(Edited version published in “The News” June 11, 2010)

It is not the first time that Pakistan has faced a major water crisis. In the early sixties, in many areas in Pakistan the water table had reached the level of the land giving rise to water logging and salinity. The government focused on the issue by increasing the use of ground water through large number of tube wells, which resulted in the drawing down of the ground water table and the salinity. Once again Pakistan’s survival is threatened by water. Pakistan is already one of the most water stressed countries in the world, a situation which is going to deteriorate into an acute water shortage. Direct rainfall contributes less than 15% of the water supply to the crops. Of the cultivatable areas of almost 77 million acres (MA) only 36 MA are canal irrigated. Pakistan has additional potential of bringing about 22.5 MA of virgin land under irrigation.

An annual average of 35.2 MAF of water escapes below Kotri, mostly in the rainy season. Flow pattern of Pakistan’s rivers is variable. They carry high discharges in summer and proportionately low discharges in winter. To save and utilize available water, construction of additional water storage facilities is essential. Pakistan’s dependence on a single river system means that it has fewer choices than country’s having a multiplicity of rivers and water resources.

Due to excessive sediment inflows in the river water, all three storages in Pakistan, Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma, are rapidly loosing their capacities. By the year 2013, these storages would loose almost one third of their capacity which virtually means loss of one mega storage reservoir. Creation of more storages is absolutely necessary for Pakistan, not only for firming-up of water supplies for existing projects but also to meet the additional allocations under the 1991 accord between the provinces. Pakistan lags behind its neighbors in developing almost 50,000 MW of its hydel power potential. Ground water, which now accounts for almost half of all our irrigation requirements, is now over-exploited in many areas and its quality is deteriorating. There is an urgent need to develop policies and approaches for bringing water withdrawal into balance with recharge.

The climate change is affecting the western Himalayas more seriously than the other mountain systems of the world. In the next few decades, river flows will increase which, together with more rainfall, is going to exaggerate the flooding and drainage problems, particularly in Sindh. After the glaciers have melted, there are likely to be serious decreases in river flows.

Pakistan, although it has invested massively in its water infrastructure, has not invested in its maintenance, as a result of which it is crumbling. Users of canal water in Pakistan pay a very small portion of the real cost. The balance comes from the tax payer. Since development money is scarce, the lack of resources results in most water infrastructure to be in a poor state of repair.

The solution to Pakistan’s water problems has two aspects, one how it can utilize its own potential and two how its potential can be affected by India. Amazingly, at the time of partition, the arbitral tribunal to settle water disputes arising out of partition presumed that water would continue as before partition. Not surprisingly, when the tribunal seized to exist on 31st March 1948, the very next day India stopped water supplies to Pakistan. After a number of years of squabbling, in 1960, through the auspices of the World Bank, India and Pakistan signed the Indus Water Treaty.

Under this treaty, Pakistan receives unrestricted use of the western rivers, Indus, Jhelum and Chenab. India was allowed exclusive rights to use waters of Ravi, Sutlej and Bias. The replacement works required by Pakistan as a result of this treaty involved 2 major dams, 5 barrages and 8 link canals. Although the Indus water treaty allocates the water of the 3 western rivers to Pakistan, it allows India to tap the considerable hydel power potential of the Chenab and Jhelum rivers, before they enter Pakistan. However while doing so the quantity of water reaching Pakistan and its natural timing must not be affected. Timing of course is an important issue because Pakistan’s agriculture not only depends on the quantity of water but also on its availability during the sowing season.

If the relationship between Pakistan and India had been normal, the Indus Water Treaty could have worked well. But the relationship is not normal. One of the restrictions that the Indus Water Treaty imposes on India for its hydel power projects on Chenab and Jhelum is to limit the amount of storage. Storage is what matters for changing the timing of flows. However this restriction is loosing its significance after the Baghliar Dam case. The restriction on storage at the time of signing of the Indus Water Treaty meant that the gates for flushing silt out of the dams could not be built. This meant that any dam in India on Chanab and Jhelum rivers would rapidly fill with silt. India’s argument in the case of Baghliar before the Neutral Expert appointed by the World Bank was exactly this. So while the Neutral Expert decided three issues in favor of Pakistan, on the forth one of building of gates, it ruled in favour of India. The result is that it has now left Pakistan without the mechanism for protection against manipulation of flows by India. When India chose to fill Baghliar it did so exactly at the time when it would incur maximum damage on farmers in Pakistan.

The problem is that Baghliar is not the only dam India has built on Chenab and Jhelum. India has commissioned 11 projects on Chenab and is contemplating about 74 projects on Jhelum. In due course India will have the capacity of impacting in a major manner the dimension of flows into Pakistan and will have the ability to damage Pakistan’s resources. Another crisis which is in the making is the Kishan-Ganga hydro electric project on Neelum river in India. The Indian plan to divert water from Neelum into Wullar lake and subsequently to river Jhelum, downstream from Pakistan’s Neelum-Jhelum hydro electric project, would seriously damage this project. The average flow of river Neelum would reduce by 21% which would not only cause energy losses amounting to billions of rupees but also serious environmental damage. Two things should be done immediately. One, the World Bank arbitration process should be activated and two, the pace of work at Neelum-Jhelum should be significantly increased. India is already doing that at their Kishan-Ganga project.

Pakistan’s water issues with India are about as important as resolution of the Kashmir problem. The two in fact are interlinked and therefore the resolution of the water issue should be part and parcel of any future relationship thaw between India and Pakistan. Pakistan has to invest soon in new large dams. WAPDAs vision 2025 should be pursued on a priority basis, under which four storage reservoirs are planned namely Yugo, Skardu, Bhasha, Kalabagh. There is an urgent need of one storage just to replace the capacity that has been lost due to sedimentation. We should also think beyond 2025 and start focusing now on other storage sites. There are many on Indus, Jhelum and off-channel. There are also hundreds of small and medium storage sites in all the four provinces which must be pursued. There is also enormous backlog of maintenance work required to be done on our water infrastructure.

Lack of transparency and trust has made the discussion of large dams a very difficult process in Pakistan. Amazingly, in most countries of the world, lower riparian is the greatest beneficiary of new storages. Sometimes lower riparian’s pay for upstream storage. In order to build confidence once again, there needs to be a totally transparent and verifiable implementation of 1991 water accord and sufficient water need to be guaranteed to the delta. Large investments are also required for the people who do not have water and sanitation services in Pakistan’s cities and villages. Pakistan also needs to invest in municipal and industrial waste water. Also principles have to be defined to govern how the cost of water infrastructure would be distributed among the tax payer and the user.

The problem is that in the last two years the PSDP has been cut by hundreds of billions of rupees. We don’t cut our huge expenditures and instead cut PSDP to achieve the IMF dictated fiscal targets. So where the money will come from for all these water projects is a big question mark

The writer is the Secretary General of Pakistan Muslim League and a former Federal Minister.