In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner” a tale of accursed seamen is narrated, who have been jinxed due to an egregious sin of slaying the albatross, which led their ship out of an icy sea grave, on the back of the South Wind; indicated by the noble bird. The allegorical reference to the slain bird whose favour was returned by an arrow by the selfish seamen is eerily closer to Pakistan’s reality. We as a nation have seen our population grow exponentially, yet no effort has been made to conserve or develop that non fungible currency of life; called water. Like the accursed seamen of Coleridge’s poem, we as a nation have tempted fates through the egregious sin of spurning sound advice, by well-meaning water experts, who have been crying hoarse. They have pointed towards our rapidly depleting ground water aquifers and shortage of water for agriculture as well as domestic consumption.
A country that had over 5000 cubic meters per capita of water at independence in 1947, is now close to becoming a water scarce country like the Sub-Saharan African nations ,with the present per capita water availability of less than 1000 cum per capita. With the three Western rivers already gone to India we have made precious little use of the three Eastern rivers ie Chenab, Jehlum, and Indus. When WAPDA came into being in 1958, the country’s total hydel potential was enhanced to 119 MW from 60 MW. By the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, it was decided that Pakistan is entitled to 142 MAF (Indus 93, Jhelum 23 and Chenab 26) of water utilization. Subsequently, 240 MW Warsak, 1000 MW Mangla and 3478 MW Tarbela Hydropower Projects were constructed. After that our creative juices dried out like the ill-fated Ancient Mariner’s ship floating over a resource it could not use. Pakistan by developing 6595 MW of hydel potential so far has utilized 17 percent of its total hydel potential of nearly 41000 MW.
The lack of water resource development is a sorry saga in the history of the country. While our conjoined twin —India — that had only 300 large dams in 1947 has developed, over 4,000 large dams to date. Over 35 percent of the irrigated land in India has been irrigated by the dams resulting in over 25 percent addition in food grains as 96 percent of the dams are primarily meant for irrigation. Pakistan on the contrary is stuck with three major reservoirs and 23 barrages and head works with only 30 days of the storage capacity compared to the Indian capacity of six months. Our lack of storage capacity coupled with profligate waste of the precious water compounds our water shortage. According to a study by Pakistan Council of Water Resources 93 percent of water available in the country is consumed by the irrigated agriculture while 60 percent of it goes waste due to antediluvian flood irrigation practices and seepage losses through unpaved water courses.
Our balance of payments situation and economic health do not permit; costly imported fuel based power generation. Unless we increase the hydel energy in our total national energy mix our import bill would be unsustainable
Pakistan’s river flow management, surface runoff harvesting, and ground water aquifer management have all been abysmally poor resulting in a perfect storm of floods, droughts, desertification, and sub- surface water contamination. Due to past follies and lack of integrated planning the Indus Water Basin today faces a mortal threat to human survival. The above are not mere jeremiad prognostications of an alarmist but the cold facts driven home by some signs that are palpably evident. These signs include 40 percent water shortage for this year’s Rabi crop, an alarming dip in per capita water allocation to 997 cum per person, and depletion of ground water reserves. Our lemming like proclivity to commit suicide is rivalled only by a masterly inactivity on part of the government to manage the national water resources. We in our neck of the woods are jinxed due to a bad neighbourhood wherein a hostile upper riparian continually endeavours to choke our water lifeline by violating Indus Water Basin Treaty.
We have come to a stage in our national history where half measures and isolated solutions would get us nowhere. We need a multi -dimensional and integrated water resource planning that should include institutions, government, people, and experts all yoked in a common cause enthused by a common ideology to conserve water and enhance storage. Hydel projects are our real salvation. Our balance of payments situation and economic health do not permit; costly imported fuel based power generation. Unless we increase the hydel energy in our total national energy mix our import bill would be unsustainable. Hence in addition to food security our energy security is also dependent upon water resources and their adroit utilization. Now how to achieve the above end? We need an integrated planning approach both in demand and supply side of the water resources management.
On demand side the country needs a conservation strategy to prevent water wastage. Unplanned water extraction, wetland destruction, and mangrove’s depletion need to be checked through the state and community’s full involvement. Paving of irrigation water channels, water metering, and use of modern irrigation technology should be made a national priority. According to an Australian water expert the Murray-Darling Basin Authority in Australia took care of the water shortage and sea intrusion through strict regulation of water diversions from the river. The Murray-Darling Basin is managed across four states and a territory ie Queensland, New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and South Australia. The Basin management is people centric and allows local involvement for greater ownership. Modern technology is used for monitoring the water quality, wetlands’ state, and hydrology. Water entitlement and allocation are treated differently season to season, with entitlement remaining the same, while the allocation changes according to water availability.
The water pricing and sharing of costs for development and maintenance services is another matter on demand side that needs attention in a country like Pakistan where entrenched interests and public mindset might act as big bulwarks towards most reforms. Changing mindsets therefore is the biggest challenge that needs a “whole of the nation” approach. The recently held Water Symposium by the Supreme Court is a humble first step towards that endeavour. On supply side the challenges like the right dam selection, funding, and national consensus are some of the problems that need proper attention. Funding options emerging from the Supreme Court Water Symposium ranged from public funding, private equity, international lending options like Euro Bonds, and ECA. Even Bonds & Sukuks floated by WAPDA emerged as some of the options due to its strong balance sheet. The long gestation hydel projects do have less asset depreciation due to long project duration prolonging the payback time, a disadvantage that is offset by long lifespan of dams and free fuel cost for electricity generation.
The funding options though challenging are available in above modes provided the will is there. The government, experts, and the people have to act in concert to plan and execute the water storage projects in an integrated manner. WAPDA, the ex -crown jewel of water resource development in Pakistan needs to be restored to its erstwhile glory and efficacy by giving it maximum functional autonomy. The clipping of its powers through a process of unbundling in deference to IMF/World Bank diktat have made this institution too effete. There is a need to build capacity of WAPDA in spheres of research, policy planning, project development and execution by giving it adequate resources and legal powers along with the desired liberty of action. A national “Water Resource Development Task Force” needs to be set up with the mandate to suggest capacity building of WAPDA and monitoring of its project planning and execution as per a “National Integrated Water Resource Development Plan.”A time has come to recentralize some of the powers that were vested in the federal government in the spheres of power generation, purchase, transmission and distribution.
A water resource development strategy predicated upon above guidelines with WAPDA in the lead role and the IPPs in the supporting role should be boldly employed in order to stave off the looming water crisis, getting aggravated with each passing day.
The Writer is a PhD scholar at NUST. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, October 22nd 2018.