908 cubic meters per person per annum. It used to be 5,560 cubic meters per person in 1951. To put the figure in context, anything less than 1,000 cubic meters per person per annum is considered an invitation to a precipice, and Pakistan seems to have invited one — and is knocking at its door.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 16th, 2022

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