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Legislation divorced from data cannot succeed an interview with Dr Imran Saqib Khalid of Sustainable Development Policy Institute
By: Recorder Report
Dr Imran Saqib Khalid is an environmental scientist, associated with Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) as a Research Fellow. He heads the water governance component of the multi-country ‘Pathways to Resilience in Semiarid Economies’ (PRISE) project in Pakistan. Previously, he has worked at Planning Commission as a capacity building specialist, responsible for introducing environmental evaluation techniques into PSDP. Back in USA, he was associated with Great Lakes Research Consortium, NY, an initiative to enhance climate change resilience in local communities.
He holds a PhD in Environmental and Natural Resources Policy from State University of New York-ESF, and completed his undergrad at Virginia Tech.
As part of its increased coverage of challenges to Pakistan’s water governance systems, BR Research sat down with Dr Imran Khalid to seek his perspective on possible solutions; those advocated by academia as well as the ones peddled in populist rhetoric. Below are the edited excerpts:
BR Research: Let’s start with the agriculture sector, which has a larger share in Pakistan’s water consumption pie compared to sectoral share in most other countries. In this context, should lack of productivity in the farming sector not be the main focus of water conservation debate?
Dr Imran S. Khalid: If we go by populist accounts, 90 to 94 percent of Pakistan’s freshwater sources go towards agriculture sector. But it is hard to trace the origins of this number in research, even though it seems to have been accepted as sacred truth.
In recent times, increase in competing uses, particularly the share of urban and industrial consumption is increasing. As such, the amount of water going towards agricultural use is perhaps less than is normally perceived.
My suggestion, therefore, would be for government, academia, and not-for-profit sector to collaborate and perform an information gathering exercise on water availability and utilization patterns.
Before we label Pakistan as water scarce or build massive campaigns around conservation or reservoirs, let’s first look at the basics. As of today, the country does not have any water accounting systems worth speaking of. It appears that most figures on sectoral distribution of water that we hear are based on guestimates.
For example, we do not have reliable data on the percentage share of various crops in water consumption. When we talk about addressing water theft, over consumption, and other related problems in agriculture, we start dealing with the symptoms instead of addressing the cause, which in my opinion is complete absence of water metering.
Similarly, there is no accounting for extent of groundwater abstraction, whether it is through pumps and bores in domestic or industrial sectors or tube wells in farming. There is little to no data on number, size or types of tube wells either.
The state as the ultimate regulator of natural resources can issue as many water policies and declarations as it wishes, but in the absence of data, no policy can deliver results.
BRR: But hold on. There is universal consensus that Pakistan’s staple crops such as cotton, paddy, and sugarcane are water thirsty. Even in absence of data, do you not see an inherent contradiction in talking about water conservation when few meaningful actions can be taken to change Pakistan’s crop-mix? 80 percent of exports constitute of agriculture and agri-derived products.
ISK: There are couples of things to keep in mind here. Areas under cultivation of staple crops such as sugarcane and wheat that are produced in surplus and lack export potential obviously need a review. But for crops such as cotton and rice, which are integrated into the export value chain, there needs to be some soul searching.
Several studies have indicated that Pakistan’s reliance on textile and rice exports is akin to virtually exporting its water. Are we at least charging sufficient recompense? At a time when our export growth has plateaued, can we remain price competitive if we were to factor in the cost of water resource in garment manufacturing or rice export? These are all relevant questions that require research before we go on issuing recommendations. In absence of concrete data, we are shooting in the dark.
BRR: Granted. But data collection is a time-consuming process that cannot be completed overnight. While the country undertakes a "water census" exercise so to speak, can no tangible policy initiatives be taken to address shorter-term more obvious challenges?
ISK: Right now, we are making policies in isolation from facts.
For example, we seek to subsidize agriculture even as we know that the ‘abiana’ rates are ludicrous and the recovery rate does not even pay for operational and maintenance cost, let alone cost of resource. This leads to inequities as water resources are exploited by farmers closest to irrigation system, or those with biggest parcel of land, at the expense of others.
Similarly, subsidy on motorized pumps in Balochistan has virtually destroyed the indigenous ‘karez’ system. Thanks to the subsidy, water became more readily available to province’s farmers at lower cost. This led to ill-advised horticulture practices such as growing of apples and other fruits with higher water footprint.
We ignore that these benefits are short-lived, because the province is arid and has low precipitation levels. But in the absence of hardcore data on levels of water tables, even criticism of unabated water extraction in Balochistan is based on nothing more than informed guesses. Yes, policymaking can be based on sound logic, but longer-term redressal of water shortage requires focus on research.
Therefore, while data collection may be a time-consuming exercise, it is absolutely imperative for effective water governance in this country.
BRR: Let’s now come to populist notions. Does research indicate that Pakistan needs additional reservoirs or water storage capacity to the extent will be added by Diamer-Bhasha?
ISK: If a bucket is leaky, then no matter how long it is filled up for it will never be full.
The leaks are in Pakistan’s water governance system. Water is over-consumed wherever it is available in abundance; pricing is not rational, which leads to waste; and hence not conserved despite the spectre of shortage. Therefore, we need to plug the leaks before we go about building additional storage.
Pakistan already has thousands of acres of natural storage in the form of underground aquifers and wetlands. Mega dams not only have significant infrastructure costs, but also result in negative externalities such as mass displacement of communities, ecological disruption and sea water inundation in deltas due to reduced environmental flows.
Currently, water is released downstream in monsoon season when existing dams overflow; but once additional capacity to the extent of Bhasha is in place, incentive to ensure environmental flows will disappear. This could potentially destroy deltas and mangroves altogether, as these require both sea and freshwater. Mega dams do not address the root cause of our woes, which is the inefficient use and inequitable distribution of water resources.
To argue that mega dams are necessary to ensure essential crops and food security is a red herring. Ensuring national food security and marine ecology is not a binary choice, because existing irrigation practices make inefficient use of water. If water is used more judiciously, the leaks in the system will be plugged. Both can be ensured without building additional dams.
BRR: As an expert on environmental issues, would you agree that the debate on water conservation and its supply side management is divorced from overall discussion on climate change?
ISK: Hydrological issues should definitely be a part of a larger discourse on climate change, as the latter has an impact on precipitation patterns, for example. Evidence suggests that we will continue to witness these changes as climate change takes hold. Remember, one argument made in favour of mega-dams is that large-scale water reservoirs will mitigate against permanent water shortages caused by global warming in the future.
The grim reality is that climate change as a subject has faced greater ignorance and lack of interest in policymaking circles than challenges to water economy. Hopefully, the sordid state will change now that we have a thorough professional and expert in Malik Amin Aslam at the helm of affairs.
But it should be kept in mind that subsequent to 18th amendment, environmental protection has become a devolved subject, and with it, climate change as well.
Similarly, water has always been under provincial domain. Therefore, challenges to the environment, whether in the larger context of climate change or in the context of water scarcity, need to be addressed at provincial and inter-provincial levels.
BRR: Considering climate change is a universal subject, is this sensible approach?
ISK: Some argue that the federal government is a key stakeholder in policymaking on environment protection as the custodian of Pakistan’s commitments and treaties with the international community. Provinces don’t buy this argument, and have initiated their own legislation on the subject.
I believe there is severe dissonance at federal and provincial levels on the road forward. It sure helps that the same party is in power in Punjab and federal. But it is no permanent solution.
One approach would be to remember that implementation has to take place in provinces; and for any plans on water conservation or agricultural productivity to succeed, provinces need to be on board.
At the same time, ecological challenges rarely respect geographical boundaries. For example, who should assess the environmental impact of pollution from a coal power plant that is built in Sindh but is carried with winds to Punjab or Balochistan?
Whether it is smog or riverine flooding, a mechanism for inter-provincial coordination is needed for what are essentially transboundary issues. We cannot continue operating in silos where WAPDA reports to a federal ministry, but irrigation department is under provincial domain.
Should the federal government take up that role? Maybe. We could also experiment with an autonomous body, which is reverse delegated the power to legislate on shared natural resources and ecological problems not constrained by geographical boundaries.
Bottom-line is that mechanisms currently in place are lacking and need a holistic review.
BRR: Returning to the subject of water, please share your views on the one-rupee (per litre) charge imposed on commercial water bottlers. Do you believe the issue has been tackled well? Concerns have been raised that top MNCs have been let go with a slap on the wrist.
ISK: There needs to be some basis for any charge imposed. To my knowledge, no data-driven approach was adopted in imposition of this penalty. The one-rupee charge appears arbitrary in nature. Should the price be same for a bottling factory in Punjab and a bottling factory in drought ridden Balochistan? Certainly not.
Yes, all entities exploiting our natural resources for profit need to be held to account. But our guiding principle in making those judgments should be scientific analysis rather than guess work.
BRR: The suo moto notice brought commercial abstraction into public limelight. Don’t you believe that instead of imposing an ad hoc charge, the opportunity should have been used to review our colonial era laws that allow lawful abuse of groundwater resources?
ISK: National water policy advocated formation of a groundwater authority to address urban abstraction of groundwater by domestic and industrial sectors. I believe extraction by bottling companies should be reviewed in the same context.
The window of opportunity is still open. My understanding is that the Supreme Court has set up a committee to evaluate possible water pricing mechanisms for commercial abstraction. We can borrow inspiration from the doctrine of "no significant harm" to ensure equitable and reasonable use of our water resources.
But at the end of the day, it was not court’s job to take up the baton. It is the government’s responsibility to legislate on the subject. And effective legislation is predicated on data that takes into account such metrics as distance of factories from communities, distance from canals/rivers, geography, topography, precipitation patterns in the district where abstraction unit is located etc. Legislation divorced from data cannot succeed.
BRR: Is there a need for transboundary resource sharing mechanism with Afghanistan? Given our mixed experience with Indus River Basin treaty, does it make sense to go down that road with another hostile neighbour?
ISK: Yes. The Kabul-Kunar system is part of Indus basin, and as lower riparian Pakistan needs to move towards a treaty with Afghanistan.
Despite criticism, the Indus river treaty can serve as a good template because it kept in mind needs of both nations. The treaty may look flawed in retrospect as it did not take into account environmental flows for eastern rivers and climate change induced disasters, but that is just an example of a knowledge frontier that was not scaled at the time.
Remember in 1948, India shut down the flow of canal waters coming into West Punjab, and the two countries were ready to go to war over water. Twelve years later, Nehru came to Karachi and signed a treaty that has survived three wars since. Despite hostility, the Indian state cannot use water as a bargaining tool any longer.

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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.