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Will we be able to go beyond the rhetoric to face the water challenges ahead?
While water and agriculture experts in the country keep highlighting issues that have by now assumed critical proportions, the commitment to addressing them seems to be missing; while a rapid increase in population has increased water demand.
Experts believe 93 to 95 per cent of Pakistan’s total surface water/freshwater is utilised in the agriculture sector and, according to a Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) presentation, the country has the lowest productivity per unit of water i.e. 0.13kg/m3 with India at 0.39kg/m3 and China 0.82kg/m3.
The agriculture sector’s contribution to GDP remains at 21pc but progressive growers agree that given the quantum of surface water utilised in the farm sector its efficiency leaves a lot to be desired.
Because of these shortcomings Pakistan comes up with lesser per-hectare yields of wheat, cotton, sugarcane and rice according to the Pakistan Ministry of National Food Security and Research 2014-15 statistics.
While water and agriculture experts in the country keep highlighting issues that have by now assumed critical proportions, the commitment to addressing them seems to be missing
But policymakers have to go beyond the rhetoric on the integrated water resource management to be ready to face the challenges ahead if they aim to offset the impact of water scarcity.
The country’s water challenges could be put into the following categories: inadequate storage, lack of water efficiency leading to a lower per-acre productivity, unchecked groundwater abstraction; lack of rational water pricing, canal inefficiency, and a contiguous but dilapidated irrigation infrastructure.
Under the Falkenmark Water Stress Indicator Pakistan is bracketed with nations under water stress, for our per-capita water availability remains less than 1,700m3. If a country’s water availability falls below 1,000m3 it is rated as a water scarce country. Until 2010 Pakistan’s water availability was around 1,223m3.
Ahmad Zeeshan Bhatti, a researcher at the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), opines that the International Institute of Water (IWMI) says countries that will not be able to meet estimated water demands in 2025, even after accounting for future adaptive capacity, are called “physically water scarce”.
Countries with sufficient renewable resources that would have to make a very significant investment in water infrastructure to access them are called “economically water scarce”. So as yet “we are economically, not physically scarce”, he says.
Pakistan stores 10pc of total surface freshwater with a 30-day carryover capacity (14 million acre-feet) achieved through Mangla and Tarbela dams, says a senior Wapda officer. India remains far ahead with a 170-day capacity.
Irrigation channels’ efficiency remains below 40pc for multiple reasons — chiefly sedimentation — though this could be increased to 80pc with lining as per one research.
The desired investment attributes water infrastructure to inter-provincial discord and trust deficit. Small and medium size dams are not built for want of resources in provinces although Sindh has lately completed the rain-fed Darawat dam in Jamshoro.
A senior Wapda officer, who deals with the water sector, believes that things have to go in tandem if sustainable growth is to be achieved. By building mega dams like Diamer-Bhasha and 90 small and medium sized dams, Pakistan can achieve 90-day carryover capacity, “although by 2050 our demand will have further increased” he bemoans.
He adds that due to ownership issues international funding is not feasible for the Diamer-Bhasha dam and that even after its completion it will offer only marginal relief as with its 6.4MAF storage, the impact of sedimentation losses in the existing dams can only be offset so that new achievable storage would remain between 1-2MAF.
“If work starts on Bhasha it will takes nine years to complete. I don’t see a new storage being built in Pakistan in the next 5-7 years. Successive governments have preferred short-term projects for political mileage instead of long-term projects”, he observes.
“Water availability may not be a serious issue because it is management that actually matter,” he says.
Wapda has a list of seven future water projects for storage and run-of-the-river purposes which are at the early stage of submission. These projects include run of the river Dasu, Mohmand (0.67MAF) and Shyok dams (5.5MAF) for storage with the latter’s feasibility study to be completed in February this year.
As experts and policymakers lay emphasis on water storage, the issue of the dying Indus delta and sustainable environmental flows post-Kotri barrage has taken a back seat.
Such flows — essential for deltaic region to check sea intrusion — are often described as a wastage of water, notwithstanding the fact that the sea continues to devour fertile agriculture lands in coastal districts of Badin, Thatta and Sujawal along Sindh’s 350km long coastline.
Around 3.5 million acres of land has been lost since 1980 with sea water intruding up to the Thatta-Sujawal bridge.
“Germanwatch in its Global Climate Risk Index 2017 has ranked Pakistan seventh in terms of vulnerability. This means we should revisit the 1991 Water Accord in the backdrop of the climate change as it must have impacted flows considerably.
“Likewise, the Indus Water Treaty can be amended to adjust to the requirements of climate change”, points out Dr Imran Saqib Khalid, who heads the environment and climate change unit at the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).
He says that groundwater abstractions on both sides of the borders remain massive and unchecked. “Satellite data shows that the groundwater aquifer tilts towards India”, he claims and urges policymakers to look at how to ensure quality, quantity and equity in water distribution.
But what Dr Imran Khalid suggests not does seem possible unless Pakistan has its National Water Policy in place. The policy’s draft has been submitted to the Council of Common Interests (CCI).
By 2050, says the UN’s World Water Development Report 2015, developing countries will have to increase food production by 60pc. It warns that “climate change will exacerbate the risks associated with variations in the distribution and availability of water resources”.
The provinces need to rationalise water pricing in both agriculture and non-agriculture sectors to improve revenue generation and investment in irrigation. Canal water being cheap usually leads to wastages.
It is encouraging to see Sindh working on the draft of the agriculture policy as a component of the World Bank-funded Sindh Agriculture Growth Project (SAGP). The draft policy talks about ‘climate smart agriculture’.
Sindh Abadgar Board Vice President Mahmood Nawaz Shah says water pricing is also necessary for all sectors of the economy given the fact Pakistan is heading towards water scarcity. Pakistan’s farm sector gets 95pc of the country’s total water resources while in rest of the world hardly 70-75pc of water is diverted to the agriculture sector.
“We need to have more per acre productivity with the same quantum of water coupled with investment in human resource, technology and a high efficiency irrigation system to achieve our objectives”, he says.

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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.