Ever since the industrial revolution, human ingenuity has allowed water, the elixir of human life, to flow even in the aridest landscapes. Ever since the 19th century, water was no longer a mystical force to be worshipped but a commodity to be exploited. The United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declared that the human right to water entitled everyone to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic use. Pakistan has so far failed to guarantee its citizens that right.
South Asia scholar Anatol Lieven observed that water shortages present the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and society. Some may disregard Lieven’s statement as overblown but none can disagree with the underlying premise. According to the World Resources Institute, Pakistan is among the five leading countries that face extremely high water shortage and low access to safe drinking water. The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources observed that Pakistan touched the water stress line in 1990, crossed the water scarcity line in 2005 and warned that the country would reach absolute water scarcity by 2025.
Presently, Pakistan is mired in a hoard of issues and water scarcity lies at the heart of Pakistan’s economic and energy conundrum. The prevailing water crisis threatens the very fabric of Pakistan’s society and the state’s survival itself.
The water shortage capacity of the reservoirs available at Tarbela, Chashma and Mangla has been dramatically reduced due to the increase in silt deposits over the years. Additionally, the lack of a national and coherent agriculture policy not only contributes to the wastage of water but also allows the growth of high water consuming crops during arid seasons. Pakistan’s irrigation system is characterised by grossly inadequate infrastructure investment with most of its budgetry allocation going towards a bloated water bureaucracy and hence starving the sector of tools that would allow it to efficiently use the elixir.
The Khanpur Dam was built to cater to water needs of the twin cities but the growth of unregulated industry allowed the demand to outstrip the supply
The five year economic policy cycles have given rise to rapid increase in industrial production without the efficient use of water. For example, the Khanpur Dam was built to cater to water needs of the twin cities but the growth of unregulated industry allowed the demand to outstrip the supply. Although, the present dams boast laudable infrastructures, what Pakistan requires is new dams and water reservoirs such as the ‘controversial’ Kalabagh Dam. The feudal consortia that that has long overshadowed Pakistan’s policy making focuses on personal interest and does not allow the Kalabagh Dam to be built so that their personal agricultural estates are not hampered. The chief justice of Pakistan took Suo Motu action pertaining to the Kalabagh Dam. He was in turn blamed for institutional overreach by the feudal minded aristocrats and the judge had to clarify that he had only taken the action to ensure that Pakistan did not face irreparable water shortages.
Similarly, retreating glaciers, rising sea levels, increased droughts and frequent heat episodes have failed to convince policy makers of the need to formulate a national water policy. The evidence for ‘their’ lack of interest can be gauged from the fact that the National Security Council has so far not considered water security as detrimental to national security.
India presents an overwhelming threat to Pakistan’s water resources. Abdul Sattar remarks in the book, Pakistan’s foreign policy, that the Indus Water Treaty allows India the construction of ‘run-off-the-river’ power plants but restrains it to construct dams on western tributaries of the Indus. Regardless, India not only managed to complete the Baghlihar Dam project but also recently completed the Kishanganga Dam. The Dam is not only a violation of the 1960 treaty between the two neighbours but also depletes the water levels of rivers flowing into Pakistan. Pakistan has taken the issue up with the World Bank but as always this was a crisis-driven ad-hoc decision. The issue should have been taken up as soon as India’s plans were revealed.
Similarly, except for an agreement pertaining to the Helmand River between Pakistan and Afghanistan, no treaty exists between the two countries that govern the sharing of water. This could prove to be fatal for Pakistan as it uses an estimated seventeen million acre feet of water coming in from Afghanistan. Media reports have revealed that India is helping Afghanistan construct several multi-purpose water projects and dams on the Kabul River, which would inevitably lower the peak run-off and quantity of water entering Pakistan.
Pakistan faces unprecedented rates of water scarcity. The state’s indigenous and municipal water resources are inadequate and undeniably under threat. What is required is that policy makers must rise above petty political, domestic and class interests. Men and women sitting in the halls of power, who are charged with the protection and governance of Pakistan, must protect it from the present abyss that Pakistan’s presently finds itself in. Pakistan is already parched and if meaningful action is not taken, it will soon find itself without enough elixir to power agriculture and industry or even clean drinking water for human consumption. The state must realise that the water crisis is not a myth. It is a reality. A reality that has been staring Pakistan in the face for decades.
By AADIL AAMIR