During monsoon season, Pakistan will hurl $40 billion into the sea
Within the next 90 days, Pakistan will be wasting rainwater worth $40 billion. It is summer monsoon season, which runs from July to September and during which time the country receives 70 per cent of its annual rainfall. The Indus basin—the rain catchment area—feeds roughly 212mm at the maximum and 53mm in the minimum to the three major western rivers and a large number of streams and smaller rivers that finally drop into the major rivers. All rivers flow from north to south, emptying their surplus water into the Arabian Sea.
Every year, the monsoons give Pakistan approximately 140 million acre feet (MAF) of water, and it is unfortunate that most of it is wasted. No sane society, country and political leadership in the world would allow this precious natural resource to end up in the ocean. Rather, they would build dams, water reservoirs, and check-dams to recharge underground aquifers.
For too many decades, Pakistan’s economy and water policy have become politicised. Ethnic nationalism, particularly in the provinces of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been invoked by political elements to prevent the state from utilising its abundant water resources. Behind the regular arguments against big dams in Pakistan, like the displacement of populations, the real problem is a huge trust deficit among the provinces about equitable water distribution. It is the utter failure of both the military and political governments that they have not separated technical water issues from the politics of point scoring and playing to home galleries.
Sadly, the debate over the decades, particularly on damming the Indus river at Kalabagh in Punjab where the country was supposed to build its most feasible and second largest water reservoir, has turned polemical, complex and divisive. Fearing subversion and anti-state political mobilisation by ethnic groups in Sindh and KP, successive governments have kept this critical issue on the back-burner.
Before Pakistan’s independence in 1947, there was hardly any big water reservoir. The British authorities had built a small lake at Nomal in the Mianwali district of the Punjab in 1913 to collect water for local irrigation, and another at Spin Karzai in Baluchistan in 1945. In its early vulnerable years, India attempted a barely concealed policy of strangulating Pakistan’s water supply from canals flowing from the other side of the border. The purpose was to cripple the incipient country’s agricultural economy. After this, Pakistan started building a dam at the Kabul river near Peshawar with assistance from the US in 1955, and began planning an alternative to the canals emanating from India. With assistance from the World Bank, India and Pakistan settled their water dispute to an extent by signing the Indus Waters Treaty in 1962.
In the same period, while India has built more than 24 big dams and China in the hundreds, Pakistan didn’t construct more water reservoirs because of political wrangling.
Rasul Bakhsh Rais
The three western rivers became exclusive rights of Pakistan, while the three eastern rivers went to India. This was the final act in the partition of the Indian subcontinent.
Pakistan began building water reservoirs for irrigation and power generation in the 1960’s. Besides the Warsak, its first dam, Pakistan built Mangla and Tarbela dams in 1961 and 1976 respectively. Tarbela remains its largest reservoir, but silting and poor watershed management have caused loss of around 30 percent of the storage capacity for both these dams. Pakistan has been too slow in realising that with its population explosion and the increasing use of water for irrigation, industries and urban areas, it is water-stressed. Its per capita water availability has drastically decreased from 5,260 cubic feet per year, per person in 1951 to only 1,000 cubic feet in 2016.
In the same period, while India has built more than 24 big dams and China in the hundreds, Pakistan didn’t construct more water reservoirs because of political wrangling. With water scarcity and power outages hurting both industries and agricultural sectors, there appears to be a sense of urgency in starting work on dams and hydropower projects now. Additionally, climate change is causing the rapid melting of glaciers that contribute to 41 per cent of water flowing into Pakistan’s Indus water system, and makes it more urgent than ever to collect rainwater by building dams.
So far, two major logistical issues have adversely affected Pakistan’s ability to build those dams. First, the finances, as it has to borrow heavily from international financial institutions. Second, the political class in Pakistan which has been more eager to solicit investment in power projects run on imported fuel because they can be installed within a short period of time. The gestation period for dams and big reservoirs on the other hand, crosses the political tenure of their regimes and prevent any one party from taking credit. It is therefore a less attractive initiative though it is critical to the country’s survival.
According to information provided by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), there are nine dam and hydropower projects that are ready for construction. In drawing up a water vision 2025 document, Pakistan is now on track, but it will require consistency, consensus and political interest in building water reservoirs before the economy dries up and it is too late.
– Rasul Bakhsh Rais is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, LUMS, Lahore. His latest book is “Islam, Ethnicity and Power Politics: Constructing Pakistan’s National Identity” (Oxford University Press, 2017).