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Today's Paper | May 26, 2022

Published 22 May, 2021 06:22am

Water disputes

WATER shortages for the Kharif crop are growing. So are tensions between Punjab and Sindh. The national shortages for the summer crops are now estimated to have jumped from earlier projections of 10pc to nearly 30pc with the drop in temperature in the catchment areas. This is forcing Irsa, the sole arbiter of water disputes under the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord, to release water from Mangla for Sindh’s cotton crop as the provincial government accused Irsa and Punjab of cutting its water share. Punjab is unhappy with Irsa’s move, arguing that the failure to fill the reservoir could augment water scarcity for both Kharif and Rabi crops in the province. It says Irsa should adjust water distribution among the provinces in accordance with the new estimates of shortages and available river inflows. Besides, Punjab has accused Sindh of under-reporting water availability for irrigation in that province.

This is not the first time the two provinces are bickering over how to share water. Accusations have been flying around for more than a century. The 1991 accord was expected to help bridge interprovincial tensions. But it hasn’t. Sindh stills feels aggrieved because the accord didn’t guarantee a minimum environmental flow of river water through the province into the sea. It is concerned that the construction of dams upstream would strip it of its share of water. The accord allocates water to provinces on the basis of their historical use. Its ambiguous wording also allows different people to interpret it differently. For example, the accord assumes availability of 117.35 MAF of water in the Indus Basin system for distribution. In reality, this exact quantity was never available nor will it ever be. Therefore, Irsa has been distributing water shortages for the last 30 years, with Sindh demanding its share on the basis of the assumed availability of water. Consequently, the provinces have been accusing each other of stealing water and Irsa is blaming them for misreporting. Likewise, the accord suggests that provinces with water storage capacity will have a prior right to surpluses, which is a big concern for Sindh and hence its opposition to large reservoirs.

Pakistan’s water stress is projected to increase in the next few years. Climate change resulting in prolonged droughts in some regions like Balochistan, erratic weather patterns, frequent flooding, a shrinking winter season and heatwaves in cities like Karachi is aggravating the situation. Dams may be important to trap floodwaters for future use in years of scarcity. But they are not the solution to our stressed water economy. Pakistan remains one of the top three water-intensive countries in the world. This means we can overcome water shortages significantly by conserving this depleting resource through reduction in its wasteful use, especially by farmers, who are the largest users of water. Additionally, the water accord needs to be renegotiated to secure the independent buy-in of all provinces.

Published in Dawn, May 22nd, 2021

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