Water woes – planning ahead!

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Friendly Fire
Khalid Saleem
All of a sudden, citizens of this land of plenty find themselves faced with the crises that the country is faced with the ominous possibility of running out of water! Over the past several decades, the one commodity that this land and its people had never fallen short of was water. In fact, what the populace in general was very often afraid of was the surfeit of water in the shape of monsoon and floods that inundated vast expanses of the countryside. Then there was the issue of ‘water-logging’. And now things have come to a pass when the common man is thirsting for water. A television anchor was heard lamenting the other day that residents of Karachi, a city that boasts of a vast sea-shore, were actually thirsting for ‘a drop of water’. Makes a person wonder: what went wrong and where?
Before one goes into the why and wherefore in the rest of the country, let us spare a few thoughts for the affected residents of Karachi. To avoid the temptation of delving into extraneous issues, let us point a finger at the nub of the problem that lies in the almost ‘obscene’ expansion of the population of that city over the years. From a sleepy port town with a reasonable population and public facilities, Karachi has expanded several times over. Reasons for this are many, among them: 1) Its designation as the State’s capital; 2) Mass migration of ‘refugees’ from India mainly during the 1950’s; and 3) Sudden spurt of industrialization in greater Karachi. The fact that all State enterprises and institutions after independence opted (or were obliged to opt) to set up their headquarters in Karachi did nothing to help!
The solution to Karachi’s water problem should not be far to seek. Karachi is awash with a surfeit of water along its coast. Be it sea water, it is water nevertheless. The solution lies in a cogent plan to harness it and then to put it to use for the benefit of the residents. Desalination plants have been serving all over the Middle East for as long as one can remember.
Why do our powers that be not think of setting some up for Karachi rather than whining over shortage of river water? By doing this they may be killing two birds with one stone: overcoming the shortage of water for the use of Karachi residents and at the same time giving a re-think to Sindh’s objections against the construction of storage dams on the river Indus. Should that not create a win-win situation for the country as a whole? The matter of lack of resources may well be raised by planners. This can be overcome without much ado. Karachi happens to have more millionaires per square kilometer than any other area in the country. They could perhaps be persuaded to chip in to share the cost and why not!
Having come this far, a word or two about the so-called Tanker Mafia in our cities may be in order. Most (already deprived) residents of bigger cities are fast becoming victim of what can be termed as a catch 22 situation, in so far as the so-called water supply is concerned. The game being sponsored by functionaries of the city goes something in the following fashion. The municipal water supply – that is in name only – works only for a short while in the day and during this period the dripping tap supplies hardly enough to cover the base of the water tank. This water too disappears in a matter of an hour or so, leaving the residents for the major part of the day without a drop. This leaves the field wide open for the Tanker Mafia that swings into operation and that with a vengeance!
Looking at the broader canvas, the whole country periodically falls short of water year after year. The fact that our neighbour to the East continues to play ducks and drakes with provisions of the Indus Waters Treaty adds to the woes! We keep on whining about what could have been; but there is little use crying over spilt milk. What we need to do is to plan for the future and plan with a purpose. Shortage of water is a matter that cannot be taken lightly. The time to be practical, make cogent plans and act on them is NOW!
What we must not lose sight of is the inescapable fact that financial resources are not easy to come by. We just cannot afford to make grandiose plans. For once, let us plan keeping in mind the limits of our purse, such as it is. We need to make do well within our means. But go ahead we must. The first thing that is needed is to put behind us the regrettable tendency to put political and parochial considerations above human needs and national priorities. This is the sine qua non of a vibrant and thorough-going society. Let us, then, rise to the occasion and make an effort and (if necessary) the sacrifice it entails. If all goes well, it might even earn a niche for us in History Books; who knows?
There is no alternative to the construction of reservoirs to preserve and fruitfully utilize the available water resources. If a political consensus on construction of big dams is lacking, there should be no harm in making a modest beginning with small manageable conservation projects.
Our country is blessed with huge rivers. So far, we have done precious little to harness the water that overflows the banks during the flood season. So how about making a beginning with un-ambitious projects to micro-manage the flow of our major rivers, so that the extra water, when available, is channelled into small reservoirs (not dams) and preserved for the following dry season? The foregoing suggestion is not as impractical as it looks at first glance. If our irrigation experts (there are plenty) are commissioned for the task, the nation may well be in for a pleasant surprise!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.

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