Last week has been a mixed blessing for Pakistan as far as its water supplies are concerned. Within the week, the country came out of severe shortages of over 50 per cent, which had assumed proportions of an existential threat. By the time this piece was written last Thursday, Pakistan had climbed out of its shortages ditch and was delivering water 10pc more than what was demanded by the Indus arm to cover dry river bed losses. All provinces were getting water with zero shortages.

It all happened as mercury started rising in the northern areas causing snow and glaciers to melt. With it, the monsoon season began as well: country-wide rains started and humid conditions followed that pushed down irrigation demand.

Both these factors changed the water picture of the country. During the last week of June, Pakistan was receiving only 170,000 cusecs of water with both dams almost empty. However, by the start of July things started looking up and by July 7, when these lines were written, national supplies had touched 462,900 cusecs — beating all three benchmark averages of the last year (261,200 cusecs), last five years (339,400 cusecs) and ten years (384,900 cusecs). Its storages were able to cumulate 1.85 million acre-feet (MAF) of water. This was the blessed part of last week’s water story.

The other part, however, is still as miserable as it was before. Both major dams are still facing huge deficits caused by meagre supplies during May and June. Of the two, the condition is worse at Mangla Dam, which faces bleak prospects.

Despite rains and melting snow and glaciers, Mangla Lake remains unfilled, causing deep concern to Punjab which depends on it for its late Kharif and the entire Rabi season

Riding mighty Indus, fed by massive glacier melt, Tarbela Lake has every chance of recouping its losses. It is a late riser and has almost assured supplies for July and August. Last Thursday, though it was still 50 feet (1,452 feet, with 1.23maf water) below the planned level (1,501 feet, holding 3.32maf) and was only 21pc filled, the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) was still hopeful that the dam will be filled if temperatures hold in upper parts of Pakistan.

The Mangla Lake, however, is the real area for concern that is ringing alarm bells, both in Irsa and Punjab. Punjab’s dependence on it during the late Kharif and the entire Rabi season is absolute. It covers 13m acres spread across 10 districts of central Punjab that cannot be served from any other source.

Conventional wisdom and the filling criteria of it dictate that if the lake is not filled up to 80pc by June 30, its filling chances get bleak. By July 7, the Mangla Lake stood at 1,115 feet: only 9pc filled — holding 0.68maf against a total capacity of 7.3maf.

Punjab’s irrigation officials explain their fears: “the chance of Mangla Lake filling 80pc is now gone. If the current river flows hold and there is no dip in Jehlum flows for the rest of the season, the lake can be filled up to 30pc only.

By Irsa’s calculations, the lake should have touched 1,223 feet (against the optimum level of 1,242 feet) by now, holding 5.89maf water if the dam had any chance of getting filled. During the Rabi season, Mangla is the only safety valve for Punjab. With it standing empty, the country, especially Punjab, will be facing the highest shortages of 50pc since the signing of the Water Accord in the early nineties. The last record of worst shortage was 48pc during 2001-02, says an official, summing up calculations and fears.

Irsa however, is still hoping against the hope and praying. “The Mangla catchment normally receives two to three spells of rains during late monsoon months that contribute up to 350,000 acre feet of water each, supplying roughly one million acre feet of water. Should that happen this year as well, the authority hopes the lake will touch 1,179 feet — with 4.5maf water.”

Without ruling out the psychological benefits of hopes and prayers, Punjab officials insist: “Jehlum River supplied routine water but with River Chenab’s flows dipping low, the entire plan went haywire. River Chenab went over 70,000 cusecs on July 1 and has been consistent with flows — enabling Irsa to hold some flows at Mangla. If Chenab dips again, no amount of water can be held in Mangla Lake even if Irsa’s hopes and prayers are answered.”

Caught between provincial and federal hopes and planning are farmers, who think that “climate change has robbed both the parent (agriculture) as well as the sub-sector (irrigation) of historical certainty. Conventional wisdom and planning about the weather, rains, snow and glacial melt are gone.

Both wet and dry cycles are getting extreme and so are water shortages and supplies. Each and every step of agriculture cycles — from sowing to harvesting, from seeds to machines — now needs fresh planning. Agriculture has historically been anchored in nature — because it is an outdoor activity and now Mother Nature is changing its ways, says Muhammad Ramzan, a research associate in the pesticides business.

Abad Khan, a farmer from Central Punjab, thinks that water mining will certainly increase but the cost of production for farmers will multiply many folds. “With diesel prices shooting through the roof and electricity supplies becoming uncertain in rural areas, water scarcity will hit crops at all stages of their development in more than one way.

The cropping sector is already in deep crisis with fertiliser prices climbing almost daily. Prices of output are capped because of political reasons. Now, if water becomes scarce and farmers have to pump it at an even higher cost, the situation will worsen for farmers and farming. If Mother Nature does not come to rescue with timely rains, and that too at regular intervals, the situation is going to deteriorate at a quicker pace than what many expect, he warns.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 13th, 2022

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