World Water Day

News & Views

Mohammad Jamil

WORLD Water Day is being commemorated on Wednesday the March 22, and United Nations has announced the theme for 2017 as ‘Why Waste Water’. The UN statement read: “Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe water supply close to home, spending countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources, and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water.” In 1993, the United Nations had declared March 22 as World Water Day, and for 24 years, the event has been marked globally under a different theme. Last year’s theme was ‘Better water better jobs’; in 2015 the theme was ‘Water as Sustainable Development’ reflective of the important role water can play in the future of the planet. Indeed, water is food; it is indispensable to agriculture and is critical input into a country’s agriculture especially in arid zones.
Water is life also because it is essential to human health, as the human body can last weeks without food, but only days without water. Last but not the least; water is energy also, as worldwide hydropower accounts for 16% of global electricity production. However, the current growth rates of agricultural demands on the world’s freshwater resources are unsustainable. According to a study, most of surface freshwater is locked up in ice, and another 20.9% is in lakes and only 0.49% of surface freshwater is in rivers, which means humans get a large portion of their water from rivers and lakes that have less water due to melting of glaciers. In the past wars were fought over religions, territories, minerals, raw materials and resources like oil. Anyhow, in view of acute shortages of water in Africa, Middle East and part of Asia, the future wars could be fought over water.
The Indus River Basin has been an area of conflict between India and Pakistan for about five decades. Spanning 1,800 miles, the river and its tributaries together make up one of the largest irrigation canals in the world. Water issue between India and Pakistan is a serious matter and needs attention of the policy makers, as India is trying to use water as a weapon against Pakistan, which can be described as water terrorism. India has completed some mega projects on River Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, openly violating Indus Water Treaty. Pakistan’s commission has not been able to effectively pursue the matter with the result that India benefited from the verdict by arbitrator in case of Baglihar dam. In this backdrop, the nation can face acute water shortages and drought like one witnessed in Thar in 2008. More recently, hundreds of children have died due to malnutrition, hunger and disease.
It was criminal negligence on the part of our successive governments that they were not able to set their priorities right and build any major reservoir after Tarbela Dam during the last thirty five years. Feasibility study of Kalabagh dam was prepared, and the work had started but due to objections by Sindh and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa it was abandoned because of the fear that it could lead to disharmony between the provinces. But one should not ignore the reality that our four provinces are desperately calling for sufficient water to cultivate their lands, and are suspicious of each other on the distribution of water. Our farmers see their lands uncultivated due to water shortage in a situation when 40-42 million acre feet water of Indus River goes waste in the sea annually. India also uses this as a pretext to construct dams on Pakistani rivers.
According to the Indus Waters Basin Treaty, each country must notify the other of plans to construct any engineering works, which would affect the other and provide data about such works. As if India was not satisfied by depriving Pakistan of its due share of water in western rivers, India had succeeded in convincing former Afghan president Hamid Karzai to build a dam on River Kabul and set up Kama Hydroelectric Project using 0.5MAF of Pakistan water. It had offered technical assistance for the proposed project, which would have serious repercussions on the water flow in River Indus. Today, Pakistan’s agricultural sector contributes 23 per cent to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP); two-third of population living in rural areas depends on agriculture, which absorbs more than 50 per cent of the labour force and provides the base for 75 per cent of exports.
Anyhow, the construction of Bhasha Dam along with other dams is vital not only for our survival but also for enhancing the agricultural output and for increasing overall industrial productivity. Successful completion of the Diamer-Bhasha dam would help develop agriculture and also generate cheap energy for industrial development. Furthermore, Bhasha Dam will eliminate flood hazards to a great extent, and will reduce sedimentation in Tarbela reservoir, thereby improving the storage capacity and power output at Tarbela. Loss of storage capacity due to sedimentation in Tarbela and Mangla Dams is already causing serious drop even for existing agricultural production. Pakistan will suffer due to any further delay in the construction of Bhasha Dam vis-à-vis electricity shortages and resultant drop in agricultural produce. On the other hand, industry would not function to its full capacity due to long periods of load shedding due to energy shortfall.
It has to be mentioned that in 2008, the cost of Bhasha Dam was estimated at $12.5 bn, and now it is likely to be more than $18 billion. Having that said, Pakistan should also look for the unconventional sources of energy to meet 21st century’s needs. Many countries have benefited from sprinkler and drip irrigation distributed through pressurized plastic pipes. This approach has enabled Israel to irrigate the desert; and this system can enable Pakistan to triple the irrigated area with its existing water resources and avoid water scarcity. Dasu hydro-electric project will produce more than 4000 mega watt, but the problem of water storage would remain, as it is run of river project. Therefore, construction of Bhasha dam should be on the top of the list of priorities, and should not be delayed in any case, so that Pakistan can meet its energy requirements of industry and food requirements for the growing population.
—The writer is a senior journalist based in Lahore.