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Water shortage: Inter-provincial dispute

The Chief Executive directed the IRSA to meet and resolve the issue ensuring judicious distribution of scarce water resources

Feb 19 - 25, 2001

As the dry spell is prolonging making water shortage more acute the inter-provincial dispute over sharing of scarce water resources has deepened further. Indus River System Authority (IRSA) has failed to develop consensus amongst the provinces over the sensitive matter of water sharing under the 1991 Water Accord.

On one hand the water crisis is threatening the coming rabi crop making it difficult to achieve the target set for the agriculture sector in the current financial year, on the other it is spoiling the inter-provincial harmony and understanding. During the numerous meetings of IRSA (responsible for judicious waters sparings) during the last few week, the Chairman of the 5 member authority, Mian Hafizullah, who also represents Punjab Province had to face to a tough time from smaller provinces to the extent that Punjab questioned the powers of IRSA to alter the original water award of 1991. In 1994 some changes were made in the original accord by a Ministerial level committee to meet the emergency in that year. In view of the acute water shortage this year and the complaints of smaller provinces, the Chief Executive directed the IRSA to meet and resolve the issue ensuring judicious distribution of scarce water resources amongst all the provinces.

Talking to the newsmen after the latest meeting of IRSA in Islamabad last week the Chairman, Mian Hafizullah, said that the main irritant, was whether during shortages, the water should be distributed as per the percentages fixed in the accord or under the historical usage, which was agreed at a ministerial level committee in 1994. He argued that under the provisions of IRSA Act, the authority cannot change or set aside its own decision.

Sub-clause (3) of Clause 8 clearly states that "A provincial government or the Water and Power Development Authority may, if aggrieved by any decision of the authority, make a reference to the Council of Common Interest".

Chief Executive Gen Pervez Musharraf at a meeting with officials on Jan 6, had desired that the dispute over sharing of water shortages should be settled by the authority through consensus in one month.

Mian Hafizullah, however, denied that the Chief Executive had set any deadline for resolving the dispute. "The minutes of the meeting contain no such deadline," he told reporters.

Negotiations for "removing the irritants" would resume from next week, said Mr Hafizullah, who immediately left for Lahore to brief the provincial government about proceedings.

Punjab alone is insisting on sharing water shortages as per the historical usage, while the remaining three provinces are of the view that the shortages are shared as per the percentages agreed in the 1991 Accord.

A ministerial-level committee in 1994, under the chairmanship of the then water and power minister, Ghulam Mustafa Khan, with the consensus of all the four provinces, had decided that during shortages water should be distributed among the provinces as per their historical share. Punjab maintains that it was a decision of IRSA but Sindh claim that this decision has no locus-standi.

When asked whether the provinces could resolve the issue, Mr. Hafizullah said: "We are trying our best". However, he said that if they failed the matter would be referred back to the Chief Executive.

Mian Hafizullah shared with journalists a brief history of the Apportionment of Water Accord and Sharing of Shortages. According to the paper, the shortages below historic uses was first experienced in 1994. This gave rise to the controversy of sharing shortages. The Punjab had a different interpretation of the para 14 (b) than the Sindh. The President of Pakistan had convened a ministerial level meeting of the four provinces to resolve the issue. The meeting decided that shortages should be shared in the ratio of historic uses and the decision was unanimously accepted. IRSA decided by circulation of the file that the shortages be shared in the ratio of historic uses or it can be stated that they adopted the decision of the ministerial committee. Since then they are being shared as per historic uses. The Sindh continued to object this mode of sharing. Later member IRSA Sindh wrote a note on the file that the matter has been decided otherwise. Chairman IRSA under para 68-69 (noting file No.81-A) repudiated the member claim and said that matter should be discussed in the meeting of IRSA.

Punjab has asked IRSA to seek interpretation from the Supreme Court of Pakistan about a disputed clause in 1991 water accord that dealt with sharing of water shortages by the four provinces.

This and two other proposals were presented to IRSA by its Chairman Mian Hafizullah though three provinces viz Sindh, N.W.F.P. and Balochistan opposed and wanted a decision through a majority vote.

Punjab's suggestions included an interpretation of section 14 (b) of the 1991 water apportionment accord, a fresh legal advice from the Law Division or going back to the Council of Common Interest (CCI) for change in the accord.

It is now a growing feeling in Punjab that it's sacrifice in giving up the real water share in 1991 was not responded to by other provinces in the same spirit and hence it should fight back for its lost share. On the other hand, three other provinces, particularly Sindh, justify the position against the construction of Kalabagh Dam saying if Punjab was back-tracking on a ten year old consensus agreement (1991 water accord), how the guarantees on Kalabagh and on its aftermath would be adhered to?

Sources, however, clarified that the Punjab did not suggest it will directly go to apex court but wanted that IRSA as a representative body should do so. Punjab proposed that as the IRSA members, representing four provinces, were unable to resolve the shortage sharing, either the matter be referred to the apex court for interpretation, or to the Council of Common Interest (CCI) to revise the water accord. Sindh, N.W.F.P. and Balochistan unanimously are opposed to these proposals and maintain that the decision should be made through a majority vote. Mian Hafizullah opposed the majority vote idea on the ground that a decision of IRSA could not be undone by IRSA itself and only the CCI was the competent forum to do so.

IRSA sources said the meeting decided to take up the dispute with Chief Executive General Pervez Musharraf who had wanted a consensus resolution in his January 6 meeting with IRSA.

Asian Development Bank (ADB) has placed Pakistan in the high water stress countries and said that it was likely to suffer further unless an integrated water resource management approach was taken up.

In its assessment of the water situation for different Asian regions ADB said to meet the top priority of providing drinking water and sanitation, the use of irrigation water for food production needs to be much more efficient. It said that Asia's water shortage was serious and the continent already had the lowest per capita availability of freshwater resources among the world's continents. Due largely to population increases, per capita water availability dropped by 70 per cent in South and Central Asia, 60 per cent in North Asia and 55 per cent in Southeast Asia over the last 50 years, the report said.

It said that the outlook for future was alarming as the demand for domestic and industrial water was growing rapidly. As a result, water availability per capita is projected to fall further by 2025, the report said.