Pakistan water crisis
Pakistan's water woes: There is little or no national awareness of the grim consequences if this life-sustaining national resource becomes even more scarce Image Credit: Harry Grout

Pakistan is water-stressed. And the stress is showing. For the last two weeks, two of its federating units, Punjab and Sindh, are at loggerheads over water theft.

Sindh, the lower riparian that channels all of the country’s cumulated water into the Arabian Sea, is complaining that Punjab, the upper riparian, is diverting some of the water to its own fields and thus causing harm to the sowing of the summer crops.

The Punjab government denies the charge and suggests that the water sharing formula is working fine.

The main body that decides and adjudicates such conflicts, Indus River System Authority (IRSA), itself has become part of the jarring debate. Its allocations for this season are challenged in the local assemblies by warring politicians and its members are busy churning out explanations.

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IRSA uses lots of numbers to explain how the complaints are being addressed and water supplies that fill up the dams and storages used for distribution in dry seasons have slowly started to inch up.

Pakistan receives most of its water from the melting of the ice up north and the Indus, its mightiest river, meanders across its full vertical length, gathering pace and volume through a dozen big and small rivers’ contributions on the way to the sea.

While extreme heat creates more water supplies, it also breeds immediate shortages downstream. If snows melt slowly and water supplies shrink, friction develops over stored water. Both Punjab and Sindh are agriculture-reliant provinces, whose agro-industry also provides billions of dollars worth of commerce and trade.

There are powerful lobbies involved too. It is not for the love of the farmers that fists are bared over water: big money and huge profits are also at work in these battles. IRSA’s latest figures show that finally water from the north has started to arrive to meet the farming needs.

Its spokesman claims that water arrival has reached 225,000 cusecs from 172,000 cusecs on May 28 and this way nearly 24% of the deficiency is already met. This should cool down tempers, but then not quite. There is still about 18% water shortage and that can worsen if temperatures continue to sizzle and cause additional urgent requirement. If that were to happen, more acrimony can ensue.

Divisive water politics 

Sindh’s political culture is replete with folklores and legends that are water-related and its imagined griefs and woes in local tales have a heavy hydro content. Punjab is named after five rivers: it literally means a land of five rivers.

It is the country’s farming base and being home to half of the country’s 220 million population is the breadbasket of the nation. Politicians take their water issues very seriously here. That is why as shortages fluctuated, tantrums flew like sheets of arrows.

This situation may calm down but the problem will not go away. One report suggests that in another decade and a half the country will be the most water-stressed in the region of South Asia.

As its population explodes and land cultivation and food security get automatically linked with national security, routine political wrangling over water can assume a grim internal crisis.

There have been warnings to this effect in the past many years and Pakistan has been able to also create a national water policy that every political party has signed on. The policy also contains a road map and a things-to-do list and yet the issue remains uncracked.

Pakistan is creating water-storage capacity through mega dam projects in the north but their completion is still years away.

The biggest of them all, the Bhasha Dam, will be operational in 2028. Another two-dozen small and medium-size dams are on the cards in the next two decades. Yet water storage itself will not provide the ultimate solution if water-guzzling crops like rice and sugar cane don’t give way to more water-economical produces.

Moreover, Pakistanis are spendthrift with water and there is little or no national awareness of the grim consequences if this life-sustaining national resource becomes even more scarce.

Without a nationwide, sustained campaign to give water consumption its due importance, and without finding innovative ways to shift the economic base from agriculture to industry, water woes will not go away.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12