All said and done: Water matters! | By Khalid Saleem

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All said and done: Water matters! 

HUNDREDS of thousand people of Pakistan remain in constant danger of being badly hit by floods.

In the not too distant past, their lands were inundated, their homes washed away and the affected forced to move away into an uncertain future.

What could be worse than this unmitigated disaster? And yet one is forced to think: could this catastrophe have been avoided? According to media reports of a long time ago, the Asian Development Bank had warned in a report that Pakistan was on the verge of being classified as a “water scarce” country.

This had an ominous connotation for the future well being of the country. That this land, that was once the envy of others less endowed, should now be near to be classified as “water scarce” is nothing short of a tragedy.

At the same time, it must be admitted that this state of affairs is hardly surprising for a country that has consistently failed to utilize the past forty years and more in initiating projects for conservation, storage or utilization of the water – a blessing that a bountiful nature had showered on it.

A noted economist had once opined that there are no ills on the economic front of any country that cannot be traced back to ‘water’ – either its scarcity or its surfeit. Pakistan has been on the receiving end on both these counts. In one season it is hit by floods; in another it suffers from draught.

Both could have been remedied had the country’s planners displayed the necessary vision and made use of their expertise and resources. Of course, keeping political differences apart from technological planning would have helped; but that is another story.

Before delving into the whys and wherefores, it may perhaps be in order to have an over-the-shoulder cursory glance at the history of the dispute over the apportionment of Indus waters. The Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 looked –and still looks – good on paper, but, by hindsight, it is evident that it has created more problems than it has solved.

The very idea of drawing water from the Indus River through a series of barrages and link canals – to compensate for the lost flow of the three rivers exclusively allocated to India – was technically flawed in that it sought to interfere with the laws of nature – never a desirable course to follow.

When the Treaty came into being, the IBRD (World Bank), as guarantors, took an inordinate interest in making vital technical decisions, often overriding the recommendations of local experts. A glaring example is the choice of Tarbela Dam over Kalabagh dam, merely because the former cost a bit less.

Local engineers had pointed to the shortfalls in the feasibility of Tarbela – in particular, a) its short life span due to surfeit of silt in the catchment areas, and b) lack of any feasible downstream ancillary projects. Their objections were over-ruled and the result is before us.

One can only imagine the situation in the region if only Kalabagh dam had been given preference over Tarbela dam in the 1960s, as was strongly recommended by the Pakistani engineers working on the WAPDA Indus Basin Project.Over the years, India has continued to play ducks and drakes with the provisions of this Treaty. Pakistan, as the lower riparian, has ever been on the receiving end.

Due mainly to delayed or flawed reaction from the Pakistani technical experts, India has managed to get away with projects in IHK – as fait accompli – to the detriment of Pakistan’s short and long term interests. It is not too late for Pakistan, though, to make amends. The name of the game is to resolutely and determinedly engage India on this issue with a view to define the red lines.

Any infringement of Pakistan’s basic rights as a lower riparian under relevant provisions of International Law (and in terms of the Indus Waters Treaty) needs to be resisted forcefully and betimes.

And now, a word about measured responses (or the lack thereof) to the crises created year after year due to the surfeit of water in the flood season helped no doubt by deliberate strategic releases of water from – ostensibly – hydro-electric projects in Indian Held Kashmir.

The ideal – and long term – solution would be to construct reservoirs at strategic locations to limit and regulate the flow of water downstream during flood season. This, however, is subject to obvious limitations.

Even if the political squabbles in the way of construction of reservoirs were to be surmounted, there is always the non-availability of financial resources as an impediment. Nevertheless, a beginning needs to be made.

Needless to add, water as a scarce resource is valuable. There is urgent need to conserve it and/or to divert it into constructive channels. Already, conflicts on the apportionment of water resources are erupting in various regions of the world.

It is time that this issue gets the attention it deserves in this region before matters degenerate into a debilitating conflict. In this context, it may be opportune to activate SAARC to take on the task of equitable apportionment of water in the South Asian region as a whole.

Unless this regional organisation wakes up to its responsibilities in the water and energy sectors, it is in imminent danger of being written off as a viable regional organisation.

— The writer is a former Ambassador and former Assistant Secretary General of OIC.