PERHAPS for the first time, a newly elected prime minister on his maiden visit to Karachi reviewed the progress of various stalled development schemes. Upon his arrival in the city last month, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired a meeting to understand two chronic problems of the city: potable water and public transport.
The latter more or less depends on accelerating the planning and execution of ongoing projects and the availability of funds. The former, however, has so far proven to be an interminable problem. Mr Sharif ordered the completion of the Greater Karachi Bulk Water Supply Scheme, commonly called the K-IV project, by the end of 2024. But even after its completion, providing water for human consumption and industrial use will remain a huge challenge since supplies depend on the volume available in the Kotri barrage pond — Karachi’s only source of water.
Karachi’s water allocation was increased to 1,200 cusecs in the late 1980s to meet the carrying capacity of channels under the K-III project. However, unchecked population growth, besides transmission and distribution losses of 30 per cent to 35pc owing to the mushrooming of the ‘water mafia’, have compounded the woes of citizens. The K-IV project was designed to add 650 million gallons of water per day through a separate channel drawn from the Keenjhar reservoir. But to operate this, an additional 1,200 cusecs are required every day downstream Kotri.
Though the Sindh government has consented to allocate 600 cusecs, water for human consumption in Karachi has always received precedence over other usages. A judicious analysis of water availability and allocations to the canals emerging from the Kotri Barrage during the dry season (November to May) reveals that the K.B. Feeder has received more water than its proportional share at the cost of the livelihood of farmers in lower Sindh. This situation will only worsen once the daily water allocation to Karachi reaches 2,400 cusecs, especially since none of the barrages in upper Sindh release water for the city during the lean period, putting more pressure on already water-stressed tails of the canal network downstream Kotri.
The authorities must prepare for prolonged dry spells.
Although Sindh had insisted upon additional water allocations for Karachi during the inter-provincial water apportionment negotiations in 1991, its pleas were ignored by the federal government. In fact, the 1991 accord itself is not being implemented in the way it was meant to be. In addition, the required flow of a minimum of 10 MAF of water to save the Indus delta is not maintained.
Sindh’s, especially Karachi’s, dilemma is that the subsoil water is too alkaline for industrial use. Hence, industries end up consuming a huge share of the available water supply, leaving lower Sindh farmers high and dry. In this regard, the Sindh government has moved the Council of Common Interests for allocation of additional water resources, but so far there has been no headway. Moreover, the water crisis of Karachi will only aggravate when as many as 70 big and small dams and reservoirs (many built without Sindh’s consent) on the Indus river, its tributaries in Gilgit-Baltistan down to Haripur, and on its right bank from Chitral to the Darawat dam in Jamshoro are finally operationalised. Besides, the forced opening of the Chashma-Jhelum link canal in violation of the water accord and the existence of thousands of tube wells, pumping machines and lift channels between Panjnad and Amri will surely create an acute water shortage at the head of Kotri Barrage during dry spells.
Unfortunately, it appears that Karachi’s political pundits are either ignorant or least concerned about the effect of the onslaught of water projects and theft of water from the Indus. How else can one explain their indifference to the recent protests held by farmers against a common cause: construction of dams on the Indus and its tributaries, and the violation of the 1991 water accord by Punjab?
The costly operationalisation of the K-IV water project might provide Karachiites some relief, but unabated population growth, the unstoppable effects of climate change and the shrinking flows of the Indus river are bound to affect water quantities upstream Kotri in the coming years.
The authorities must prepare for prolonged dry spells, while also finding new feasible sites that fill up when the Indus overflows in the flood season, to store water. In this regard, the possibility of converting the Sonda depression, near Jheruk (Thatta), into a retaining dam must be revisited. Similarly, the Hadero lake between Haleji and Keenjhar lakes is an ideal site for a reservoir.
The writer has worked as Sindh secretary irrigation and power.
Published in Dawn, May 24th, 2022