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Reservoirs of contention

From a water abundant country at the time of Independence in 1947, Pakistan has become almost a water scarce country for want of building any major water reservoir after the construction of the Mangla Dam. Against 5,600 cubic meters of water per person in 1947, the availability of water per person had reduced to 1,100 cubic meters per head by 2009 and it might have further reduced over the last three years.

According to international water standards, countries having water reservoirs below 1,100 cubic meters water per person are considered among the chronic water shortage states. Pakistan’s thirst for water, a vital resource for people’s health, livelihood and economic development, has been constantly rising due to population growth, increase in industrial activity, over-exploitation, climate change and failure of successive governments to augment water resources by building more reservoirs.

The scarcity of water and electricity has impeded the sustained growth of the country’s agriculture and industry. But, unfortunately, some quarters in the country spare no effort in making even technically feasible mega-water conservation projects controversial, on one count or the other. Instead of considering such vital issues on merit and building consensus to tackle them, unfortunately, leaders and political parties of various hues remain engaged in settling scores, while successive governments have been compromising on projects of national importance for petty political gains. Whether it is Kalabagh dam, motorway, apportionment of water, royalty on electricity production or on exploitation of other natural resources like gas and oil, these have always stirred controversy among the federating units.

Taking advantage of political wrangling in Pakistan, India remains engaged in efforts to building scores of hydropower projects on rivers flowing into Pakistan despite her assurances, under the Indus Basin Treaty, not to interfere with the Pakistani rivers. Given the situation, India’s tacit role in making economically feasible hydropower projects in Pakistan controversial cannot be ruled out.

Historically speaking, under the Indus Basin Treaty, the World Bank had agreed to finance the construction of Mangla and Kalabagh dams aimed at compensating Pakistan for the loss of waters of its eastern rivers. President General Ayub Khan advised his team to fudge the estimates so that the country could build a third dam with World Bank funds.

Meanwhile, Kalabagh dam became controversial due to inability of the authorities to create awakening about its spin-off benefits and support for this project. Unfortunately, over the years the stand of the smaller provinces on this issue has become more rigid. Since water is crucial for human sustenance and also for industrial growth, economic prosperity and production of electricity economically, patriotism demands that all hydropower projects be taken-up purely on merit and technical grounds.

The Indus Basin Treaty was signed in 1960, after World Bank’s intervention, following rising of tensions between India and Pakistan after New Delhi stemmed the flow of Indus tributaries to Pakistan on April 1, 1948. Under the Indus Water Treaty, India has rights to waters of rivers Sutlej, Ravi and Beas (Eastern rivers) while Pakistan to the waters of rivers Indus, Chenab and Jhelum (Western rivers) as a lower riparian. Pakistan had accepted the treaty at the stake of its very survival and assurances from India that it would not interfere with the waters of Western rivers, but India never honoured its promises. New Delhi started tempering with Pakistani rivers, at a massive scale, beginning 1980s.

It goes without saying that the availability of fresh water is essential for mankind’s sustenance, progress and prosperity. But, this vital and life-sustaining resource is becoming a scarce commodity, raising apprehensions of friction, tension and conflict amongst communities inhabiting the globe. Although earth’s surface is largely covered with water, but only three per cent is freshwater, which is available to the global community for meeting its entire needs — household, industrial, irrigation for food production, etc. Even the UN Environmental Agency’s (UNEA) warning about a looming water crisis in South Asia have not been able to create consensus in Pakistan about building reservoirs of crucial importance, like Kalabagh dam.

Despite the scarcity of water resource, even the available freshwater supply is under stress due to the drying-up of river basins, burgeoning human population, increased urbanisation, climatic change and detrimental policy choices. While Pakistan has been able to utilise only 13 per cent of its hydel resources during the last 65 years, some countries make optimum use of these resources. For example, USA has developed 497 per cent storage capacity of the annual flow of river Colorado, Egypt 281 per cent on river Nile and India 35 per cent on Sutlej and Beas Basin. Meanwhile, fearing scarcity of water, many nations remain engaged in building mega water reservoirs. China is building 95 major dams with a height of 200 feet or more, Turkey 51, Iran 48, Japan 40 and India 10.

Naturally, Pakistan’s inability to harness its water resources surprised many a visiting dignitaries. During a visit to Pakistan in 1998, President Suleman Demirel of Turkey was flown over river Indus to show him the Karakoram mountain range. In his book “Glimpses into the corridors of power,” the then Minister for Water and Power, Gohar Ayub Khan, writes: En-route, Demirel asked one of his ministers to look out of the window and tell him what he could see. The minister replied: “I see vast barren mountains.” The President asked him to have a better look, but the minister gave him the same answer. The president looked out and said, “Look at river Indus, it is untapped power for Pakistan.”

Even during good old days when per capita availability of fresh water was sufficient, water sharing often raised tensions and caused conflict between neighbouring communities. Prudence demands that all vital issues, like Kalabagh dam, should be considered on merit and merit alone. But, unfortunately, the Kalabagh dam issue has been politicised by the vested interests, whose politics thrive on opposition to the dam irrespective of its viability and utility for the country.

The fact remains that politics of some political parties/factions thrive on their opposition to the Kalabagh dam. Unfortunately, these circles do not want to listen to any arguments, like after reducing its height there’s no danger of sinking of Nowshera district. Even the Punjab government’s surety that it will not use water more than its share has not helped in the softening of their stance. How unfortunate? No one considered the long-term benefits of the dam, which can produce 4500 MWs of cheap electricity and irrigate 800,000 acres barren land, including in Bannu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But, the fault primarily lies with the successive governments which failed to build consensus on this vital issue.

While nature has blessed Pakistan with enough hydro resources to meet its growing needs for electricity and irrigation over the next 15 years, these resources have so far largely remained untapped for one reason or the other. Resultantly, water scarcity has emerged as one of the main hurdles to increasing the food production. Experts feel that if more water reservoirs are not built, the present shortage of 40 million acre feet (MAF) of water would increase to 100 MAF by the year 2013 and to 150 MAF by 2025. The water scenario becomes more critical, especially when the storage capacity of the existing water reservoirs has depleted by some 30 per cent due to silt/slush.

Pakistan uses about 50 per cent of the 140 MAF of its available run-off water, i.e. water that falls on the country and is collected in rivers, lakes and streams, in a normal year. It draws about 70 MAF from underground springs and natural reservoirs. Of the 210 MAF water, some 100 MAF is consumed for irrigating 40 million acres of land, while some 40 MAF reach the Indus delta. Over 36 MAF of water, which escapes to the sea, can be controlled and utilised for irrigation and generation of pollution-free hydropower.

Hydropower is comparatively more economical to thermal energy. If it is used on a wider scale it can provide tariff relief to the consumers, involve Pakistani manpower in the planning, designing and manufacturing of machinery besides accelerating the pace of economic development in the country in general and the remote rural areas in particular. Currently, WAPDA generates about 35 per cent hydropower and 65 per cent thermal power. Being costly, the latter source of power has landed the fuel supplying and the electricity generating companies in a chronic trap of circular debt.

Alauddin Masood is a freelance columnist based at Islamabad.

E-mail: alauddinmasood@gmail.com

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