Anticipating a water crisis in the wake of extreme weather conditions, the Indus River System Authority (Irsa) has issued a rare warning to the government and asked it to freeze the country’s entire development programme for the next five years and divert these funds to the construction of major water reservoirs on a war footing. Irsa, however, has not specifically named the major reservoirs to be constructed but pointed out that at the very minimum a capacity for 22 million acre feet (MAF) of water should be developed at the earliest. Writing to the Federal Secretary of Water and Power, IRSA Chairman, Raqib Khan, said that construction of reservoirs having mega storage capacity on a priority basis is in the best interest of the public. More than 30 MAF of water is going down into the sea, as against 8-10 MAF required downstream Kotri for environmental reasons and endless discussions for “consensus” projects is in fact a ploy to hide non-seriousness. Almost 22 MAF of fresh water is released below Kotri to the sea unutilised. As agriculture was the backbone of the country’s economy, reservoirs should be constructed on all feasible sites to store this excess capacity. Pointing out the inadequacies of the system, Irsa also said that total water availability in the country is 145 MAF (average) while the existing live storage capacity is only 14.10 MAF or only 9.7 percent as against the world average of 40 percent.
We feel that the water regulator, comprising irrigation and engineering experts from the four provinces and the centre, has raised an issue of utmost importance and tried to provide a solution to save the country from the impending crisis. To recapitulate, para 6 of the Water Apportionment Accord 1991 signed by the provinces on March 16, and later ratified by the Council of Common Interests (CCI) on March 21, 1991, clearly recognised the need of new water storages for future agricultural development as out of 14 paras of the accord, six were about development and opening of a new era of expansion of water resources. Unfortunately, however, due to an indifferent approach towards this precious resource, the availability of water at canal heads has fallen to 97 MAF as against 105 MAF in 1991. The gap would further widen as the capacity of existing reservoirs is diminishing with the passage of time due to sedimentation and other factors. Local and international water experts, including those from the World Bank and Earth Policy Institute, have also been warning Pakistan about a major water crisis in the next 10-40 years owing to unusually fast depletion of the Himalayan glaciers, low storage capacity and other related uncertainties. Some of the experts have even pointed out that Himalayan glaciers, contributing over 80 percent water to the Indus river that feeds more than 65 percent of the country’s agriculture, are receding at a rate of 30-50 meters per annum.
There is probably no need to overemphasise the fact that the issue raised by Irsa is not only very crucial and timely but highly pertinent to the evolving situation. Nobody can deny that water is the most essential requirement to meet the food needs of the country’s rapidly growing population and also vital to the basic ecological functions that support human existence, fisheries production etc and the health of rivers, canals and lakes. Of course, all the governments, past and the present, have been talking about the importance of the issue but no concrete strategy has been adopted even to sharply increase investment in the sector and address major water sector issues. In fact, no worthwhile effort has ever been made to augment surface water resources, rehabilitate the present system, protect the present infrastructure from onslaught of floods, water logging and salinity and undertake other conservation measures. On the other hand, demand for water has been increasing consistently and at a fast rate over the years due to burgeoning population growth and rapid urbanisation leading to higher per capita requirement for water. As Pakistan is moving rapidly from a water-stressed country to a water-starved country, the crisis is nearly at hand but the authorities are doing almost nothing to reverse or even arrest the deteriorating situation. Required efforts have neither been made to develop a consensus on the much-needed reservoirs nor enough investments made in accordance with the sector’s priority. The proposal of Irsa to devote all the PSDP resources for water sector may appear to be unfeasible or an aberration but should serve to awaken the people at the helms from their slumber and remind them that the construction of highways, overhead bridges and other grandiose projects could be postponed for another day as developing water crisis could ultimately lead to such an acrimonious situation which the government will be unable to control. The statement of Federal Minister of Water and Power Khwaja Asif of 9th March, 2015 that a severe water crisis is in the offing if measures are not taken promptly to conserve water is quite encouraging but such a declaration needs to be backed by concrete actions at the earliest.