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Earthly matters: Seeds of trust

April 18, 2010

Inviting Indian journalists to a workshop in Islamabad to discuss trans-boundary water scarcity caused by climate change seemed like a good idea given the rising tension over water in our shared rivers. But the logistics proved to be a nightmare because getting visas to either country these days is like participating in an exhausting hurdles race! Just when you think you've cleared one, another hurdle comes right along.

Anyhow, with the help of LEAD-Pakistan, the environment NGO who hosted the workshop, and with funding from the British Government's DFID, the workshop became a reality on March 27th, when eight top environment journalists finally arrived in Islamabad.

The three day workshop provided an important, even “historical” opportunity (in the words of the head of LEAD-Pakistan) for the leading environmental journalists from Pakistan to interact with their Indian counterparts and actually sit down at one forum and discuss what is going on in an objective and dispassionate manner. A panel of academics and water experts from various organisations like WWF-Pakistan, UNDP, WAPDA, etc. had been invited to answer questions and give their input. According to participant Afia Salam, “I learnt that there is such a lack of real information about the issue that we need to learn the truth and then communicate it.”

Indian journalist Pallava Bagla felt it was a “great learning exercise on trans-boundary water”. Some of the Indian journalists were surprised to learn just how important the issue is for us in Pakistan. “In India, there is just not that much importance given to the Indus Water Treaty — in fact many people don't even know about it” one Indian journalist confided in me. I guess since they are the upper riparian (the waters from the shared rivers flow down from India and then into Pakistan) they are not so worried about their water supply!

According to the treaty, we get rights over the water flowing down the Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, whereas India gets the water from the Ravi, the Sutlej and the Beas. India has the right to tap the hydropower potential of the Jhelum and Chenab before they enter Pakistan, however and that is where the main problem lies. Pakistan is upset about the series of dams being constructed on these rivers by India for power generation purposes. I guess, due to the lack of trust on both sides, these dams (which are within India's right according to the treaty) are being viewed with great suspicion in Pakistan. I am glad that the workshop at least allowed a few Indian journalists to see why this is such a crucial concern for Pakistan. Being a lower riparian, we really are quite helpless, although, of course, we can do our bit by managing our water more efficiently and cutting back on losses.

One way we can save water is by planting more trees, especially in our catchment areas, up in the hills, where water is stored by the forests and then slowly released into the ground through natural springs. On the last day of the workshop we visited the Murree/Patriata area where the UNDP's Global Environment Facility's small grants programme has funded a local NGO called Sukhi in planting 65,000 forest plants and fruit trees. This area has been particularly affected by the cutting of hundreds of trees during the construction of the new expressway to Murree. The project is being implemented by community based organisations (over 200 of them!) and has been successful in creating awareness about the risk of land degradation and illegal cutting of forests trees, which is a growing problem in this region.

Although Masood Lohar, the National Coordinator of the small grants programme could not make it to the project site to show us around, his deputy Ashfaq Soomro along with officials of Sukhi, took us around the various villages in Patriata where fruit trees have been planted. This area was once known for its fine fruit, particularly apples, but as people turned towards tourism and small businesses they stopped looking after their orchards. Sukhi's officials went to Swat and brought back saplings of high quality peaches and they have distributed them to the community along with apple, plum and apricot saplings. These were planted some three years ago and by next year they should start bearing fruit. The fruit trees will bring in extra money and will prevent land degradation. In addition, these mountains rise above Islamabad and are an important catchment area for Simli Dam.

The last intervention we saw which impressed us all, were the rain water harvesting tanks that have been set up in several of the village homes. These are cheap and easy to install cement tanks that collect water from either the springs in the area or the sloping rooftops and can meet the water requirements of the household and livestock in the dry season. Around 32 of these tanks have been constructed so far and there is hope that the villagers of surrounding areas will be inspired to build tanks as well. If we all do our bit to save the water we have now, we could well avert the looming water crisis!