By: Akram Shaheedi

Head of PPP Media Cell

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, made telling observation when he wrote, ‘water is important for life, adding, water is life.’ Many countries are facing acute water shortage and Pakistan is no exception. As a matter of fact, water scarcity has been tightening its stranglehold around the nations with every passing year. Water management, its conservation, and its efficient use should have been the top priority of the governments of the countries where climate change has been taking toll during the last decades. Infuriatingly, despite the inevitable horrendous consequences posing threat to their existence, countries have not stood up to the challenge to stem the tide that has the potential to put their survival at great risk. It speaks volumes of their apathy as how they see the tomorrow. Nothing can be more hostile to the nations than the top leadership’s inability of not reading the writing on the wall what to speak of taking measures to rectify the situation on emergent basis.

In Pakistan’s perspective, the country is blessed with more than sufficient water resources. If harnessed nation’s enviable prosperity may be within reach sooner than later. Availability of cheap and strikingly clean hydel energy will cut down the cost of production of manufacturing goods accruing significant competitive edge in our favour in the international market. Besides, we will be saving billions of dollars now spending on the import of fuel oil that is double edge weapon. It has been making hole in national coffer and also permeating appalling amount of pollution. The devastation of floods can also be averted by building water reservoirs, and the water so stored can be used to boost agricultural production ushering an era of immense economic uplift of majority of the country’s rural population. Farmers’ increase in income will create vast demand for goods and services in the country creating huge job opportunities to meet the needs of emerging class of consumers. Poverty may become the relic of the past.

Delightfully, Pakistan may be quite capable of serving as the bread basket for many countries of the Middle East and Central Asia and beyond with dignity and pride.

Failure not to capitalise on the water resources will result in devastating implications not only for the country’s economy but also Pakistan’s standing in the comity of the nations. Pakistan has almost 80,000MW potential of hydel power generation whereas our total requirement is around 25,000MW during the peak season. Inexpensive hydel energy may keep the engine of the economy running at the optimum speed with cost-effectiveness hugely in the country’s favour. Water problems in Pakistan had been bone of contention among the federating units and between the federal and provincial governments. Had the successive governments paid due attention to this important sector the friction between the governments would have not occurred in any way? The redeeming feature would have also been the savings of precious financial resources amounting to billions of dollars those are now being spent on the import of fuel to generate seven times more expensive electricity, and emission of greenhouses gases as its by-product. Pakistan may remain on the tenterhooks of poverty and backwardness till such time it does not harness its most valuable asset available in the form of water from multiple sources.

In Pakistan, the successive governments cannot be absolved of the neglect of appalling proportion in this count. Pakistan’s water problems are fundamentally problems of water management rather than the water scarcity. Unfortunately, the mandarins, devoid of comprehending the gravity of the threat, are in a way drawing the doomsday scenario closer attributed to their unforgiving slumber. If the government does not come out of the inertia any time soon to rectify the fast deteriorating situation the resultant water shortage may turn the country into a food deficient country with serious socio-economic implications. The rendering of half of the population unemployed is the foregone conclusion. It may be mentioned here Pakistan attained the status of “Food Security Country” during the PPP previous government led by prime minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani.

Sadly, no major dam of worth mentioning was built in the country after the commissioning of Tarbela and Mangla dams whereas the demand continued to surge significantly with the growth of population and industrialisation. At the present rate, the population of the country may touch the figure of 300 million by 2050. The agriculture of the country will need more water to produce more food to feed the huge population. The provision of safe drinking water to the people to save them from the water- borne diseases may be the linchpin of the future health policies. Contaminated water is the major cause of deaths especially among the children. The phenomenal growth of the population requires the corresponding amount of water supply for its use including for the improved sanitation facilities. At present, more than 40% of the population does not have access to safe drinking water -- our head hangs in shame as a nation.

The war on terror has aggravated the water availability problem because of the large scale exodus to the urban centers away from the conflict zones. The floods in 2010 and 2011 also resulted in dislocation of two million people in the country forcing many of them to settle in urban centers permanently. Generally speaking, the urban population had risen disproportionately as a result. The educated people hailing from rural areas found jobs in cities and settled afterwards. This acceleration in urbanisation had put enormous pressure on resources of the urban centers further deteriorating the living conditions. Added water supply was required for the purpose of co-relating it to the enhanced domestic consumption. The growth of industry also needed water to realize its full potential.

Without sufficient supply of water the dream of industrial growth on fast track is base will remain a forlorn dream and prosperity as a far-fetched cry. The yield of crop will wane due to lack of adequate supply of water. The supply of raw material for industry will suffer leading to eroding the competitive edge of our products in the international market and resultant decline in country’s exports. The yawning gap between country’s exports and imports will put the country in a precarious financial position and the engine of growth will suffer hick ups of bearish trends. Water
conservation, its management and efficient use are of paramount importance even speaking from the national security view point. Country’s security will be in peril if its agriculture sector suffers a huge blow due to water shortage.

Water security is indeed synonymous to national security as mentioned above. Indian prime minister has been threatening our security by asserting to revoke the Indus Water Treaty when he said,’ blood and water cannot flow together’. Pakistan leadership decried such public statement of the Indian prime minister as an ‘act of war’. Sabre rattling and challenging roar of the enemy country‘s leader aimed at capitulating Pakistan will not succeed. The blustering of the Indian prime minister was meant for home consumption to win votes. The method in madness worked in his way as he won the elections beyond his expectations. However, Indian BJP government, most likely, may continue to play on Pakistan’s fear in order to extract concessions to build more dams on the rivers of Indus River System notwithstanding the binding obligations imposed on the signatories. But, Pakistan had to hold its ground unwaveringly because if an inch was caved in enemy would end up with a yard.

While the negotiations to adhere to the Indus Water Treaty may continue, the government should also keep it house in order so far as the use, conservation and replenishment of the water resources are concerned. It will be prudent if the government accords due priority to the water sector because of its profound importance to agriculture sector -- the backbone of the country’s economy. Its direct contribution to the GDP is around 20% whereas about more than half of the population‘s livelihood depends on this sector. Its contribution to the supply of raw material to agro-based industries cannot be overemphasised. Textile industry stands out in exports of the country that fundamentally depends on agriculture so far as the supply of cotton as raw material is concerned. Socio- economic development will remain a pipe dream in the absence of the water security. At present, its reservoirs’ storage is enough for forty days whereas the accepted standards are for 120 days. The reservoirs capacity of storage had also declined up to 20% due to the sedimentation. The urgent need of building Basha Dam and Monji and other dams is critical to overcome the fear of water insecurity.

God forbid, if drought does make its ugly appearance in Pakistan our present water storages will not be able to cope with calamity because our water reservoirs are only enough for 40 days. Our crops, livestock and the people living on the barren land will be devastated and the government’s limited resources will be no match to the exodus of massive scale analogous to human disaster. The survival of the people will be on the edge by any imagination. We should not wait for the worst case scenario. The political leadership of the country may huddle together sooner than later to formulate water national policy and the parliamentary committee may be mandated to oversee its implementation. Clock is ticking.