54 million Pakistanis without safe drinking water
* Water expert from Karachi says Pakistan to face water scarcity in 2035
* Says country’s productivity per unit of water, per unit of land lowest in the world
* Emphasises urgent need to build dams
* Pakistan lacks comprehensive water laws that define rights, usage, value, subsidies, conservation, polluter penalties
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: As many as 54 million Pakistanis out of a population of 165 million do not have access to safe drinking water and 76 million lack access to sanitation, Simi Sadaf Kamal, a water expert from Karachi, told a conference on Pakistan’s water problem held at the Woodrow Wilson Centre.
Kamal, chairperson of Hissar, an NGO in Karachi, told the conference that 98 million of Pakistanis depend on agriculture, while 49 million live below the poverty line.
She said 92 percent of Pakistan’s land area is arid or semi-arid, with the Indus plain covering about 25 percent of the country’s total land area on which 65 percent of the population lives and where most of the agriculture is carried out, representing 25 percent of Pakistan’s GDP.
She said Pakistan is a water short and a water stressed country and there would be a scarcity of it in 2035. She said 38 percent of Pakistan’s irrigated lands are waterlogged, 14 percent are saline and while there is salt accumulation in the Indus basin, saline water has intruded into mined aquifers. She said the decline in the water table in Balochistan has reached alarming levels, while there has been a drastic reduction of sweet water pockets in the lower Indus basin.
Kamal told the conference that in Pakistan there has been a protracted debate over the provincial division of water, a division that hides the more critical distribution among the various uses of water.
Irrigation and agriculture use up 97 percent of all of Pakistan’s freshwater resources, leaving just 4 percent for all other uses. She found that expenditure on water supply and sanitation is less than 0.2 percent of the GDP. She said Mangla and Tarbela dams have lost 25 percent of their storage capacity and as canals work on rotation, there is little additional water that can be mobilised over and above what is currently used. She also found that water loss between canal heads and water courses is about one-fourth, while water courses account for one-third of delivery. Another 25 percent is lost within the farms. There are persistent inequalities in water distribution to head, middle and tail areas and only 45 percent of cultivable land is under cultivation at any given time.
Pakistan is using 97 percent of its surface water resources and mining its groundwater to support one of the lowest productivities in the world per unit of water and per unit of land. This reality, she pointed out, does not figure in the ongoing water debate in Pakistan.
Kamal said there is need for costly investments for the construction of one or two dams, but they have become a protracted and controversial issue between Punjab and the other three provinces. The Kalabagh dam stands shelved for the moment while the Diamer-Bhasha Dam has ‘reared its head’. If built, it would cost $12.6 billion and will be completed in 2016, generating 45,000 MW of electricity. It will also benefit the country to the tune of $1.5 billion in the form of hydropower and $600 million in the form of water for irrigation.
She was of the view that more efficient and better maintained system will lead to substantive savings in the total amount of water lost in transmission. A reasonable proportion of this water will be freed for storage and the needs of lean years it would thus be possible to meet.
Kamal said the politics of water in Pakistan is still built around access to river water for traditional methods of irrigation that do not disturb the status quo of feudal land relations. She said there has been much neglect of rain-fed and non-irrigated arid zones, with the entire province of Balochistan badly affected.
Very little effort has been made to develop non-flood methods of cultivation and micro-irrigation strategies have been neglected. She said there are half a million tubewells in the Indus basin area and groundwater now accounts for half of all on-farm irrigation requirements.
Kamal stated that only one out of the 17 main creeks of the Indus delta are now active and the balance between seawater and freshwater in the tidal zone has been disturbed.
The sixth biggest mangrove forest in the world is now disappearing and the drying up of the Indus downstream from the Kotri Barrage is a serious development. There is sea water intrusion.
Kamal told the conference that Pakistan does not have a comprehensive set of water laws that define water rights, uses, value, pricing principles, subsidies, conservation and polluter penalties. There is disproportionate emphasis and preoccupation with water distribution among provinces, the current arrangement being the one provided by the Water Accord of 1991.
Environmental flow is a major source of contention between Punjab and Sindh and their protracted positions have fed many political campaigns. There is a lack of coherent positions on water in the manifestos of Pakistan’s political parties. She said every river in the world has a dispute of some sort between the upper and the lower riparian, so Pakistan is no exception, but there are many models that can be studied. Safeguards for the lower riparian are essential and solutions are possible.
Kamal said Pakistan can meet its water challenges through a continuation of conventional reforms and interventions. However, it has to be something other than ‘business as usual’. It needs a paradigm shift to reframe the entire discourse and debate on water. The fundamental issues of rights and water access have to be addressed. What is needed is a shift from provincial distribution to uses of water and the users of water. The Punjab-Sindh debate should make way for better managed water for the whole of Pakistan. There has to be a shift from management of water supply to management of water demand. She pointed out that not everyone in Punjab has excess or even adequate water, while not everyone in Sindh is deprived of water. The use of water should be rationalised and the greatest savings made where there is the greatest use, as in agriculture.