Editorial: Looming water crisis

Pakistan is a water-stressed country, and the fact that over the years the dilemma is expected to acquire greater severity given the adverse impact of climate change, upper riparian India’s growing belligerence and mismanagement of available resources.

By international standards, Pakistan is an arid country. Its annual rainfall being less than 224mm a year and is heavily dependent on annual influx into the Indus River system. And then there is the lingering war of words how much of that influx should be shared by each of the four provinces – a war of words that is likely to acquire higher pitch now that the national water distribution regulator, Indus River System Authority (Irsa), has projected a 35 percent water shortage during the upcoming Kharif season, which begins from April 1.

The season lasts till end November, and Kharif crops include rice, cotton, sugarcane and maize. And there are bound to be serious consequences on national economy, social harmony and recognition of agriculture as the principal employer. The water shortage is expected to higher – nearly 40 percent – at the time of sowing of the Kharif crops, which is likely to reduce the area under cultivation. Since sowing in Sindh starts much earlier than Punjab, its provincial government has requested Irsa that water flows should not be stored in dams, and its discharges should be in line with Sindh’s irrigation requirements.

The Irsa estimate is likely to be accepted by its advisory committee which would meet later this week. And it is just possible that the Irsa’s fears do not come true. Given that the summer seems to be arriving earlier than expected, triggering snowmelt at the very outset of Kharif season – a positive change since this past winter we had above normal snowfalls in the Northern Areas.

The Irsa seems to have done its job. What follows greatly depends on how the farming community reacts to it and how the custodians of water management and food industry would deal with this challenge. Unfortunately, however, the governments, present and previous, have not been able to do enough on devising counter-shortage plans and programmes.

Obviously, the apportionment of river water remains a political issue. One would have no beef with this attitude. But where one is seriously concerned is consistent failure on the part of successive governments to devise a grand strategy aimed at minimising water wastage, enhancing the water storage, promoting judicious use of water and introducing a kind of policy framework to enhance production by employing latest techniques and better seeds.

There were times when annual growth rate of agriculture was 4 percent, but no more. Then that rate was sustained by the technological progress in terms of high-yielding varieties of grains and cotton, public investment inflows, research and extension (R&E) and physical infrastructure. But that was in the past; and it should be revived as a national goal by undertaking a series of remedial measures. First, water storage capacity should be significantly enhanced by building more dams, desilting the existing ones and overcoming political bickering. Then there should be efficient and duty-conscious reduction of seepage in water harvesting structures.

Proper use of irrigation water by upgrading the 100-year-old irrigation system is also urgently required. On the part of cultivators, they should be motivated to sow in furrows. This changeover is neither forbiddingly expensive nor difficult to popularise.

Last but not least, the situation does underscore the need for making greater efforts aimed at ensuring water security in the country. There must be no complacency anymore.