Massive water shortage likely months after unprecedented floods

Published March 29, 2023
Sindh and Punjab are poles apart on the amount of water conveyance losses, and Irsa’s technical committee has not been able to finalise the estimates of overall water availability for Kharif 2023.—PPI/file
Sindh and Punjab are poles apart on the amount of water conveyance losses, and Irsa’s technical committee has not been able to finalise the estimates of overall water availability for Kharif 2023.—PPI/file

ISLAMABAD: In the coming Kharif season, beginning on April 1, the country is heading towards a ‘massive water shortage’, somewhere between 27 per cent and 35 per cent, only months after unprecedented floods submerged large swathes of lands across Sindh and southern Punjab, Irsa sources told Dawn.

In view of the higher shortage, the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) would be compelled to follow a controversial three-tier water management mechanism for distribution of shares to provinces and lead to rifts among the key coalition partners — PML-N in Punjab and PPP in Sindh.

Informed sources said that two major stakeholders — Sindh and Punjab — were poles apart on water conveyance losses — the quantum of available water that remains unaccounted for and lost to theft, leakage, evaporation or absorbed by soil or canals and could not reach farm lands.

Punjab believes that system losses or conveyance losses were around 7pc and 8pc, given the huge water quantities absorbed by the farmlands in super floods in Rabi season that has just ended, whereas Sindh insists system losses ranged between 35pc and 40pc, particularly in its territories between Chashma and Kotri barrages.

Irsa to finalise estimates of water availability during Kharif season tomorrow

A meeting of Irsa’s technical committee held on March 24 could not finalise the estimates of overall water availability for Kharif 2023 mainly because of a wide gap between the federating units on the issue of system losses. The water availability estimates are firmed up on the basis of carryover storage in reservoirs, anticipated rain patterns and resultant river flows and estimated conveyance losses.

The Irsa has now called its advisory committee to meet on Thursday (March 30) to examine water availability estimates made by Irsa’s technical committee and other stakeholders particularly Punjab, Sindh and Wapda. The advisory committee to be presided over by Irsa chairman would be physically attended by all the four provincial members, provincial irrigation secretaries and technical experts of Wapda, provinces and Met Office.

Informed sources said the Sindh government would demand water distribution under para-2 of the 1991 water apportionment accord but the Irsa would to continue with three-tier formula for water distribution among the provinces to absorb water shortages in the ongoing Kharif season. Kharif cropping season starts from April-June and lasts until October-December in different parts of the country. Rice, sugarcane, cotton, maize and mash are some of the key crops of the season.

Under the 1991 water accord, the apportionment of water was made under para 2 of the agreement that fixed provincial shares. However, due to water shortages, this para is not currently in application for more than a decade, as Irsa with the involvement of federal and provincial governments put in place in 2002 a cascading water distribution share mechanism among provinces in the light of shortages. The three-tier formula is now a combination of para 2, para 14(a) and historical uses of 1977-82.

Para 14(b) required that “10 daily uses would be adjusted pro-rata to correspond to the indicated seasonal allocations of the different canal systems and would form the basis for sharing shortages and surpluses on all Pakistan basis”. Under the three-tier formula, however, the less populated provinces namely Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are exempt from application of shortage that is then shared by Sindh and Punjab. Sindh, however, faces the larger shortage because of the three-tier formula.

Sindh has been arguing that while putting in place the three-tier formula, Irsa had surpassed its mandate envisaged under the accord and started distribution contrary to the accord and devised its own formulas despite Sindh’s objection through a meeting of the provincial committee of ministers.

With majority vote, Irsa has continued to hold that as the water distribution issue (under para 14, para 2 or historic uses) was already under active consideration of the Council of Common interests (CCI), no further discussion on the issue could take place until a final decision was reached by the CCI which had been sitting on the matter for many years.

Most members of Irsa argue that the matter was outside Irsa’s mandate as the CCI had constituted a committee to gather comments from all stakeholders, which had held considerable interactions though its final report was still awaited.

It was explained that three-tier formula for water distribution was systematic and dealt with different flow conditions on a sliding scale and it was beyond the mandate of Irsa advisory committee to change 10-daily system uses as set in the para-14/b of the accord.

Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2023

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