The root of the water problem is the failure of the successive governments to plan and manage the country's water resources

From Shamim Ahmed Rizvi, Islamabad
May 22 - 28, 2000

Water has already become a source of conflict among many countries of the world. In Pakistan situation appears to be more serious as the federating units are heading towards a riparian war in the next few years if remedial measures are not taken immediately. The present drought in Balochistan and some parts of Sindh and resulting deaths and immense miseries caused to the lacs of people has brought of the issue of scarcity of water into the lime light. The Chief Executive has revived the Water Management Board to study the present situation and suggest short term and long term plan of action.

A country like Pakistan cannot remain complacent at a time when governments, citizens groups and multinationals all over the world are worried over the threat of a severe water crisis by the end of the first quarter of the new century. A world water shaft in the Netherlands last month came up with alarming forecasts about future water shortages in many parts of the globe. As bulging populations and growing industrial and agricultural needs push up demand for fresh water all the time (household use of water worldwide will go up by 70 per cent in the next twenty years), water quarrels can spark wider regional and international conflicts. Already, fresh water reserves of a large number of underdeveloped societies are under immense pressure. Many water sources are either drying up or have been polluted beyond rehabilitation. The poorest regions of the world are also the worst hit by this deepening crisis. Whereas the developed countries have adequate water conservation, recycling and supply mechanisms to meet most of their needs, countries like Pakistan have yet to take stock of the full extent of the crisis that will soon take its toll.

The Minister for Water and Power in the ousted Nawaz Sharif government Mr. Gohar Ayub Khan, while pleading for constrution of Kala Bagh Dam in the National Assembly in late 98 session warned the nation that if immediate steps were not taken to develop our water resources and evolve a prudent water management policy the country may face a worst water crisis leading to a war for water between the various provinces of the country. The present drought in many parts of the country specially in Sindh and Balochistan has confirmed the fears expressed about two years back and awakened the sleeping authorities to the urgency of the problem.

The present water crisis is not only a manifestation of the mismanagement in the use of water resources since independence but also a warning of a looming riparian war between the provinces in which the federation could be swept away in the deluge of incompetence, shortsighted, corrupt and self centered policies. All attempts to increase the agricultural produce to feed the teeming millions may fail as much lesser water will be available in the coming years from the present river system as water storage in Tarbela and Mangla Dams would be reduced due to sedimentation. The answer lies in construction of more dams. Unfortunately the two proposed dams Kala Bagh and Bhasha have been victims of political controversy for the past over 2 decades. During this period the shortsighted and incompetent authorities could not devise an alternative arrangements to the stop and store the colossal waste of water during flood seasons.

Belatedly, the real extent of the dreadful damage that drought has wrought upon the people of Balochistan and interior Sindh is now being officially acknowledged. The number of displaced citizens in Balochistan is over one million, for whom 35 relief centres in place so far. Amirul Mulk Mengal, the provincial governor, estimates that over two million animals have died. The livestock loss, in monetary terms, runs into billions. Twenty-two of Balochistan's 26 districts — covering 43 per cent of Pakistan's total land mass — have been declared calamity-hit. In Thar, Sindh, according to Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider, 127 deaths have been recorded because of the drought — though he qualifies the number of the dead with the adverb " only" and adds that " the situation is not as bad as being reported in the press".

It is inconceivable that the making of the drought disaster could have remained unnoticed through all these years. That it was allowed to turn so bad is unforgivable. To call this disaster a natural calamity is to pass the blame on to fate and condone the criminal apathy of policymakers and local administrative setups.

Despite global shortage of water, Pakistan can still be surplus in its water requirement provided the waste of huge water can be checked. According to experts Pakistan is most unfortunate to waste 60% of its life saving water in seepage and floods due to chronic and gross water mismanagements. At the same time, it is the victim of repeated wrong planning of its land and water resources to produce food.

All this is due to the apathetic and inert attitude of the technocrats, bureaucrats, politicians and the government as no national policy on water development was framed even after signing the Indus Water Accord.

It is lamentable that even after 10 years fertile lands under irrigated agriculture in the Indus Basin ruined by water logging and salinity is not recovered. This shows incapability to handle and develop water resources by implementing Integrated Comprehensive Water Management (ICWM).

The root of the water problem is the failure of the successive governments and the civic authorities to plan and manage the country's water resources in such a way as to make the optimum use of them. There are certain quirks of nature that cannot be changed but they can be neutralized. For instances, the 140 million acre feet of surface water in Pakistan comes from the snows and glaciers in the mountainous north. But 84 per cent of this flow is concentrated in the five months of summer when the snows melt. This results in floods and a lot of the water flows into the sea. The country's major failure in this sector has been the absence of a policy to build an adequate storage capacity to preserve this water for use in the lean months. Only three major reservoirs have been developed over the years — Mangla, Tarbela and Chashma with a total capacity of 15.7 million acre feet. Even this may be reduced to 10.7 million acre feet by 2020 as 500 million tonnes of sediment is deposited by the river system every year into these reservoirs. More reservoirs and dams — even small ones — could have helped conserve the water which flows into the Arabian Sea.