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Grand Vision for Pakistan’s Water Future

Water Future
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Dr. Hassan Abbas |

Some sticky, slippery and volatile hydrocarbons, sitting deep in the geological formations for millions of years, suddenly found their worth when ignited by internal combustion engines (ICE). That brought the world’s attention to Middle Eastern oil and Bedouins got rich. Indus waters have been flowing for millions of years. All we need is an ICE equivalent to ignite its true worth. What could be the ICE equivalent for Indus?

Indus River Basin today, unfortunately, stands as the only river basin of its size and scale that has been mercilessly cut, shut, divided, diverted and dammed to meet short-term goals, mostly political and/or serving interest groups, without any unified long-term basin-wide vision. Consequently, we have dams bigger than Hoover and more diversions than those in Colorado, yet the economy of the basin is drowning in debts and half of the country’s population is hovering just above or below the poverty line.

Strategically and economically, Indus Inland Waterway can become the backbone of Pakistan. This article expounds upon a grand vision for water management in Pakistan which is built around this strategic objective.

Typically, a “robbing Peter to pay Paul” or RPP-approach has been followed for the so-called ‘basin development’ in the incessant absence of a unified vision. People of Gharo in Sindh Delta or ‘Peters’ of the story, who were robbed of their waters are now sharing the trickles of non-saline polluted water with dogs, provided to the communities through sorry-looking engineering works financed by aid-dollars.

On the other end, people of the canal command areas in southern Punjab, or Pauls of the story, for whom river waters were diverted, are not much better off. Unfortunately, the irrigation command areas which were “made to bloom” with the diverted waters, get their domestic water supply from open ponds which could just as easily be mistaken as cesspools. For most communities at the tail-ends of the irrigation canals, such ‘engineered’ ponds are the only source of potable freshwater. The domestic water supplies situation as exemplified above is neither isolated nor trivial. They are representative of most of the villages in the Indus delta and over half of all the canal command areas of Pakistan.

Read more: Water Talks: Second round begins between India & Pakistan

The question then begs: where did we go wrong? We borrowed and spent tens of billions of dollars on the jugglery of hydraulic interventions in our river system but this is what we have today:

·        Both Peter and Paul are deprived of clean water for health and hygiene – a basic human right.

·        Communities are forced to live below dignity on both sides of RPP interventions, whether they were robbed off their water or they received the robbed booty.

·        The country’s economy remains drowned in debts.

After the air that we breathe, water is the most basic need in our life. If we are still stumbling over the second most basic need for living, how do we expect to go any further? Ethically, morally and financially speaking, fixing the worst problems first should be the investment priority in the water sector – not another dam up in the mountains which cannot address the most pressing of all needs.

Consequently, we have dams bigger than Hoover and more diversions than those in Colorado, yet the economy of the basin is drowning in debts and half of the country’s population is hovering just above or below the poverty line.

It is not true that prosperous societies have clean water, rather it is the provision of clean water that crafts prosperous societies. Today, we have to build a grand vision for water management around this simple concept by ensuring equitable provision of clean water to all segments of the society. Here is how a domino effect of providing clean water to the poorest communities can transform the water economy of Pakistan, making it stronger than that of the oil economies of the Middle East.

Read more: “Water shortage is now the top priority of the court,” says…

Invoking the Concept of Riverine well Fields

After leaving the mountains, Indus Basin’s major rivers run over approximately 1000 feet thick alluvial deposits of sweet soils. The porosity of these alluvial soils has a huge capacity of absorbing fresh waters from the flowing rivers and storing it in the pore space. The river-beds are wide, from a kilometer to more than 20 km at places, and their active floodplains are even wider, from 5 kilometers to more than 50 km.

Overall, the alluvial deposits, underneath and beside the rivers, form the corridors of fresh water repositories (or riverine alluvial aquifers) are capable of storing more than 3000 million acre-feet (MAF) of usable fresh water. There’s hardly a river system on the globe which has been blessed with such rich hydrogeological connections with sweet alluvium. Yet, unfortunately, this treasure-trove of hydrology has never been acknowledged in any water management plan of the past, no matter how grandiose, let alone exploited.

The flowing river continuously recharges the adjacent alluvial aquifers, and in the low flow season, the alluvial aquifers release water back into the rivers (a process called ‘baseflow’) – providing natural flow regulation and preventing the rivers from running dry. On average, 145 MAF of water flows through the rivers in one year, whereas the alluvial aquifers are capable of holding in excess of 3000 MAF. This implies that significant volumes of the river flow can be stored and released from the aquifer without worrying about a few drier years in a row. The trick for the future is to learn to manage the riverine aquifers.

After leaving the mountains, Indus Basin’s major rivers run over approximately 1000 feet thick alluvial deposits of sweet soils. The porosity of these alluvial soils has a huge capacity of absorbing fresh waters from the flowing rivers and storing it in the pore space.

Riverine well fields are one of the very effective management options to exploit the natural potential of our alluvial aquifers within the riverine corridors of active floodplains. A riverine well field is a set of relatively deeper tube wells installed very close to the river. The tube wells are put in a calculated geometry and follow a carefully worked pumping schedule to match different requirements of the day in different seasons. Through a system of piped water supply and overhead tanks, the water can be delivered over very long distances.

High pumping rates of riverine well fields are compensated by the matching aquifer recharge rates through the flowing river. And since aquifer storage is huge, blips in river recharge do not affect the supply pattern by the tube wells. With careful designs, riverine aquifers are the most sustainable groundwater management tools. In the Indus Basin, we have almost 7000 kilometers of a corridor along the rivers where well fields of different capacities can be established. Riverine well fields provide clean, filtered and drinking quality water if simultaneously we ensure no dumping of wastes in the flowing streams in the country.

Read more: Pakistan’s blue gold: A lurking fear

Kicking out Inefficient Irrigation

High capacity riverine well fields can serve both agriculture and domestic needs. It is high time to finally do away with the British legacy of too old, too leaky, and way too outdated, irrigation system guzzling 95 percent of water. We inherited an irrigation system from the British which was based on canals diverted from the rivers and flooding of fields – a system that was in vogue 8 to 10 thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. As pointed out by Saiyid Ali Naqvi in his book Indus Waters and Social Change, the irrigation system was not an outcome of social engineering but was motivated by colonial interests.

For example, the building of Bari Doab Canal (later Upper Bari Doab Canal) got some urgency following the annexation of Punjab and disbanding of Sikh army in 1849. The British, fearing possible regrouping of the disbanded army, put ex Sikh soldiers to work to dig the canal and where possible settled them on the land and encouraged them to become farmers. The work started in 1850 and continued till 1875 when the canal became fully operational. Similarly, work on the Sirhind Canal started in 1858. The project was a payback for the loyalty shown by the Maharaja of Patiala during the 1857 War of Independence.

The canal became operational in 1882 and provided lands and employment to the loyal Sikh states of Patiala, Nabha, and Jind. Canal command irrigation schemes served multiple purposes for the colonial masters – they bought loyalties of influential locals by granting them agricultural lands, they generated revenue from grains, they produced cotton which fed the British textile industry back home, and they provided employment to locals who could be fully controlled by managing the gates of the canals. It is quite an irony that we have continued with the same system that was built to serve colonial interests even after 71 years after independence, and even worse, we are still planning our 21st century and future ahead on 8 thousand years old technologies.

This implies that significant volumes of the river flow can be stored and released from the aquifer without worrying about a few drier years in a row. The trick for the future is to learn to manage the riverine aquifers.

Furthermore, we still continue with the British introduced warabandi system for allocation of water where farmers got water in turns for a specific time according to a pre-decided schedule. In the canal irrigated areas, water scheduling or warabandi the largest cause of tensions and feuds amongst locals. A perfect situation for the British, under their divideand- rule policy at all levels in society.

Improved irrigation efficiency can reduce today’s on farm water requirements by 50 to 70 percent. And because the water supply by riverine well fields, unlike the open channel gravity flow, is through pressurized pipes, this system can provide water in the irrigation sector without any constraints of ground elevations (in current canal based irrigation, fields with higher elevation either get lesser water or cannot be watered at all because canal waters cannot go up-slope). This system can, therefore, will bring more area under irrigation which is currently constrained by elevations. And per acre yields are always higher with efficient irrigation.

Read more: Pakistan appeals to World Bank over Indian violation of Indus Water…

Replacing gravity based canal flows with piped water supply will save more than 50 MAF of leakage and other losses from canals and watercourses every year. On top of it, on-farm water guzzling flood-irrigation, when replaced by efficient irrigation, will save another 25 to 30 MAF. This implies that the current consumption of 104 MAF in irrigation sector will be reduced to between 20 to 25 MAF, while the production will be increased due to higher per acre yields and additional area brought under irrigation. A net saving of more than 75 MAF is expected, which is equally more than 10 times the current storage capacity of Tarbela dam at 6.5 MAF.

Efficient irrigation connected to piped water supply will get water to the field wherever and whenever it is required by the crop – not when the farmer gets his turn. This system, therefore, will bring an end to the water feuds of a warabandi system that has kept sullying societal peace since the beginning of the canal irrigation system by the British. The peace dividend alone, that this system brings about in the rural societies, is worth billions.

After the above-mentioned interventions, we already have flowing rivers with an additional 75 MAF. Flowing rivers, on the one hand, ensure that riverine well fields keep getting the requisite aquifer recharge, and the other, the riparian ecology and biodiversity starts recovering which had been lost since the binge of damming and diversions began in the basin. On top of it, availability of water in the riparian zones of the river will help regenerate lost forests and dove-tail extremely well with the current tree-plantation drive in the country – through an environment of sustainability.

As a matter of policy, we must mandate that all energy needs to develop and operate these interventions come from renewable solar power systems. This will not only make the whole system more sustainable but will also cut down on the carbon footprint in our agriculture sector, raising the bar on low-carbon-green-growth standards for the rest of the world. The system will also put us at the forefront of world leaders in meeting Sustainable Development Goals – reduced poverty, clean water for health and hygiene, food security, lower carbon emissions, etc.

Read more: Governments’ hollow rhetoric on Pakistan’s expected climate disaster?

Water is Heavier than Oil

Pakistan can earn more from its Indus River than the Middle East does from their oil. Although oil is different from water, since water is heavier than oil, its dissimilarities are in Pakistan’s advantage – oil is not a renewable resource, water is; oil has alternatives, water has none; and, besides the Middle East, there’s oil in other parts of the world too, but there’s only one Indus River in the entire world that can bring world’s largest landlocked region closer to the open seas. From early to mid 19th century, the British had concluded through extensive studies that Indus is a navigable river.

But they decided not to develop it for navigation after being defeated in Afghan Wars and instead shifted focus towards irrigation. Geological setting of the river which ran the hydrologic cycle back then is still the same. The 21st-century tools and technologies today provide us with all the tools and other means required for developing Indus as inland waterways. Creation of a maritime inland navigation highway from the Arabian Sea in Pakistan to Jalalabad in Afghanistan could be the game changer in the region. If Pakistan can successfully develop this infrastructure, it will act like the ICE equivalent of Indus Basin compared to the Middle Eastern Oil.

Inland navigation, over the history, has been proven not just as a catalyst for economic growth but also an instrument of peace. Unlike dams and diversion which create rifts among the upstream and downstream users, inland navigation has helped unite people and fostered peace. Grand Canal of China is said to have kept the country united for millennia. Erie Canal in the USA was responsible for keeping the Union intact during the civil war. Danube-Rhine corridor has brought peace and prosperity among the nations of Europe who, as late as the 1940s, were fighting wars among each other.

It is quite an irony that we have continued with the same system that was built to serve colonial interests even after 71 years after independence, and even worse, we are still planning our 21st century and future ahead on 8 thousand years old technologies.

The greatest dividend of Indus Water Way could be a return of lasting peace in the volatile region of Afghanistan. Jalalabad could become the gateway to Central Asia, and of course, Pakistan would hold the strategic connection to the sea. The waterways, however, may not just be restricted to Indus. Other major tributaries – Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej too have the potential. And just like Jalalabad in Afghanistan, Gurdaspur and Ferozepur in India can also benefit from the Inland waterways through Ravi and Sutlej respectively.

Of course, for India to gain this advantage, they would like to release waters in Ravi and Sutlej. International relations are governed by the economy. Pakistan can gain a huge advantage over India by transforming its irrigation system to modern efficient ways, improve upon the environmental health of its rivers, cut down on greenhouse gases in transportation and agriculture sector and meet a number of SDGs. This would give Pakistan a much higher moral ground to lobby in the international community that India should release environmental flows for Sutlej and Ravi.

Read more: Water Scarcity: Pakistan’s dire condition

In the international community, then, India is left with little choice but to follow Pakistan’s model of sustainability, green growth, and water use efficiency. And perhaps at some point in time, India might like to take advantage of Pakistan’s waterways through Ravi and Sutlej. If that happens, this would bring the greatest peace dividend in the region. It might not happen any time soon, but Pakistan’s future vision for water management opens up this possibility for future, without any harm to the present. Strategically and economically, Indus Inland Waterway can become the backbone of Pakistan.

This article expounds upon a grand vision for water management in Pakistan which is built around this strategic objective. Today, our approach in water sector development is reactive, selective and fragmented without any holistic vision for future and sustainability. Sometimes there’s a sudden drive to install water filtration plants, and sometimes they start lining canals and watercourses, sometimes billions are borrowed for digging SCARP drains and tube wells. Yet none of such impulsive projects had any sustainability nor they followed any vision or grand plan.

The major causes behind our water woes are the outdated, outmoded and inefficient irrigation practices designed to serve colonial interests. Today we have added another problem in the shape of indiscriminate pollution of natural flow paths and aquifers – the sources of pollution include solid waste and sewerage dumping from domestic and municipal sources, heavy metals and chemicals from industrial sources, and, residues of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers from the irrigated areas. Unfortunately, impulsive drives have only treated the symptoms and ignored the causes. We have to get out of colonial designs and we have to fix the pollution problems.

Read more: Can India and Pakistan cooperate on water?

In a Nutshell

Our investment priorities should be governed and guided by the holistic and integrated vision for the water economy of Pakistan, which could be based on the following:

·        Develop strict guidelines and implementation procedures to avoid and control all types of pollution into water resources.

·        Get rid of outdated flood irrigation and do away with colonial legacies.

·        Adopt efficient irrigation practices of the 21st century.

·        Develop riverine well fields for clean, fresh and sustainable water supply for both agriculture and domestic purposes.

·        Rivers will then have enough flowing waters – let the rivers flow and restore the ecology of riverine corridors.

·        Develop businesses on the intrinsic value of water, e.g., developing water-front real estates, ecotourism, water sports, etc.

·        Invoke the grand economic engine of inland navigation.

This vision is in line with today’s global mind, it dovetails with the SDGs, it helps economic growth, it improves local and regional peace, it is synergistic with public health, it provides food security, it generates more employment, and, it brings us respect in the international community. It can help grow a lot of trees. The whole thing runs on flowing rivers. Dams are not needed. We are in the 21st Century.

Dr. Hassan Abbas is the Founder and Chairman of ZIZAK Ltd – an enterprise dedicated to creating knowledge products. He holds PhD in Hydrology and Water Resources from Michigan State University, USA. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 


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2 COMMENTS

  1. This is awe inspiring article but unfortunately it is beyond comprehension of our politicians and judges who are by stroke of dark stars are beacons of hope and controllers of our water resources. I being from tail end of the river Indus in Sindh can visibly see the havocs caused by DAMs on our north side and have faced consequences of out dated mode and usage of water in Indus basin. Because of these life long sufferings i am more open to new ideas about water management. However new system you explained, does it exist some where in the world? by the feel of it i see that system will be dependent upon electric power, i understand this power could be renewable solar power nevertheless that component of system will be very significant in terms of cost.

    Than you very much for writing such a elucidating and informative article.

    Mazhar Memon

  2. Dr Hassan thank you very much to write good article. But when I read n listen from technical experts that Pakistan is water scare country. Pakistan faces cute water shortage and face drought situation. How the sad. We lost 28 – 36 MAF water into sea. we lost 13 MAF Rodkohi water under system. We have rain water harvesting policy at all in our plans. From rivers to farm level, no proper monitoring system for irrigation net work. Rain water is lost in the Nullah/streets and ponds. We have 23 MAF Hect. Land for irrigation n we have 104 MAF water including 56 MAF from Ground abstraction. So Khudaaraa sach kahain ore ye kahain k pakistan ke pass paani hay plan naheen ore Power hay policy naheen. Is ke liye goverment ko Power Way & Water Way Police banana chaahiye. Phir dekhain aap kaa paani bhee pooraa hoga ore power bhee pooraa hogaa.

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