AFTER vacillating for five years, Sindh has finally nailed a water policy. The document needs some editorial brushwork but is otherwise fairly comprehensive. The policy has tried to encapsulate the issues of irrigation, drinking water, the municipal uses of water, sustainability of the natural ecosystem and water quality.
Due to the presence of multiple departments, the management of water resources has remained fragmented. The Sindh Irrigation Department (SID), the Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority (SIDA), water and sanitation agencies, the Local Government Department, the Karachi Water & Sewerage Corporation (formerly KWSB), the Public Health Engineering Department, the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency and the Sindh Agriculture Department are the prominent bodies involved in water management in different domains.
The policy envisages the amalgamation of SID and SIDA to create a unified ‘Sindh Water Resources Management Department’. Interestingly, SIDA was carved out of SID under institutional reforms introduced through the National Drainage Programme in 1998. SIDA was assigned the ambitious agenda of farmers-led participatory management of the canal systems, including the recovery of water cess and the judicious distribution of water. However, the experiment had little impact in terms of overhauling the irrigation system.
One is unsure how the new entity will improve the efficiency and management of water resources. Its most critical challenge will be to address poor water governance. Today’s faltering water governance system is their own fault and new inventions aren’t needed to identify the causes and cure of the malaise.
Only its application can ensure the success of Sindh’s water policy.
Non-transparent and unfair water distribution, water theft, tampering with outlets, direct outlets from main canals to favour privileged landlords, artificial breaches and shoddy maintenance of channels are only a few among a long list of distortions that have blighted irrigation in Sindh. These problems are not just because of operational bottlenecks; they also emerge from politics in the province which is controlled by the feudal aristocracy. The irrigation bureaucracy has been installed mostly on the whims of the landed oligarchy. Both safeguard each other’s interests. Hence the entire water distribution system has been ring-fenced, with both benefiting from its malfunctioning.
Inefficiency is another factor that has plagued Sindh’s waterscape. The more than 60 per cent conveyance losses not only result in wastage but also reduce the soil’s productivity due to waterlogging and salinity. Resultantly, the crop-per-drop ratio continues to plunge.
According to the water policy, 61pc of the cultivable area in Sindh is saline or sodic. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates irrigation water productivity in Pakistan at $0.3 per cubic metre, much lower than the figure for other irrigation systems of comparable size. The acreage of water-thirsty crops rice and sugarcane is another major cause of imprudent water usage. These two crops consume about a third of the irrigation water in Sindh.
The water requirement of these crops is three to five times higher than that of oilseeds and pulses. The policy alludes to the need to reduce water-intensive crops yet concedes, ironically, that over the last decade, the acreage of these two crops has increased by 30pc. Shifts in the cropping pattern is treacherous territory as this can lead to a collision with the troika of agriculturalists, industrialists and politicians. Most of the 32 sugar mills in Sindh are owned by political families, who also possess large parcels of cropland. Shifting the cropping pattern is desirable yet one cannot expect much from a spineless administration in the absence of political will.
Domestic water requirements are a snowballing challenge as the urban population grows rapidly. According to the latest census, 53.7pc of Sindh’s population is urban. Unfortunately, the water and sanitation infrastructure and services are in a state of disarray in urban centres. The WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] Sector Development Plan, 2016-26, estimated an annual investment of Rs100 billion till 2030 for the universal coverage of WASH services in the province.
The policy prescribes making WASH management bodies autonomous entities that can efficiently generate resources and operate on the basis of competence. This prescription was tested by creating the North Sindh Urban Services Corporation in 2010 that, however, miserably failed due to persistent political intrusion.
The policy stipulates several remedies to problems that have sapped the water sector for decades. A fundamental challenge will be its effective implementation through a structured approach that is not confined to perfunctory meetings and reports.
The writer is a civil society professional.
Published in Dawn, September 18th, 2023