Jul 24

Water, water, everywhere …

Posted on Friday, July 24, 2015 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

Pakistan is devastated by floods every year. The Economic Survey calculated that the country lost over 3,000 lives and more than $16 billion to floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012. The National Disaster Management Authority estimated the negative impact of floods on the economy of over $2 billion in 2013 and damages to over 1 million acres of standing crops. But how many Pakistanis know that their country has been classified by international environment agencies as the third most “water-scarce” country in the world, more “stressed” than the likes of Ethiopia and some other semi-desert African countries where famine, drought and disease are common?

Water availability per capita in Pakistan in 1947 was 5600m3. By 2020, experts claim it will be down to 855m3, a shortfall in minimal needs of over 30%. By contrast, it is 6000m3 in the USA, 5500m3 in Australia and 2200m3 in China. A new IMF report has sounded the alarm bell. It claims that Pakistan’s water intensity rate — the amount of water, in cubic metres or m3, used per unit of GDP — is the world’s highest, suggesting that its economy is more water dependent than any other country’s in the world. Such levels of rising water consumption and depletion have dangerous consequences: the underground aquifers of the Indus Basin are the second most stressed in the world and groundwater levels, for example, are plunging by several metres every year in rapidly urbanizing parts of the country.

The situation is aggravated by inexorable climate change. Pakistan emits less than 1% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions but is most vulnerable to climate change – rising temperatures and glacier-melt in the Himalayas threaten the life-blood flows of the country’s rivers – with very low technical and financial capacity to adapt to its adverse impacts. This trend is forecast to continue, with serious adverse consequences.

So if these dire warnings are routinely sounded, why hasn’t anything been done to avert the looming crises? Why haven’t we built more dams and reservoirs for better water usage? Why haven’t we resolved our political problems with upper riparian India so that India stops obstructing downstream river flows? Why haven’t we improved water administration and governance, why haven’t we reformed water-pricing formulas to reflect true costs and benefits to consumers? Instead of heavily subsidizing it from our annual budget, why haven’t we taxed the agriculture sector that consumes 90% of the country’s water resources? Why can’t we repair and maintain our canal systems so that we can free about 75 million acre feet of water and close the gap between supply and demand? Why can’t we restore the significant loss of storage capacity of the Mangla and Tarbela Dams? (Pakistan’s total dam storage constitutes only 30 days of average demand as compared to 220 days in India). In short, why can’t we fund new water infrastructure projects and water-conserving technologies?

Part of the problem lies in the lack of political will in cutting subsidies and reforming tax policies, especially in the rural sector that controls parliament and makes laws. Land ownership is a proxy for water rights no less than political clout. No political party wants land reform. No party wants to cut subsidies to the fertilizer and sugar sectors and lose elections. Part of the problem lies in the failure of the ruling classes to construct a national interest narrative that transcends provincial, regional and ethnic rivalries and demands – that is why the Kalabagh Dam hasn’t been built, that is why extraction and distribution of energy resources is now becoming problematic, that is why even the Chinese Belt project has now become enmeshed in sub-nationalist passion. Part of the problem is related to an unstable political system that is periodically derailed by a powerful military that controls the national security narrative. When civilians can’t be sure they will rule for their full five-year terms, why should they waste time pouring over long-term blueprints to salvage the national economy when quick fixes and “yellow” handouts will stitch up the next election? Except during the first bout of military rule under General Ayub Khan from 1958-68 when the Planning Commission ruled the roost with Five Year Plans and water infrastructure projects were undertaken, military dictators Zia ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf had to make too many political and economic compromises for survival to think of long term projects in the national interest. Even do-gooding international donors are getting tired of revising funding requirements for such infrastructure projects because our sovereign guarantees are based on highly dubious budget forecasts and economic targets.

It took 25 years for the military establishment to realize that creating religious non-state actors for sum-zero foreign policy objectives could pose an existential threat to the country. How much longer will it take the elected civilians to realize that the country faces another existential threat? This one from lack of adequate provisioning for rationalized taxes to provide funds for long-term water infrastructure projects in the national interest.

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