WATER CRISIS

Today, water has assumed a role of vital significance not only for agriculture but industrial and social existence of a society

By AMANULLAH BASHAR
Oct 18 - 24, 2004

Water has laid the foundation of all the known civilizations on our earth. Contrary to the positive role water plays to bring harmony and prosperity to the nations, the scarcity of water was equally dangerous and plays a negative role of high intensity. Consequently, the scarcity of water unleashes hatred among the communities and the individuals as well. Hence this highly sensitive issue calls for careful handling by all the stake holders.

It is not the government alone to deal with the issue of judicious distribution and use of the available water resources, it is the responsibility of all social and political forces to contribute positively in the shape of moral, professional, social and political support for evolving a consensual mechanism for productive management of water resources in the collective interest of the people of this country.

Today, water has assumed a role of vital significance not only for agriculture but industrial and social existence of a society. It would be overemphasizing to point out that the hydroelectricity is the cheapest way to generate power which provides fuel for sort of uplift and growth of the human society.

It is true that whenever mega projects like high dams always involve politics naturally the existing political forces want to have their own share in big projects. There could be certain political and economic reasons which might involve politics in the big projects. However, as far as opposing a big project purely on political considerations or petty gains, it can highly damaging rather killing of the collective interest of the country and may prove dangerous in the long run for everyone.

It is unfortunate that despite tall claims of the opinion leaders of different camps, our social and political forces have miserably failed to identify the priorities of the collective or national interest. Our opinion leaders have not arrived at a point or agreement to protect these priorities whether they are in power to rule the country or on the other side of the table.

It is interesting to note that despite the common concerns over shortage of water generally expressed by all the federating units of the country, why the three provinces including NWFP, Sindh and Balochistan were opposing the construction of big dams?.

Political leaders from the province of NWFP were of the view that their rich agriculture lands would be marooned due to underground seepage if the high dam like Kalabagh dam was allowed to construct in Punjab. On the other hand, leaders from Sindh and Balochistan have their own fears that they would become dependent for their water needs to the province of Punjab which has allegedly failed to set some good examples in sharing the national resources judiciously with the smaller provinces. These complaining tones reveal a sense of mistrust on each others existing among the provinces. Here comes the role of our opinion leaders both in the ruling party and the opposition to address this issue to the satisfaction of all the stake holders, so that the national projects essentially required for economic survival could be accomplished to save our coming generations.

Those who are opposing construction of big dams were including some NGOs working for ecology and environment protection. Amazingly, more than 80 NGOs are more active against the construction of big dam in Pakistan and usually speak against building of Kalabagh dam. It is, however, clear that these organizations are moved and mobilized by some quarters having their political and other interest in any project of national importance.

It is painful to note that whenever any developing country initiates to launch big project of economic significance to improve life of its people through overall economic growth, there start mushrooming of the elements to oppose big projects which are the only option to come out of the vicious circle of the poverty around the poor in developing nations.

It is amazing to note that in the United States there are over 2000 large dams have already been constructed to reach the present state of economic stability.

It is not easy for the developing countries to come out of the clutches of the poverty, as the economic independence of the developing countries hurts the interests of certain quarters.

It is also important for the people at the helm of affairs who are advocating the construction of Kalabagh dam to remove the fears, concerns and complaints about the dam especially in Sindh and NWFP. The confidence building of the people and restoration of trust of the common man is even more important than building of any project. It calls all sort of expertise and leadership to make people believe that the project is in the interest and will help harvesting a rich crop instead of causing any harm to them.

Opposition for the same of opposition produce no good for any one rather it erodes the credibility of the opposition. For example, the government of Benazir Bhutto had opposed the Yellow Cab scheme launched by Nawaz Sharif. Similarly, Nawaz Shariff opposed the Green Tractor Scheme initiated by Benazir government. Sometimes we go for nationalization of the hard earned private sector organizations and later on we opt for denationalization and privatization of the government owned entities. We have already spent more than 50 years in making a fool of ourselves of first order. We should not and cannot afford to waste more time in such experimental politics. It is the time to sort out things purely in the interest of the majority of the people of this country.

According to a report, the construction of water reservoirs was imperative to meet country's water needs, particularly for its agriculture sector. Feasibility of two dams, including Basha Dam and the Kalabagh Dam, is complete and we have to take a decision early to build at least one of them. President Pervez Musharraf while dilating upon the issue of water management in his address to the nation had assured in his words "rights of all the provinces will be protected and they will be benefited through the dam projects."

The dam controversy in Pakistan gained momentum in the aftermath of President Musharraf's resolve to build at least one big dam in the coming five years. Prior to that, the debate and discussion on the Kalabagh Dam consumed much of the time with the sad outcome that the project, which is in picture since the last three decades couldn't be launched because of political reasons.

In 1985, the dam controversy took an ugly turn because of reservations raised by the smaller provinces of Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan on the proposed construction site of Kalabagh Dam and the concerns of lower riparian areas. It may be recalled that after nuclear tests in May 1998 by the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the dam controversy had deepened further when he firmly vowed to construct the Kalabagh Dam by all means.

The nuclear test had earned an overwhelming popularity for the then prime minister which was however overestimated by Nawaz Sharif who thought that nick of moment of his popularity fit to declare a firm decision to go ahead with Kalabagh dam project. The reaction against Nawaz Sharif's pledge to construct Kalabagh Dam was so sharp that the leaders of the smaller provinces formed "Pakistan Oppressed Nation's Alliance" (PONAM) by raising slogans to protect the interests of oppressed people in the three provinces.

Punjab has been supporting the construction of Kalabagh Dam arguing that such a project will help augment agricultural and energy production of Pakistan and will bring prosperity to all the provinces and not only to its own province. Because of ferocious opposition, launched by NWFP and Sindh against Kalabagh Dam on account of their fears that the project will inundate vast areas of Nowshera Division of NWFP, and further deprive Sindh of Indus river water, proposals to build dams at Basha and Akhori were presented and luckily got the support from smaller provinces. Since then no consensus has been reached on the issue of constructing Kalabagh Dam.

The present government led by President Musharraf has, however, a firm opinion to construct the big dam either Kalabagh Dam or alternative proposals in order to cope with impeding water and energy crisis in Pakistan.

President Musharraf, while addressing a gathering of growers on the occasion of unveiling a plaque to inaugurate Rs66 billion water channels lining project meant to save one-third of 8 million acre feet (MAF) water that went to waste annually, due to Kacha water channels had pointed out the fact that "around 35 MAF water goes waste in sea every year and this wastage can be reduced to only 5 to 10 MAF by establishing water reservoirs.

He had also said that it will take years to start work at Akhori water projects because the technical committee will have to prepare a feasibility report and once recommendations are received to launch that project that one can go for the implementation process. Moreover, billions of dollars will have to be mobilised to construct big dams.

It is unfortunate that the issue of water and energy crisis in Pakistan has become a victim of excessive politicization. President Musharraf has talked about consensus building before starting work on any major construction of dam, but so much precious time has already been wasted in talking about consensus building that at least four dams could have been constructed so far since the controversy on Kalabagh Dam began.

There is no denying the fact that millions of feet of water goes to sea every year but it should also be realised that for the environmental protection, flora and fauna of Indus river delta region, the release of water from Indus River to the sea is essentially required. Even now, the quantity of water reaching downstream Kotri barrage has been reduced to 35,000 thousand cusecs of water even during monsoon season.

The reason, which is attributed for the short supply of water below Kotri, is the excessive use of water by the upstream areas and if more dams are built then one can expect what will happen to the province of Sindh, which is already facing acute shortage of water. Consensus for building new water reservoirs is essential but what is required in the given circumstances is to make sure that adequate water is available for the downstream areas so that people living there are not deprived of their due share of water.

Why and how of consensus building for constructing new dams needs to be examined in the light of three important factors. First, water is a critical and crucial issue among all the four provinces of Pakistan and the lack of consensus on that issue will trigger a sense of deprivation and bitterness among the people of this country. There exists a general feeling in the province of Sindh that it is Punjab, which has benefited from Mangla and Tarbala Dams and if the proposed Kalabagh Dam was constructed, the sole beneficiary would be the province of Punjab. One can judge the grievances of Sindh on the basis of facts but one thing which strikes is no serious effort has ever been made by the policy makers, opinion leaders, pressure groups, politicians for preventing further desertification of the delta region of Sindh province.

In the last 20 years, lower Sindh, which used to get plenty of water during the monsoon season, is faced with a serious threat to its environment and ecology because the water which it used to get from the only source i.e. Indus river where flow has been substantially reduced.

Water is also a major issue in the province of Balochistan and in the absence of adequate rainfall and the flow of any major river from that province tends to sustain acute scarcity of water. There should be an early consensus for effectively dealing with the deepening of water shortage in the country so that projects for water reservoir formulated on rational and fair basis are launched. Such a consensus among the provinces should have been reached long ago had the bureaucracy and the political parties considered the interests of Pakistan first, rather the interests of a particular province or a group. If a water project is launched by achieving consensus among all the provinces, then the outcome will be more polarisation and political distrust in the country.

Second, consensus on important national issues is not reached from the top but is evolved as a result of a process. In a country where there is the culture of ad hocism and important decisions are taken without proper discussion and debate, the result is the emergence of forces that are against centralisation and the politics of force. In case of building dams, the leadership of the four provinces at various levels should have been involved in the process of reaching a plausible solution because more and more delay in addressing that issue tends to aggravate the water and energy crisis in Pakistan. It is also essential that political leaders and others must refrain from exploiting the water issue for their vested interests and should keep the interest of Pakistan supreme. As said earlier, had serious efforts been made to build new dams in the last thirty years, the country would not have witnessed load shedding or shortage of wheat and other agricultural products. But those at the helm of affairs failed to concentrate on resolving water and energy shortages and their lack of decision created more confusion about the viability, benefits and losses of this dam or that dam. Unfortunately, not much time is left for Pakistan to further delay building new water reservoirs because as days are passing the country is plunging deeper and deeper in water and energy crisis. Finally, the Parliament of Pakistan must take up the water issue on a priority basis and regardless of party and other differences must act now by building new dams on sites that are acceptable to all the four provinces. What is required is the grievances of a particular province on the construction of new dams must be rational and not just for political consumption. Already a lot of time has been wasted on unnecessary discussion on the dam controversy and sooner the decision is made to construct a new dam, the better it will be for the economy of Pakistan.

The dam controversy in Pakistan has taken the toll of common man's progress and development because till the time the country is able to overcome water and energy shortages, it can simply develop, neither in the agricultural nor in the industrial field. Billions of rupees have been spent on doing feasibility studies of Kalabagh Dam but such resources have gone to waste because of mismanagement of the water issue by various governments. Hence, the relevance of why and how of consensus building for constructing new dams in Pakistan.

IMMEDIATE MEASURES

It's a known fact that the tail ends of the province of Sindh and vast lands in the province of Balochistan were facing acute water scarcity due to shortage of water and declining river flows. In fact the water shortage has been a chronic issue of Balochistan where vast virgin lands are unable to contribute their due share in the economic growth of the country. These lands cannot be brought under cultivation due to water scarcity. Despite having a long coastal belt both in Sindh and Balochistan no concrete steps were taken by the past governments to use the saline water by installing desalination plants alongside the coastal belt especially in the province of Balochistan. The option of setting up desalination plants were ignored because of the cost of the process of desalination. Had our leaders would conscious about the genuine needs of the people in Balochistan and Sindh and the social and economic results of converting the saline water, the situation would have been totally different from what it is today. The technology of converting the saline water into sweet water has already been successfully experienced in Saudi Arabia and UAE which have not only become self-sufficient in agriculture but they also exporting their surplus as well. The cost of the desalination plants may be more but the results they can produce must be more precious. Bringing vast barren lands of Balochistan under cultivation would help developing a sense of economic independence among the people of this poverty ridden province. It is the poverty which ensures and promotes slavery of the Sardari system in the province of Balochistan. It is strongly recommended that desalination plants should be set up alongside the coastal belt of Balochistan which besides bringing a social and economic revolution would convert the brown lands into a landscape which will be a sight for the soaring eyes. It is interesting to note that the Hub power company has provided free electricity connection to the people living around the power generating company. The availability of electricity has done a magic in the life style of the people in that area who have set up tube well to suck under ground water to develop the dry lands into lush green fruit farms, in the Hub area of Balochistan. The highly rich agriculture potential of the lands in Balochistan can be seen in Nasirabad which has been used for cotton crop for the first time in recent years. The cotton crop of Nasirabad is rated as the best quality staple produced in Pakistan.