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Monday, September 18, 2023

Addressing the Mismanagement of Water Resources

Former Chairman WAPDA argues that today's crisis in the water sector is not related to the 'hardware' of low reservoir capacity but the 'software' of institutional operational mismanagement. It is poor regulation and a failure to modernize the system, compounded by unchequered population growth and lack of modern farming that is turning Pakistan into a water-stressed country.

The development and management of the water infrastructure in Pakistan over the last few decades following the Indus Basin Treaty in 1960 were lauded across the world. Sadly, the last many years experienced much neglect in establishing complementary projects and the absence of scientific water management.

Today we find ourselves in a precarious position where water availability per capita has decreased nearly five-fold since partition, as the country becomes a net importer of food items. Presently, water use in all forms is characterized by shortages, wastages, and contamination.

The politicians and the water bureaucrats have failed the country in multiple ways. Before dilating on specific water issues, it should be unequivocally stated that adding 5 million people annually to our population will lead to severe shortfalls in providing food, water, shelter, and employment in the immediate future.

Read More: Pakistan aiming to conserve water builds & upgrades water courses

A population growth rate of nearly 2 percent annually, compared to 1.1 percent in Bangladesh and India, is not economically sustainable. Pakistan Social and Living Standards Measurement survey showed that about 16 out of every 100 households faced moderate to-severe food insecurity last year, and this percentage would continue to rise in the years ahead.

The main reason behind the shortfall is the failure to adopt modern farming and water-use practices despite being an agricultural country. According to a report prepared by the Pakistan Business Council, a business policy advocacy group, the crop yield per hectare of Pakistan’s agricultural productivity ranges between 50 percent-70 percent lower than the world’s best averages for major commodities.

The yield per hectare of wheat, cotton, sugarcane, and maize productivity is appallingly low compared to Egypt, Brazil, and the Philippines. For example, the country produces 2.5 tons of cotton per hectare, 52 percent of the 4.8 tons produced in China.

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Sugarcane yield stands at 63.4 tons per hectare in Pakistan, which is 50 percent of the 125 tons Egypt produces, while maize productivity is estimated at 4.6 tons per hectare, again less than half of what is produced by more developed countries.

It should be remembered that such low productivity is experienced despite excess irrigation water needlessly being applied by our farmers. Misuse of water, in turn, leads to water-logging and salinity, as has been the case in parts of Sindh and Punjab, where saline water levels have risen to within a few feet of the surface.

Experts lament that new water storage was not constructed after the Mangla and Tarbela dams were built fifty years back. Since then, thanks to President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Mr. Shaukat Aziz, the Mangla Dam raising and the Gomal Zam works have been completed increasing the net storage capacity by 3.5 million acre-feet. Further, during their term of office, feasibility studies and preliminary groundwork were undertaken to construct the Diamer Basha and Mohmand Dam reservoirs, currently under construction.

Poor supervision and regulation

Today’s crisis in the water sector is not related to the ‘hardware’ of low reservoir capacity but to the ‘software’ of institutional operational mismanagement. There are plenty of examples; canal water is treated almost free of cost by the influential landowners leading to its blatant misuse, particularly in head reaches; even the maintenance costs collected through ‘Abiana’ or water cess is priced very low, and many do not even pay this amount.

‘Abiana’ rates across the board have decreased considerably in real terms compared to those prevailing in 1970. In terms of produce equivalence, it is only 14 percent for wheat and 35 percent for sugarcane. Even groundwater is deemed free of cost except for the pumping charges incurred.

Secondly, high water-use deltaic crops like sugarcane and rice are soaked in irrigation water conveyed through hundreds of miles of canals from Himalayan storages at costs external to the growers.

In the rest of the world, such high-water use crops are dependent on rainfall. The recent spread of the sugarcane crop beyond its conventional growing areas at the cost of cotton is also a matter of concern.

Read More: Pakistan likely to go underwater again

Thirdly, such is the poor state of water availability that most large cities like Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Islamabad, and above all, Quetta, experience medium to severe municipal waters shortage even as the share of agricultural water use is decreasing below 90 percent.

Water wastage and pollution in urban areas can be controlled considerably through stricter municipal governance and adequate billing through water meters to cover costs. Finally, there is an insufficiently functioning system of ‘water accounting’ in the country.

It has been reported that there is no credible information about the total availability of water in the system and about the percentages being utilized by different subsectors like agriculture, industry, urban areas, human habitation, system losses, evaporation, and overflows into the sea.

It would appear that the provinces are not effectively implementing the telemetry mechanism. Complaints are heard that both Punjab and Sindh may be diverting up to 10-15 percent more water than is officially acknowledged. Some believe that the amount of water stolen or diverted unofficially may equal storage in at least one of our large reservoirs.

Read More: 10 crore citizens to get clean drinking water in Punjab: Governor

The absence of an apex body in the country to supervise, regulate and redress malpractices and infringements of the accepted procedures has resulted in dysfunctional operations. The lone telemetry station that provides accurate readings of water diverted is the Chashma barrage telemetry station, perhaps because this is the only station managed by a Federal entity, the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA).

When no one precisely knows how much water is diverted and the extent of water recharge within the Indus basin, serious complications will result. These developments do not augur well for the country’s future. Issues of lack of trust among stakeholders and the alleged misreporting by some of them need to be resolved quickly. One way of doing so is by entrusting the Indus River System Authority or WAPDA with the statutory responsibilities of physically conducting the telemetry operations in all provinces.


The author is a former Chairman of WAPDA and has served as Chief Secretary of KP, AJK and Sindh.