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Irsa ill-equipped for its mandate

THE Indus River System Authority once again has locked its horns with Water and Power Development Authority on the way it manages water releases.

The controversy has exposed the brittle nature of water management.

Last week, Irsa, with the help of water inflows statistics for the rivers and outflows data from dams, tried to prove that its instructions were violated by Wapda, which, on its part, is under immense pressure to generate additional electricity. Irsa claims Wapda is releasing water for power generation rather than irrigation, violating its national mandate. Needless to say, Wapda denies it all.

Irsa said that as inflow in Kabul River started improving (from 25,300 cusecs on April 25 to 49,000 cusecs on April 29), it instructed Wapda to reduce releases from 40,000 cusecs to 30,000 cusecs from the Tarbella Lake. It did not, causing a loss of two-day national irrigation supplies. The Tarbella Dam, which should have been standing at a level of 1385.50 feet on last Thursday, went down to a level of 1,382.60 feet. Irsa eventually pressured Wapda into complying on May 1, when inflow in Kabul River had actually started receding. The spike in the river was thus lost because of Wapda’s preference for electricity at the cost of national irrigation supplies.

Behind this occasional institutional debate accusing each other of mismanaging national water supplies lies the fact that Pakistan’s current water management mechanism lacks any cohesion. This is because it neither has any pivotal authority nor transparent monitoring mechanism nor credible implementing arm. With water being an sensitive issue among federating units, the absence of such a three-tier arrangement is bound to create problems.

Currently, the central authority (Irsa), which was created to implement ’94 Water Accord — a national consensus on water distribution — does not have an inflows monitoring mechanism of its own. In the last two decades of its life, it did not try to create one either.

The water inflow reporting is restricted to a few historical rim stations up in the North and their reading is spread between Wapda and the provinces. So, Irsa does not exactly know what it has in its kitty, which it is supposed to distribute among provinces. It has to depend on other agencies. This creates problems for every one. Each time shortages take hold of the country, acrimonious debate starts among provinces. To make the matter worse, Irsa itself accuses others of manipulating water supply data – as it is currently doing to the Wapda.

Why has Irsa not considered creating its own monitoring mechanism so far? It has a number of options available, both human and technological to measure water.

The same is true when it comes to distribution of water. The dams are operated by Wapda and the barrages by the provinces. Irsa does not have presences on the ground where the actual distribution takes place. How can it ensure transparent distribution — especially during the crisis period — without being there? The authority was created out of distribution crisis and designed to solve crisis — both by creating additional resources and ensuring transparency in distribution.

Pakistan had once installed telemetry system to bring clarity in its water distribution but the system simply failed because no one owned it, not even Irsa, which needed it the most. The Rs170-million-project thus went down the drain. Since then, as before, Irsa has restricted itself to receiving inflow data from some agencies and transmitting it to others according to provincial demands of releases.

The current debate between Irsa and Wapda and the amount of water loss may not be very important, but it reflects a deeper malaise that afflicts the water distribution in the country. Irsa has a role to play and expand it gradually so that water issues get resolved rather than worsening the situation.

The authority needs to have an elaborate monitoring system at each point that provides water and presence at each point that releases water. It also needs to verify any addition or reduction in water that provinces claim and seek compensation for.

Once it is able to touch all crucial aspects of water management, only then can the authority live up to its mandate.