Pakistan is under water stress. And the stress manifests itself. Over the past two weeks, two of its umbrella units, Punjab and Sindh, have grappled with water theft.
Sindh, the lower waterfront that channels all of the country’s accumulated water into the Arabian Sea, complains that the Punjab, the upper waterfront, diverts some of the water to its own fields and thus harms seedlings summer crops.
The Punjab government denies the charge and suggests that the water sharing formula is working well.
The main body that decides and rules on these conflicts, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), has itself become part of the discordant debate. Its allocations for this season are being contested in local assemblies by warring politicians and its members are busy producing explanations.
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IRSA uses many numbers to explain how complaints are handled and the water supplies that fill the dams and storage used for distribution during the dry season have slowly started to increase.
Pakistan receives most of its water from the melting ice in the north and the Indus, its most powerful river, meanders its entire vertical length, increasing the pace and volume through a dozen contributions from large and small rivers on the way to the sea.
Although the extreme heat creates more water supply, it also causes immediate shortages downstream. If the snow slowly melts and the water supply decreases, friction develops on the stored water. Punjab and Sindh are agriculture dependent provinces, whose agribusiness also provides billions of dollars in trade and commerce.
There are also powerful lobbyists involved. It is not for the love of the farmers that the fists are bared above the water: a lot of money and huge profits are also at work in these battles. The latest figures from IRSA show that, at last, water from the north has started to arrive to meet the needs of agriculture.
Its spokesperson affirms that the water supply reached 225,000 cusecs of 172,000 cusecs on May 28 and that nearly 24% of the deficit has already been filled. It should calm people down, but not quite. There is still a water shortage of around 18% and this can worsen if temperatures continue to sizzle and cause additional urgent needs. If that were to happen, more acrimony could ensue.
Water policy that divides
The political culture of Sindh is full of folklore and legends related to water and its sorrows and misfortunes imagined in local tales have a high hydro content. The Punjab takes its name from five rivers: it literally means a land of five rivers.
It is the agricultural base of the country and home to half of the country’s 220 million inhabitants is the breadbasket of the nation. Politicians take their water problems very seriously here. That’s why, as shortages fluctuated, tantrums flew like arrow leaves.
This situation may subside but the problem will not go away. A report suggests that in another decade and a half, the country will be the most water-stressed in the South Asian region.
As its population explodes and land cultivation and food security are automatically linked to national security, routine political disputes over water can spur a serious internal crisis.
There have been warnings to this effect in recent years and Pakistan has also been able to create a national water policy to which all political parties have subscribed. The policy also contains a roadmap and a to-do list and yet the problem is not resolved.
Pakistan is building water storage capacity through dam megaprojects in the north, but their completion is still years away.
The largest of all, the Bhasha Dam, will be operational in 2028. Two dozen small and medium-sized dams are coming over the next two decades. Yet water storage by itself will not provide the ultimate solution if water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane do not give way to more water-efficient products.
In addition, Pakistanis are water spenders and there is little to no national awareness of the dire consequences if this vital national resource becomes even more scarce.
Without a national and sustained campaign to give water consumption the importance it deserves, and without finding innovative ways to shift the economic base from agriculture to industry, water problems will not go away. not.
Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @ TalatHussain12