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Water Scarcity: A Grave Threat | Taimur Ali Ahmed

Water Scarcity: A Grave Threat | Taimur Ali Ahmed

Recently, the IMF classified water scarcity as an economic threat to Pakistan, a statement that greatly undermines the colossal socioeconomic impacts that can result from this crisis. Despite floods and water shortages in recent years, which have come at great human and financial cost, Pakistan has failed to attach sufficient importance to water scarcity and has continued to use it as a political tool, as the recent bickering between the federal and provincial governments over the Karachi tragedy has portrayed.

Though Pakistan is naturally well endowed in terms of water, with one of the world’s most extensive irrigation systems, it has rapidly deteriorated from water-surplus to water-stressed status, owing to inept governance, climate change and a burgeoning population. With a standby of merely 30 days and water per capita availability dropping to 1,000 cubic meters per capita, this poses a threat to the security and survival of the nation. The situation becomes more dire when the inequality in terms of water availability between the rich and the poor becomes apparent, highlighted by the Karachi calamity. We are now at a stage where drastic reforms, at domestic and international levels, are integral to mitigating the damage posed by climate change and water shortages.

For many years now, the Indus Waters Treaty has been called into question. Despite being commended for its ability to survive the highs and lows of the tumultuous relationship between Pakistan and India, it must be revisited due to the evolution of circumstances. By dividing the rivers between the two countries, the treaty acted as a water-dividing treaty rather than a water-sharing one, a factor that has continued to hinder cooperation. The Baglihar and Kishanganga disputes serve to highlight the severe lack of coordination and trust between the two states, and the failure of international arbitration to appease both sides. There has also been meagre progress in terms of depoliticising the Indus Water Commission (IWC) and boosting information sharing, despite it being an integral part of the treaty and there being a demand for future cooperation in Article VII. Although realpolitik does not allow such cooperation to exist, the fact that both countries are facing an acute water shortage, which will only continue to be exacerbated by the status quo, warrants that both states look beyond their military strategic interests and cooperate in the form of information sharing, adding neutral experts into the commission, undertaking joint ventures and a renewed treaty, with a focus on sharing the waters. India’s increasingly hegemonic status — though still dwarfed by China — is still insufficient to deal with this crisis on its own; India simply cannot afford to sideline Pakistan from regional initiatives, despite recent events pointing to the contrary.

The term ‘water terrorism’ has been proclaimed by federal ministers and militant non-state actors alike, labelling India as the sole perpetrator of the water crisis. This delusional narrative, especially by the state, simply to propagate anti-India rhetoric, politicises the issue and seeks to absolve the main stakeholders in Pakistan of any responsibility. However, to effectively deal with this looming spectre, we must carry out substantive domestic reforms to curb our disastrously ineffective water management system. The IMF recently suggested policies such as a tax on using canal water for irrigation, pricing of crops relative to their water intensiveness and adopting high-yield crops. Investment in water infrastructure, namely dams, is the need of the hour. The Neelum-Jhelum Project that is nearing completion is an example of the ineffective execution of projects in Pakistan in terms of time and financial resources. The capacities of the Mangla and Tarbela continue to diminish, whereas the construction of Kalabagh Dam faces opposition from two provinces. Concurrently, India has raced ahead of Pakistan, constructing numerous small and large dams for electricity generation. Rather than investing in highly cost-ineffective renewable energy, as proposed in the recent budget, perhaps, it would be more viable to divert those resources towards hydroelectric energy, for which Pakistan has great natural potential.

Comprehensively dealing with water scarcity involves demand-side policies that reduce the tremendous wastefulness that exists in Pakistan, especially by irrigation. According to the Virtual Water Theory, water-stressed nations should switch to high-yield, less water-intensive crops and import the water-intensive crops from water-abundant nations. The second policy needs to focus on installing micro-irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation, throughout agricultural zones so that water is effectively utilised. Drip irrigation is a system of pipes that provides water straight to the roots of crops, eradicating the need for inundating fields with water. This can have irrigation efficiency of up to 90 per cent and greatly minimise water wastage. Given that Pakistan uses up to 80 per cent of its freshwater on agriculture, this reform will have a substantial impact on the availability of water for other sectors.

More than simply having domestic benefits, micro-irrigation projects are an area for cooperation between Pakistan and India, being the fourth-largest and largest irrigated land areas respectively, and suffering from archaic irrigation practices. Sharing of best practices and other means of technical cooperation would also result in increasing investments from international institutions and private investors, lured by the notion of stability in the region.

John Briscoe, a former World Bank adviser on water, stresses the need for liberal-minded people on both sides to change the nature of the current narrative on water and depoliticise the issue, owing to the significant mutual benefit that can be derived from cooperation. It needs to be seen as a positive sum game, rather than used as a political tool. Though he argues for this on an international level, Pakistan’s current provincial issues warrant this approach to be applied at a national level. There are significant ruptures within our own water management system that need to addressed, which not only require political will but also unity between the provinces and an equitable sharing of resources between them. Without remedying the internal rifts, Pakistan will not be able to take substantial measures or negotiate effectively at the international level.

Water Scarcity: A Grave Threat | Taimur Ali Ahmed

Published in The Express Tribune, June 30th,  2015.

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