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Overcoming Pakistan’s Water Challenges

by Erum Khalid Sattar
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The Mangla Dam water reservoir. Sajjad Qayyum—AFP

How we got here and how we should move forward

Water is the driving force of all nature—Leonardo Da Vinci, 1452-1519

Water is the life blood of agriculture—M. Fazil Janjua, Federal Minister for Food, Agriculture and Cooperative, 1979-1985

In 2015, over 300 people succumbed to the ravages of long-term poverty, hunger, and malnutrition in Tharparkar, Sindh. While all these issues contributed to the tragedy, ultimately it was the famine that resulted from a failure of the annual monsoon rains that tipped them over the edge. The following summer an Al Jazeera reporter captured a telling snapshot of daily life: “It is 9 a.m. on a hot, windy summer’s day in Mithrio Soomro village when local women gather around a well to collect water. Aqeela, who says she has 10 to 12 children, is pulling the thick, rough rope tied to the well along with a few other women—a job typically assigned to a donkey.”

Challenging facts

Let’s start with some simple facts. Water moves. That’s it. Pause on that for a second. But how it moves within the world’s largest contiguous irrigation network across a vast distance from the foothills of the Himalayas to the Arabian Sea is a matter of human design. Which is a function of power. What we must do first of all then is to understand the power of water, or of water as power. 

About 95 percent of Pakistan’s freshwater is consumed by irrigation. It is only once we fix our water consumption through irrigation that we will be able to tackle the bulk of Pakistan’s mismanagement of its water resources. There is a great need for us to understand the fundamental reasons that have resulted in countless daily ignominies for a population already poor, malnourished and unable to achieve its full potential. 

Many people in Pakistan pride themselves on the fact, which they learned in school, that their country has ‘the world’s largest contiguous (interconnected) irrigation network’. And yet an additional fact sounds a dissonant note with pride in our water system: nearly 45 percent of the population suffers from malnutrition, hunger, stunting and all the attendant effects of food poverty. This latter fact should, at a minimum, lead the country to demand more from the irrigation network of which it is so proud.

This same irrigation network’s length of the main canals alone—nearly 40,000 miles—is around one and a half times the circumference of the globe. In fact, the very value of having irrigated lands at such an extensive scale should be questioned. And having the ability to manage water at such large scale should be linked to critical aspects of the country’s development. Pakistan can no longer continue to manage water as if it has very little to do with overall national development. In fact, if the country is able to make the transition to more able water management, it will lay the foundation for enduring national development.

A mango grower inspects a laborer undertaking irrigation work on his farm near Multan. Farooq Naeem—AFP

Rainfall and irrigation

In some countries, like parts of Brazil, there is “rain-fed” year-round agriculture, that obviates the need for an extensive irrigation system.  In Pakistan, by contrast, rainfall by itself, without artificial irrigation management, is neither sufficiently plentiful nor regular enough to enable year-long planting. Further, about 65 percent of farms are less than 12.5 acres, which the British referred to as a “subsistence holding.” About 90 percent of farms, meanwhile, are less than 25 acres. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly for those who advocate an efficient model of farming with consolidated landholdings, approximately 60 percent of farms are fragmented into two or three (which is the most common) or more parts due to inheritance laws, which have over the years divided contiguous landholdings through devolution to different family members.

Farms larger than 25 acres tend to encompass 40 percent of total farming area; of this, though, only a little more than a third is cultivated. The cultivation of such a low percentage of available land is due to several reasons, including lack of incentive for increasing production, poor salt-affected lands, and fear that tenants will establish tenurial rights. Impoverished landholders with limited assets do not have enough property or accompanying water rights (much of which they also have a hard time actually realizing) to go far beyond heavily subsidized and circumscribed farming. Meanwhile, larger farmers are not unleashed, and even worse, are disincentivized from establishing commercial farming on industrial scales. Whether smallholder or commercial, it is essential to recognize that Pakistan, through the apportioning of irrigation water, is committed to neither category of farming. In other words, there is no clear policy in place for the country’s future, no questions about big or small and how much of each. In effect, whatever does happen ends up supporting no one.

And where is the technology? Food and crop production are increasingly the home of technological innovation, adaptation and implementation. In a country not known for the fast pace of its technological adaptation, the logical place to begin to develop, deploy, experiment with and further keep feeding into a continuous stream of technological innovation would be its water and agricultural economy. But that, like many other important things, is not the prime focus of the push to do something to improve the country’s water management. In comparing agricultural yields of major commodities, such as wheat, it is worth mentioning that Pakistani Punjab compares less favorably even to neighboring Indian Punjab, much less to highly productive parts of the world such as the United States and Australia. Given the vastly different resources of the country these outcomes are no surprise but Indian Punjab, at least, should be a comparable site.

The danger of salts

Salt content in the soils has been building up for decades. This is a consequence of irrigation with too little water without proper drainage (acutely needed on flat lands with a very small gradient) and high evaporation. This is the inevitable result of spreading too little water too thinly as widely as possible to settle as much land as possible, a leftover of the colonial antecedents of Pakistan’s canal irrigation network. Every day we are destroying our country’s soil health—think of it as killing the very land from which we need to produce what sustains us. The country suffers from a combination of unfavorable factors that combined depress yields: fertilizer use is 30 percent of recommended quantity; non-certified seeds are used; pests and diseases are not well controlled; all of these occurring along with perennial problems of waterlogging, salinity, and non-optimal planting practices.

Maintaining proper salt balance is no doubt a very difficult task, requiring constant diligence since it depends on managing the type of soil in a particular area, coping with the effects of high evaporation rates because of high temperatures, and providing sufficient water to keep the salts below the root zone of plants. Salts in soils depress yields. In the assessment of the late Professor John Briscoe of the World Bank and Harvard University, “salinity management is the biggest and most fundamental environmental challenge in the Indus Basin.” Essentially, water delivery doesn’t match crop water requirements and the water that is used constantly deposits salts on the soil. 

Pakistan’s Commissioner for Indus Waters, right, talks with his Indian counterpart during the first day of meetings to discuss the Indus Waters Treaty on Aug. 29, 2018. Arif Ali—AFP

The Indus Waters Treaty

As already noted, water moves. Add on to that the fact that Pakistan’s irrigation network has colonial antecedents, the rationale of which the country has totally internalized. Water moves in one very important sense that is opposite to the deliberate design to which constructed irrigation systems lay claim: It moves without anyone really wanting it to when it crosses inconvenient borders.

Since its creation, Pakistan has had to tackle the fact that the bulk of the rivers on which it has built massive reliance flow across international and oftentimes disputed borders. Only 56 percent of the catchment area for the whole Indus River basin lies within Pakistan. This means that a huge portion of where the Indus rivers originate lies outside Pakistan’s territorial jurisdiction. Protecting and preserving a river’s watershed is a critical undertaking—particularly during an increasingly unreliable climate regime.

Despite the existence of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, itself signed after a long period of protracted negotiations between Pakistan and India with the World Bank as an intermediary, Islamabad has very little say or control over what happens to the watersheds of the rivers in territory that lies outside its control. The Treaty’s mischiefs and the lack of trust between the two parties are all relatively well-known.

A key point is that because the Treaty was undertaken almost exclusively by engineers, it focuses largely on placing structural specifications on infrastructure that India can develop on the so-called western rivers that flow through territory it controls before the rivers enter Pakistan. The flow of the rivers, meanwhile, is allotted to Pakistan, and the Treaty’s infrastructure specifications were designed so that Islamabad felt relatively safe as to both the timing and volume of water flowing into it. Of course, contestation around these safeguards has increased significantly in recent years and the names of such Indian projects as Baghlihar and Kishanganga have become the stuff of common parlance.

More importantly however, the Treaty does not provide Pakistan with any safeguards about the long-term health of the watersheds of the rivers, such as protecting forest cover that in turn will ensure good soil health to protect the pathways through which water flows down to the Indus plains. Given the extreme vulnerability of these delicate ecosystems, especially in an era of ever-more complex climate change, the fact that there are no Treaty obligations on India to protect the watersheds is a huge gap and one that Pakistan should work to address.

Despite current tensions and the ever-changing nature of the relationship between Pakistan and India, it is hoped that planners with foresight can come to understand that any country that relies on land it does not control for the health of its rivers systems needs to be at the forefront of crafting proposals that take advantage of the best science and to advance them judiciously. And hope that one day, in the not too distant future, the politics of transnational relations turn to their advantage.

Reliance without regulation

Just as water spreads, so too do other ecological forces throughout the system. Scale has political and environmental consequences. Intensive irrigation leads to concentrations of salts in the topsoil that poison the fields from which farmers draw their livelihood; this depresses yields and may in turn lead to reduced viability of irrigated agriculture. Signs of this over-taxing of the water supply have been visible from the earliest days of modern irrigated agriculture in the Indus in the form of waterlogging and salinity.

The advent of the Green Revolution in the 1960s only accelerated the effects of this twin menace. The ‘Green Revolution’ (the particular technology package of new, high-yielding seeds combined with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and the availability of groundwater accessed by newly sunken wells, or ‘tubewells’) increased the demand for water while leading to higher salt deposits on the soil surface.

Resultantly, farmers needed more water both for crop needs as well as for flushing the additional salts being deposited on their lands, leading to them digging ever deeper tubewells to extract fresh groundwater. Water from these deeper underground wells enabled farmers to meet the greater water requirements of high-yielding seeds and also to leach their soils of salts through the pumped groundwater. The resulting over-pumping by individual irrigators resulted in rising soil salinity, which in turn has contributed to lower crop yields from soils with greater salt content, a classic commons problem. 

International experts initially suggested the installation of capital-intensive technology that had to be state-led, since the state was the only party large enough to plan and borrow at scale. In time, though, with pumps getting cheaper, a boom in private well drilling occurred, leading to an estimated 1.1 million tubewells installed by farmers in the basin to meet the inadequacy of surface water supplies for meeting the water requirements of the new seeds.

Meanwhile, there is as yet no regulation on groundwater across Pakistan.

Given that it is estimated that in freshwater zones where sweet water is available, groundwater adds an estimated additional 50 million acre-feet of water annually for crop water requirements, the sheer scale of this source of water for total irrigation needs must be appreciated. On average, annual surface water flows hover around 105 million acre-feet, so groundwater is responsible for approximately one-third of irrigation requirements.

Drought-affected residents of Tharparkar wait for relief supplies at a state-run distribution center in Mithi, 2014. Rizwan Tabassum—AFP

National emergency

Pakistan must declare a national water emergency. At a minimum, it should wake people up to the realization that having the world’s largest contiguous irrigation network is nothing to be proud of in and of itself. Our extensive irrigation network is the result of an historical residue—more precisely, of the country’s British colonial history in pre-Partition India.

Before taking pride in this received legacy, the country must pause and ask the foundational question regarding how it is that a country that, to date, struggles to build all kinds of infrastructure and that is perpetually short of funds for capital investments also happened to be the “beneficiary” of ‘the world’s largest contiguous irrigation network’?

Knowing this vital irrigation history is a first step in productively moving forward from this received colonial endowment; it will enable us to be clear about what Pakistan’s actual critical water needs are and realize that there is currently no one body or even a dispersed set of institutions working in their respective spheres to deliberate on these issues.

Who designed the system as it is today? Why did they do so? What are the continuing effects of that initial design? In short, we need to examine path dependence, the way in which current options in a given circumstance are shaped and limited by decisions made in the past, even though past circumstances that motivated the decisions may no longer be relevant; We must question the politics of Pakistan’s water economy and its “humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interactions” in the well-known phrase of Nobel laureate economist Douglass C. North. 

The Rajs Project

Most of all, what are the rules of the game that structure who, and at what time, has water, and how were those rules devised? Why did the British create the particular irrigation network they did? Broadly, the British rulers of pre-Partition India had three main reasons for laying the colonial-era foundation of Pakistan’s present-day canal irrigation network. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British built the so-called canal colonies with goals of control, pacification and revenue generation in mind, with an eye to increasing subsistence farming in a way that tied together newly conquered territories after the annexation of Punjab and the Sikh Army that ruled the region in 1849.

Prior to Queen Victoria assuming the ‘Empress of India’ title, Britain’s political class was deeply concerned about the advancing Russian conquest of Central Asia, which meant that the Russians were only a few days’ march from English dominions in India. The assumption by the Queen of England of a new title signified the depth of England’s commitment to retaining India as a crown jewel within its realm. At the same time, to help stave off the effects of famines in India and develop a reliable land settlement and revenue scheme for the government, the British undertook large-scale land irrigation and water transfer schemes to settle newly defeated Indian soldiers in Punjab, part of which came to Pakistan at Partition. The government evaluated these schemes for their profitability: their ability to provide promised returns to investors in London.

It is important to recognize that the British Raj placed more weight on the scheme’s profitability and less on providing people with the property rights that might have opened the way to property as a well-recognized path—which at the time it certainly was—to the development of freer societies. When the American Civil War, for example, blocked the flow of cotton to mills in England, developing canal irrigation in India became even more urgent.

In other words, the economic feasibility of canal works increased due to increased projections for the sale of cash crops, in particular cotton for the mills of Manchester. In short, the colonial government had a complex set of reasons for undertaking large-scale water-carrying irrigation schemes and none of these reasons was focused on the uplift of the people over whom imperial rule was imposed—the key drivers being, instead, social and state stability as well as a permanent revenue stream for the imperial government.

Right direction

Pakistan must immediately begin to shift its focus to improving the management of its present resources instead of concentrating almost exclusively on adding additional sources of supply. This does not mean we shouldn’t also try to add supplies; no responsible person can reasonably hold that a country with a low level of development does not need to focus on building additional infrastructure.

The problem rather is more subtle: given the very limited human resources at our disposal, coupled with the huge demand on limited resources, our ability to undertake so-called mega projects is limited. One way to understand the issue of limited human and financial capacity is to think of mega-projects as sucking up all the oxygen in the ecosystem. Given a direction to undertake infrastructure development, the federal and provincial bureaucracy is left with little bandwidth to work on everything else that needs doing.

Given the number of dams in the pipeline (WAPDA’s Vision 2025 lists several), announced incremental contributions to national financial outlays that may materialize in the future from the Public Sector Development Fund as well as the imposition of further surcharges on existing taxes already being paid by a burdened citizenry on multiple lines of income streams may speed up implementation timeframes as more money become available to carry out the project. But there is so much on the aspirational list to build that to build, build, build is the primary focus.

Let’s face it: even to assume that the bureaucracy has the requisite capacity, training and motivation to lead the kind of holistic reform and re-directing program that the country needs is to make a huge and questionable assumption in the first place.

In all of this much that is vitally important is missed. Unless we begin to shift the focus of our attention to a comprehensive reassessment of what Pakistan needs to do, we will lose critical time failing to heed other grave features of the country’s water policy.

A man uses his mobile phone to donate to a crowdfunding effort to construct new dams in Pakistan. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Education for water economy

What are these grave features? When it comes to Pakistan’s water-dependent economy, there is a severe shortage in the integrated education and training that the country needs. Islamabad needs to invest heavily in building capacity in the water sector. This includes the development of a knowledge and training base in such areas as water law, water and environmental resource economics, and sustainability studies, so that the country enacts a concerted shift away from leaving water management primarily to irrigation engineers. This overwhelmingly technocratic and singular vision of one profession, engineers, has contributed to the plethora of problems that the country faces.

There needs to be a humble recognition that the country’s water problems are much more complex and will require more than just engineers to address. Given the historical importance of the development of the law of water to other countries’ economic development, all legal training in the country should offer courses in water law and students should be encouraged to develop expertise in areas critical to Pakistan’s development.

Further, all training at the provincial judicial academies should include courses in water law, and training for bureaucrats should expand to include courses in water and development. It is only with a serious and integrated investment in building expertise and capacity across the board in water-related disciplines can Pakistan hope to develop solutions grounded in its unique history that are robust enough to meet present and future challenges.

Pakistan should begin to operate with a vision: to become the premier global laboratory for the best knowledge about water resources law, development and management. It is only by enunciating such a vision grounded in rigorous institutional and capacity development and training can the country really hope to set itself on the right track.

Toward a new approach

Stakeholders across the board must begin to tackle the vastness of the intellectual, imaginative and every-day tasks before us. Too many people across Pakistan are too destitute for us to leave the big problems unstudied. As should be clear: the problems that are supposedly going to be fixed by adding big infrastructure fail to address the actual existing problems in their interconnected complexity. Pakistan must undertake a deep analysis of what ails its agricultural and water economy—and put in place a process by which directions can be set to get to them.

These are the real crises of Pakistan’s management of its water. And it is on these that the country must begin to work immediately.

Sattar’s research focuses on issues of water federalism and trans-boundary water sharing in the Indus River Basin. She teaches water law and policy and environmental law at Pace University School of Law, Northeastern University School of Law, and Tufts University

From our Jan. 26 – Feb. 9, 2019 issue

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1 comment

Zahra Zafar February 4, 2019 - 12:12 pm

indeed Pakistan is facing water challenge which is going to be more weird in next few years t

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