Picture this, it’s 2050 and Pakistan is now a county without water. The glaciers of Himalaya have melted, leaving our verdant and picturesque rivers bare and dry. The mighty Indus, once irrigating an expansive fertile plain, has now turned into a desert, shrinking our agricultural base, resulting in mass displacement and migration. Our cities are dogged by not only chronic power shortages but also severe water scarcity, where people line up for hours to purchase imported flour, rice, vegetables and water.

This may sound as an exaggerated account of our future but some statistics would manifest the likelihood of such a possibility. Asian Development Outlook 2013 describes our water challenge in these words, “Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, not far from being classified as “water scarce,” with less than 1,000 cubic metres per person per year. Water demand exceeds supply, which has caused maximum withdrawal from reservoirs. At present, Pakistan’s storage capacity is limited to a 30-day supply, well below the recommended 1,000 days for countries with a similar climate. “

As environmental changes takes place, glaciers of Himalayas melt, and population of our country soars to 256 million by 2030 and doubling by 2050, we would be experiencing enormous water stress in coming years. Above this, Indus Water Treaty (IWT) that has governed water relations between India and Pakistan for sixty years, is becoming a new bone of contention. India is constructing numerous dams on waters that feed Indus, raising serious concerns within Pakistan. This sentiment was voiced recently by Abid Sher Ali, Minister of State for Water and Power, who blamed India for creating a shortage of water in Pakistan by building dams.

Indian government has brushed aside Pakistani fears, declaring them as baseless and unfounded, but Indian role in exacerbating our water problem has been aptly captured by the US Senate’s report “ Avoiding Water Wars.” Report criticises Indian water management practises and states,“ It is India’s water management of the Indus that merits scrutiny. With a population already exceeding 1.1 billion people and forecasts indicating continued growth to over 1.5 billion by 2035, India’s demand for water is rising at unprecedented rates. However, water management in India is extremely decentralised and virtually unregulated. This has led rapidly to diminishing available surface and groundwater.”

The report also questions India’s policy of damming Eastern rivers, “ To meet growing demand and cope with increasing electricity shortages, the [Indian] government has developed plans to expand power generation through the construction of multipurpose dams. India has 33 projects at various stages of completion on the rivers that affect this region.

While studies show that no single dam along the waters controlled by the Indus Waters Treaty will affect Pakistan’s access to water, the cumulative effect of these projects could give India the ability to store enough water to limit the supply to Pakistan at crucial moments in the growing season.“

Though we may now cry wolf at India’s plan to dam Indus, but our previous rulers are responsible for making important concessions to India in IWT, a loophole now exploited by it, to divert the waters feeding river Indus. According to Article III of the treaty, “India shall be under an obligation to let flow all the waters of the Western Rivers [into Pakistan], and shall not permit any interference with these waters, except for the following uses... (a) Domestic Use; (b) Non-Consumptive Use; (c) Agricultural Use, and (d) Generation of hydro-electric power.”

The first casualty of this impending water scarcity will be our agriculture sector that employs nearly half of our population and constitute a quarter of our GDP. Eighty percent of our agriculture land is watered by one of world’s largest irrigation networks that draws most of its water from River Indus. Across Pakistan, hundreds of cities and thousands of small towns are driven by agricultural activity and our biggest industrial sectors, especially textiles, are related to it. Any disruption in agriculture would have deadly implications for our economic viability and national security.

To avert the collapse of our riverine system we need to adopt better water management techniques (a topic, we will discuss next week) and require better coordination with India. India must make sure that Pakistan gets its share of water agreed upon in IWT and its hydroelectric projects should not affect the flow of Eastern rivers. In addition, implementation of IWT should be made transparent by establishing monitoring centres across our rivers, with a purpose of collecting and sharing information, essential for better bilateral water management and coordination.

Between India and Pakistan, no bilateral issue is as vital as water sharing. It can be used to bring both the nations together to find a common solution, even acting as a spring board for addressing other contentious issues as Kashmir and Siachen. If we don’t improve water management practices and find a common ground with India on issue of water sharing, we may prepare ourselves for a long and harsh drought that may change our socioeconomic and political landscape forever, and might plunge South Asia in an incessant water conflict.

The writer is a freelance columnist and has worked as a broadcast journalist.


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