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Policy pricks

Water issue is replete with political controversies and ought to be dealt with diligently

Policy pricks
Fast vanishing mangroves. Photo by Asif Hassan / AFP

An inherently contentious issue of water is becoming a powder keg in Pakistan. Seldom has any document or debate on water culminated without acrimonious exchanges. An embryonic water policy is also heading towards more confrontation than striking a national consensus.

A recently held seminar on water policy remained abuzz with intrinsic obsession of “damophobic” lobby. An unrelenting obstinacy with Kalabagh dam has stymied all other options to be considered and discussed seriously to address water sector challenges. No better disservice could have been extended to water challenge faced by Pakistan.

It is ironic that a chronic fixation with Kalabagh dam has become commencement and culmination of every discussion from the water security initiative to the water policy. Dexterously chiseled out data and conjured up fantasies about Kalabagh dam have propounded the dam as a panacea for all water problems of Pakistan.

The chairman of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) while speaking at a seminar on water policy regurgitated stale arguments to profess that construction of Kalabagh dam would guarantee water sustainability to Pakistan. He also projected a bewitching figure of $750 billion as loss to national economy in the last 40 years as the huge quantum of 1200 million acre feet of water had gone into drain. The very figure is highly questionable as the basis of calculation was not elaborated. Ostensibly the amount has been calculated on the returns of crop production expected by utilising the quantity of water flowing to sea. This is a bloated figure as agriculture productivity is not solely dependent on water. In fact water is just one of the several ingredients of agriculture production and its contribution is not more than ten per cent of all the inputs. Other vital inputs include land, labour, seed, fertilizer, pesticide, machinery etc.

Additionally, vagaries of climate and volatility of market also have implications for returns of production. Such inflated figures are mere eye-wash to present a doomsday scenario. His wisdom also failed to recognise globally acknowledged environmental flows and he declared it “gone into drain”.

While he avidly mentioned losses due to excessive flow to sea; he did not bother to mention staggering environmental losses accrued due to lean flows to sea during dry years. A fair analysis should also have juxtaposed quantified and monetised losses as a corollary to relentless sea intrusion, degradation of mangroves forests and ensuing economic losses inflicted on Indus delta eco-system.

Dexterously chiseled out data and conjured up fantasies about Kalabagh dam have propounded the dam as a panacea for all water problems of Pakistan.

The chairman of the water regulator also gave a hoodwinking rhetorical statement that 29.50 million acre foot (MAF) of water goes down into the sea every year. Spearheading a water distribution authority, certainly he cannot be ignorant of the fact that the purported surplus is actually allocated against various commitments and would not be available in coming years. Proposing a huge storage facility costing multi-billion dollars to national exchequer against an elusive surplus flow is a willful amiss and serves no good purpose to the country. Let us use simple arithmetic to decipher the misleading and deceptive data of surplus water availability.

Total allocations for Kacchi canal, Reini canal, Pat Feeder extension, Gomal Zam dam, additional storage of Mangla Dam and leaching requirement under LBOD project are 8.9 MAF. Agreed upon Indian uses on Western rivers are 2 MAF and eastern rivers’ current inflow that India can eventually utilise at upstream is 6.23 MAF. From 1976-77 to 2003-04, average uses in Kharif remained 11.24 MAF less than the share sanctioned under water accord. This quantity needs to be adjusted against the average surplus flows as the provinces have legitimate right over this under-utilised water.

Apart from these commitments, the water accord also made provisional allocation of 10 MAF to flow below Kotri barrage for sustenance of coastal ecosystem. Sum of all these committed flows simply erase the much trumpeted surplus flow of 29 MAF. All this data is available in WAPDA’s own documents and can’t be shrugged off.

Another source of consternation is potential upstream diversion of Kabul River in Afghanistan that currently flows to Pakistan. Afghanistan is gradually developing its water resources by planning construction of a series of dams. In absence of any water sharing treaty, Afghanistan will divert substantial quantity of water for its own uses. Some estimates suggest that Pakistan may face a deficit of up to 15 per cent of its current flows being contributed by Kabul River. IRSA chairman did not bother to mention these factors and continued his bang for Kalabagh dam.

Even if average 22 MAF water is construed to be surplus, engineering principles nullify making it basis for constructing new storages. The surplus 22 MAF depicts average annual flow and is not commensurate with the quantum of flows recorded in most of the years. During 13 years from 2000-01 to 2012-13, flows at Kotri barrage surpassed 10 MAF in only 6 years i.e. less than half of the years. Average surplus of last 15 years remained only 3.32 MAF. Whereas the average surplus flow between 1999 and 2009 remained merely 0.3 MAF. It was the enormous flow generated by unprecedented floods of 2010 that augmented the averages of past 15 years. Hence average surplus flow has remained highly erratic and unreliable to propose any large dam. IRSA chairman concealed these inconsistencies of flow by using a gag of annual average flow which is not accepted as the basis for new storages under engineering criterion for dams.

Regarding dollar tag of the lost benefits, figures are not substantiated by any logic and depict only one side of the picture. IRSA chairman completely ignored the ecological damages inflicted on Indus delta due to persistent water shortages. Coastal areas of Sindh have lost at least two million acres of land to sea. At a conservative estimate of Rs200,000 per acre, total loss comes to 4 billion dollars.

According to the available data mangroves forest was sprawled over 600,000 hectares in Indus delta 50 years ago. The forest has shrunk to only 80,000 hectares now. Hence Sindh has lost 520,000 hectares of mangroves forests mainly because of dwindling fresh water flows to Indus delta. Community logging is a negligibly small quantity and does not make a significant contribution in the loss to mangroves.

Ecological scientists have established economic valuation of mangroves ecosystem that helps quantifying/monetising benefits of mangroves ecosystem. A relevant research was carried out by D. Evan Mercer of the Department of Economics, North Carolina State University and Marwa E. Salem of the Cairo University. The researchers compiled 73 studies encompassing 352 observations of mangrove ecosystem service valuations of either monetary or physical quantities e.g., cubic meters of timber or tons of fish. Median value of benefits of per hectare of mangroves eco system comes to USD 27,000 per year. Applying this figure, Sindh is losing 14 billion US dollars every year due to vanishing mangroves forests. Accumulated losses of yesteryears and the future years would be far more than what IRSA chairman is propagating as losses to economy due to flow of water to sea. Relentless degradation of ecosystem in delta indicates that it requires even more fresh water flows to sustain its ecological wellbeing.

It is bizarre that the consultation on water policy drifted into dam debate. The draft policy itself recognises importance of environmental flows. It reads “ensure that sufficient fresh water is flowing through the rivers to the sea to maintain a sound environment for the conservation of the coastal ecosystem and for the fresh and brackish coastal fisheries. Environmental needs must be addressed while framing “release rules” from the major storage dams for hydropower and irrigation, to ensure sustainability of such areas as the Indus Delta.”

Pakistan is confronting a gigantic challenge of water availability stemming from a variety of reasons. The water crisis is not limited to storage capacity; it involves several other factors e.g. population pressure, water use practices, cropping pattern, climate change and derelict infrastructure in water sector. Rather than focusing on developing multi-sectoral water policy and a multi-pronged solution approach to manage water scarcity, the whole debate has been diverted to ad nauseam of construction of new dams.

After wasting several years on futile debates over controversial non-starter options, it would be pertinent to identify points of convergence to unfurl the incipient water policy. Water issue is replete with political controversies and ought to be dealt with diligently. A deep rooted mistrust is an indelible reality that cannot be cured with incendiary statements by people at the helm of affairs. Partisan statements will only exacerbate the water conundrum.

The water policy should underline points of convergence for all stakeholders. Torch should be veered from engineering to management of water resources. Initiatives for conservation, bolstering water productivity and enhancing water efficiency are some of the options where forging larger consensus would be convenient and rewarding.

Naseer Memon

naseer memon
Naseer Memon is a human rights activist and civil society professional. He may be reached at [email protected]

One comment

  • Worth reading, logic, research and scientific approach.

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