Water, water everywhere, nor a drop to . . . | By M Ziauddin


Water, water everywhere, nor a drop to . . .

PAKISTAN is a water stressed country and, therefore, efficient use of water is important for provision of safe drinking water, sustainable agricultural and industrial growth.

The agriculture sector, core of national economy and food security, is highly vulnerable to changes in water availability. In the wake of imminent water crisis, inclusive and comprehensive planning is imperative.

“One of the major objectives of the National Water Policy (2018) is to enhance the water storage capacity of Pakistan by adding 10 MAF. At present, the water storage capacity of Pakistan is around 13.68 MAF for 30 days.

“The ongoing Water Sector Development Programme, costing Rs 1,151 billion, centres around five important elements, which are water augmentation, water conservation, groundwater management, protection of infrastructure from water logging/salinity and floods and proposition of institutional reforms.”

— Pakistan Economic Survey 2020-21 (Pp30-33) Meanwhile, a Report on Water Management, Floods, Transport & Aquatic Tourism prepared by a committee constituted by the FPCCI shows a way out.

Submitted to the FPCCI in Dec 2018, the committee which was headed by a former senior Pakistan Navy officer, Naeeem Sarfraz, has come up with a rational plan for comprehensive water security.

According to statistics quoted by the report, Pakistan receives about 145MAF of water annually from the three major rivers — Indus, Jhelum and Chenab and their tributaries, plus the Kabul River.

Out of this, only 103MAF reach canal heads for irrigation while the remainder flows down to the sea.

And out of the 103MAF available at the canal heads, only 26MAF are used for crop cultivation while the remainder is lost through seepage, evaporation, escape below Kotri, leakage from the outmoded infrastructure, mismanagement and corruption.

Unlevelled fields, old water distribution system (warabandi) and outdated irrigation methods (flooding) also contribute to water losses.

The report claims there is no water shortage, only a crisis of its proper usage and management and goes on to suggest that all water courses, canal minors and distributaries have to be lined to stop unproductive seepage of water.

The report estimates the lining of canal minors and water courses can save 23MAF and increase crop productivity.

As can be seen at least 35-50 per cent of irrigation water gets lost, leaked and pilfered from our excellent man-made irrigation canal system.

But instead of making these canals and their linked channels leak-proof and theft-proof, we waste all our national efforts on unachievable harebrained solutions like debating the contentious costly big dams or blaming the upper riparian country of pilfering our portion of river waters without irrefutable technical proof that would stand the scrutiny of international arbitrators.

Despite being an agriculture-driven economy, in all these years, Pakistan’s water storage capacity has remained limited to only 30 days against the minimum required capacity of 120 days and recommended capacity for around 1,000 days, given its climate.

Per capita water availability currently is estimated to be around 1,000 cubic metres against 5,600 cubic metres at the time of independence.

Of the total Pakistan area, nearly 13,680 square kilometres is covered by glaciers that help boost river turnoff in warm weather.

According to scientists, in a period of just 30 years, glaciers in the Himalayas have diminished by nearly one-fifth and it is feared that these will have disappeared in the next 20 years.

As water availability continues to shrink because of various natural factors, the crisis is being compounded by the mounting population.

Therefore, it is necessary to develop a well-thought out conservation and management strategy to increase the efficiency of water usage while at the same time, adopting efficient technologies and sustainable agricultural practices with extra focus on providing food for the burgeoning population.

According to the current system, each farmer has a specific day to irrigate his farm and irrespective of the quantity he uses, he pays a flat fee.

Although this system was intended to be equitable in the face of water shortages, in reality, farmers who have first access do take a lion’s share of the water, most of which goes to waste due mainly to overuse.

The system benefits large politically powerful farmers at the cost of small farmers, who increasingly depend on tube wells, which in turn affects the salt content of the soil, leading to environmental problems.

This inequality in water distribution, experts assert, also negatively affects crop yields since small farmers do not have access to adequate water supplies.

The report suggests ‘Flooding’ needs to be replaced by improved water saving techniques such as ‘Bed & Farrow method’, ‘Dry Direct Seeding of Rice’, ‘Alternate Wetting & Drying’, ‘Laser Land Levelling’ and ‘Drip’ or ‘Sprinkler Irrigation System’.

This is expected to cause water saving of 30-35% which is equal to 20MAF, substantially more than the storage capacity of Tarbela and Mangla dams combined.

Rampant corruption in the Irrigation Department also needs to be curbed, says the report.

Being virtually free, a great amount, according to the report, gets lost through wastage. Therefore, the report suggests that the price of water has to be based on at least its cost of delivery to the consumer.

Farmers in Punjab pay only Rs135 per acre per year, while those in K-P pay Rs625, whereas cost of maintaining and operating the distribution system is Rs875 per acre.

Moreover, recovery of water charges (abiana) in all the provinces is low, from 12% in Balochistan to 44% in Punjab.

Hence, the report maintains that the abiana recovery system needs to be improved which would lead to reduction in wastage and also generate funds for maintenance of the water distribution system.

Similarly, in urban areas, installing meters and charging the correct price would reduce wastage.

Furthermore, encouraging the provinces to reform their agriculture taxation systems could be a major step in overcoming the entrenched political interests of powerful landowners and bringing agriculture into the tax net.

A direct tax would mean tax on income from agriculture (which is highly welcome), while an indirect tax would, at best, mean users’ charges on irrigation water consumed by a farmer, which would be too regressive to say the least as this would adversely affect small farmers while enabling the large ones to corner the available water and continue to indulge in waste.

The report says enough water reaches every city but does not reach the consumers because of outmoded and badly damaged distribution systems within the cities.

The report suggests the first priority should be replacement of or upgradation of the distribution system inside every city. Water received from pristine glaciers and rainfall is clean and pure.

It is contaminated by people throwing sewage, garbage and industrial and commercial waste into drains, canals and rivers. The first responsibility of society is to stop polluting the waterways and the ground water.

Implementing laws and extensive installation of water-treatment systems will stop water-borne diseases. Then there will be no reason why every citizen cannot get clean water from a tap.

— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.

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