Water shortage: the real culprit

Published July 26, 2010

ON Jan 15, 2006, the Karachi Port Trust (KPT) inaugurated its new fountain — the Rs320m lighted harbour structure that spews seawater hundreds of feet into the air.

Also on this day — as on most others in Karachi — several million gallons of the city's water supply were lost to leakage, some hundred million gallons of raw sewage oozed into the sea, and scores of Karachiites failed to secure clean water.

Over the next few years, the fountain jet would produce a powerful and relentless stream of water high above Karachi. Meanwhile, down below, tens of thousands of the city's masses would die from unsafe water.

After several fountain parts were stolen in 2008, the KPT quickly made the necessary repairs and re-launched what it deems “an extravaganza of light and water”.

In an era of rampant resource shortages, boasting about such extravagance demonstrates questionable judgment. So, too, does the willingness to lavish millions of rupees on a giant water fountain, and then to repair it fast and furiously — while across Karachi and the nation as a whole, drinking water and sanitation projects are heavily underfunded and water infrastructure stagnates in disrepair.

And so, too, does Pakistan's insistence — expressed vociferously in media editorials railing against 'water theft' and in politicians' warnings about water wars — that India is to blame for Pakistan's water woes. The story of the KPT fountain illustrates how Pakistan's water crisis rages not because of the machinations of its upper riparian neighbour, but because of Pakistan's own misplaced priorities and poor governance.

To be sure, India may well divert flows from the Indus Basin's western rivers, which the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) allocates to Pakistan, and India does itself few favours by refusing to be transparent about such matters. (In this regard its agreeing to allow Pakistan to inspect two under-construction hydropower plants in Indian-held Kashmir is welcome.) Yet keep in mind that the IWT gives India the right to use some of the western rivers for agriculture, and the country has yet to exploit much of the cropland set aside for this purpose.

Additionally, the IWT apportions 135 million acre feet (MAF) of the western rivers to Pakistan, yet only 33 MAF of the eastern rivers to India. So even when India draws from the western rivers, Pakistan's IWT share remains considerable. At any rate, such talk is immaterial. What Pakistan needs most is not more water, but better water governance. The country's existing dams, reservoirs and canals are falling apart.

According to water expert Simi Kamal, simply repairing and maintaining Pakistan's leaky canal system would free up nearly 10 times more water than the quantity projected to be generated by the Diamer-Bhasha dam. Islamabad prefers, instead, to construct inefficient and expensive new structures. The Water and Power Development Authority's Vision 2025 calls for several dozen new large water projects (including five dams and three 'mega-canals') within the next decade and a half.

Another governance problem is grossly unequal access to water in the countryside, where two-thirds of the nation's population is based. Simply stated, Pakistan's rural rich, who control most of the land, get water, while the rural poor, most of whom are landless or lack access to land, are denied water. The rules of warabandi, a rotational system meant to ensure equitable allocations of irrigation water among farmers, are undermined and exploited by large landowners — many of them politically connected.

Then there are the bad policies underinvestment in urban wastewater treatment, repeated use of water-wasting irrigation, cultivation of the most water-guzzling crops, and the eagerness to lease out vast tracts of water-rich farmland to foreign investors.

None of this has anything to do with India. Indeed, while one could rightly deposit blame at the doorstep of misguided policymakers or feudal landlords in Pakistan, fingering India unnecessarily externalises an internal problem. In fact, the only genuine external culprit of Pakistan's water crisis is global warming — and the effects of climate change on Pakistan's water shortfalls could be mitigated if the country managed its existing resources more judiciously.

Still, in deference to those who insist Pakistan's water crisis is India's fault, suppose that India is indeed violating the IWT and diverting Pakistan-bound river flows. Now, imagine that India abruptly ceases all such behaviour.

What would happen next? According to the Blame India narrative, the floodgates to the lower riparian would burst open, and water would pour forth into Pakistan. Parched land and dry mouths would be satiated. Puddles would once again become ponds. Agricultural productivity would increase, water-dependent livelihoods would be saved and food security would make a triumphant return. Wrong. None of this would happen.

Instead, existing inefficiencies would be amplified, and current problems would be exacerbated. More water would accrue to large landowners, further depriving the rural and landless poor; more water would be lost to leaky canals and pipes; and more water would be wasted in irrigation, showered on water-intensive crops and contaminated by urban waste. In essence, if nothing is done to improve water governance, allowing more water to gush into Pakistan would simply intensify the country's water crisis.

Resolving Pakistan's domestically rooted water crisis will require domestically rooted correctives. Admittedly, some of them (more crop diversification) will be easier than others (more equitable land distribution) to implement successfully. Yet with groundwater tables plummeting throughout the country and 250,000 Pakistani children dying every year from waterborne disease, the stakes could not be higher.

As for India? It should follow suit, look inward, and address the factors driving its own domestically based water crisis (lest one forget, more than a third of New Delhi's freshwater resources are lost to leakage).

If both nations can lessen their water stress, India would have less incentive to dip into western river flows and Pakistan would have fewer grounds on which to levy its water theft charges. Such an outcome would constitute a victory for Pakistan-India relations, and a defeat for the purveyors of the Blame India narrative. And perhaps the KPT fountain would no longer be the sole repository of water extravagance in Pakistan.

The writer is programme associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington, DC.

michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

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