THE WATER CRISIS

The low water level at Tarbela has not only resulted in drastic reduction in its power generation but also hints at water shortage

By SYED M. ASLAM
Mar 29 - Apr 04, 2004

It's still spring in Pakistan at least officially despite rising of mercury to uncomfortable levels already across the country. As usual, the people have mentally prepared themselves for atrocious vagaries of weather turned even more sizzling with the incessant power breakdowns and customary loadsheddings in addition to short water supply.

As is, the water levels at the major reservoirs across the country have already dipped to levels ahead of the official start of the summer. Power generation from the Tarbela Dam, the biggest hydro power generation plant with an installed capacity of 3,478 mw, dipped to 300mw or less than 9 per cent of the capacity on the 11th of this month, because its dead level was lowered by of less inflow of water.

Tarbela's dead level was revised downward from 1,369ft to 1,365ft by the Water and Power Development Authority on the request of the Indus River System Authority. The Dam maintained its crest level of 1,550ft for several days, mainly due to the rains in the catchment area, but the water table shrank to 1,369ft that resulted in the downward revision of the dead level.

The low water level at Tarbela has not only resulted in drastic reduction in its power generation but also hints at water shortage across the country both for agriculture and drinking. Protest rallies have already been reported in Hyderabad from residents against the shortage of water. It has compelled the officials of the irrigation department of the Hala Division to announce water rotation programme due to water shortage at River Indus and the Rohri Canal.

The long hot and dry spell would further push the water demand in the months to come household as well as agriculture, particularly because it marks the beginning of rice and wheat sowing season, both of which are highly water-intensive crops. The "Kharif" season that starts in April-June and lasts till October-December, also has another highly water-intensive crop, sugarcane, to push the demand.

Water shortage has become almost a routine year after year. It has resulted in creating acrimony between the provinces about their share of the water. On the 19th of this month, a 53 per cent less water flow was recorded in the Indus River at Sukkur Barrage that forced the provincial irrigation authorities to initiate rotation system in the canals. The low water flow also resulted in the declaration of emergency at Sukkur and Guddu Barrage located down stream.

For an arid province like Sindh, which receives a low average rainfall of less than 15 inches and which is almost entirely dependent on Indus for its agricultural and potable needs. As the catchment of the river lies hundreds of miles away and it enters the province after passing through the NWFP and Punjab provinces, Sindh is dependent on its share of the water that can be as high as 44-48 MAF and that too if it is distributed fairly. It depends heavily on the goodwill of others to receive its share of water facing various technical difficulties year after year.

What further worsens an already bad situation is that a substantial quantity of water flows out into the sea unproductively. The federal government and WAPDA put this wastage to sea at around MAF, much higher under the Water Accord of 1991, 10 maf has been provisionally earmarked for the outflow. However, despite the passage of 13 years no relevant study has been done to evaluate the exact quantity of the flow of fresh water to the sea.

The federal government, Punjab and the WAPDA stress that 35 maf water is flowing out into the sea wastefully but there are those that disagree. There are many who claim that the quantity of the flow is much less the figure quoted by the federal government, Punjab and the WAPDA but even lower than the quantity of 10 MAF allocated in the 1991 Water Accord. They say, that the flow of water to the sea has been negligible to create devastation in the coastal areas of Sindh. However, according to a study conducted by IUCN, an environmental agency based in Karachi, 27 MAF of fresh water a year is needed to outflow to the sea if an environmental balance is to be maintained. That highlights the need for development of regional dams and water reservoirs for the water storage.

The perpetual shortage of water year after year and the massive waste to the sea highlights the need for building small regional water reservoirs across the country compared to controversial mega dams which have become out of fashion globally. The newly formed Parliamentary Committee on Water Resources met on the 25th of this month and decided to visit provinces to physically inspect the sites once again to identify prospective sites for water reservoirs. The Committee would meet various stakeholders including politicians, relevant NGOs and small political parties not represented in the parliament either at federal or provincial levels.