Pakistan has been unable to develop the capacity for storing water largely for political reasons. - File photo

PAKISTAN is one of the world’s most arid countries with an annual rainfall of less than 240 mm. At the same time agriculture is an important part of the economy, accounting in 2010 for over one-fifth of the gross domestic product.

Since the time of the British who invested heavily in tapping the Indus River system for irrigating the virgin lands of the Punjab and Sindh, agriculture has become an important part of the sector.

Over 80 per cent of the cropland is irrigated. Most of the important crops — wheat, rice, cotton and sugar cane — rely on surface irrigation. As discussed below some of these would not be part of the farming pattern if water was properly priced.

According to one expert, until relatively recently, “agriculture was characterised by low cropping intensity and production dominated by low-water requirement crops like food grain. During the last decade, however, the pressure on water has drastically increased with more competition for quantity and quality of irrigation water within the sector.” There is a move towards the production of high-value crops which produce more jobs per unit of water and per unit of land than traditional crops.

Pakistan has been unable to develop the capacity for storing water largely for political reasons. According to a 2009 report by the World Bank, the United States and Australia have over 5000 cubic meters of storage, while China has 2000 cubic meters. Pakistan’s capacity is only 150 cubic meters.

Inefficient use of water that flows into the vast irrigation system that has been developed over time is another problem the country has to deal with. Of the water diverted from the river system, 96 per cent is used for agriculture while four per cent is consumed by industry and households. However, a significant part of the water that flows into the irrigation system is wasted because of its antiquated design and poor maintenance and poorly leveled fields.

More than 50 per cent of the water in the system is lost by way of evaporation or seepage into the ground. The water that seeps into the ground is recovered by half a million tube wells that have been installed over the last 50 years. Ground water pumping has increased from 3.34 MAF in 1959 to 55 MAF in 2009. Tapping of this resource is done without regulation. The result is that there is “mining” of water with the amount extracted exceeding the amount of natural recharge. About 70 per cent of the working tube wells are producing hard or brackish water which is exacerbating the salinity problem.

Climate change is also affecting Pakistan’s water situation. Glacier retreat is likely to reach 40 to 50 per cent of the area currently under ice cover and as the Pakistani rivers receive most of their flow from melting ice. This will have serious consequences for the availability of water. As the World Bank stated in a major report on Pakistan’s water resources, “while the science is still in its infancy, best estimates are that there will be 50 years of glacial retreat, during which time river flows will increase.

This — especially in combination with predicted more flashier rainfall — is likely to exacerbate already serious problems of flooding and draining, especially in the lower parts of the basin in the next few decades. But then the glacial reservoirs will be empty, and there are likely to be dramatic decreases in river flows, conceivably by terrifying 30-40 per cent in the Indus basin.”

Some of the problems that are taking the country towards water scarcity can be resolved by adoption of appropriate public policies. But this, as in so many other cases, will need the exercise of political will. The level of resources needed for development — building of new storage dams and improving the system of irrigation — will have to be increased. This will require a greater fiscal mobilisation effort which means plugging of loopholes in tax structure, widening the tax base and improving the efficiency of the tax collection machinery.

With increased resources, the country will be able to commit more funds for further developing its already impressive irrigation infrastructure. Country’s political masters must gather the will to convince those who oppose the construction of such large dams as the one at Kalabagh that this type of investment is not a zero-sum game where one party’s loss is equal to other party’s gain. A well integrated system for managing the flow in the rivers will benefit all citizens.

Water pricing is another critical public policy issue that needs to be addressed in order to improve utilisation of this precious but declining resource. Pakistani farmers don’t pay the price for water that appropriately reflects the present and future scarcity value of this commodity. Charging the users on the basis of scarcity would improve the efficiency of water use in many ways. Farmers will have an incentive to level their fields to minimise the waste of water. They will also move away from cultivating such water-intensive crops as sugar cane.

Correct pricing of water for non-agricultural use is also important since both industry and households will have the incentives to minimise waste. It has been found that where water is correctly priced there is greater recycling. Israel is one of the countries that has learnt to use water with great efficiency. It is the world’s leader in developing drip irrigation.

Pakistan has paid no attention to developing a regulatory system that would watch over the use of water. For instance, the use of ground water for irrigation, manufacturing and domestic use is hardly regulated. The result is mining of water which is causing a sharp drop of the water table in many areas. To prevent the further deterioration of the situation, the policymakers need to work not only on installing the right price regime but also supporting it with a regulatory system.

Water is one of the important inputs that are now under stress because of underinvestment by the public sector. In the earlier decades, the share of water in the public sector development programme was 20 per cent of the total. In the 1990s it declined by nearly one-half, to only 11 per cent.  This means that there was significant reduction in potential increase in GDP because of the lack of sufficient investment in improving the availability and flow of water for agriculture. The elasticity of agriculture growth to water is 0.48. Dealing appropriately with the problem of water scarcity is on important way for bringing health back to a sick economy.

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