“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

– W.H. Auden

The World Water Day is celebrated on March 22 (today) to mark the implementation of the UN recommendations (Earth Summit Agenda 21) to work out proposals and undertake activities to emphasise reduction in wasteful consumption of resources such as water.

Water is the most important ingredient for food and agriculture, and most basic to human life: one can survive for eight to ten days without food, but without water for not more than two days.

Global warming , nevertheless, is a major water resource issue for many reasons, according to Karrie Lynn Pennington and Thomas V. Cech, co-authors of the book titled “Introduction to Water Resources and Environmental Issues”. It is having a serious impact on the age-old glaciers, permanent snow, sea ice and polar ice caps.

Recently, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit science advocacy group based in the US, drew the attention of the world to a number of extreme weather events that happened around the world recently, including the 2010 floods in Pakistan that killed more than 1,600 people and displaced millions of others, causing losses of Rs 324.5 billion to the national exchequer; the worst drought in Russia, in decades, which triggered wildfires and doubled the death rate in Moscow to about 700; and the torrential rains in China that caused massive flooding and landslides, killing more than 3,000 people. “The devastating heat, fires and floods during summer are consistent with trends that scientists say were caused by global warming,” maintains the UCS members.

According to James Edward Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, a part of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the maximum amount of CO2 that the atmosphere can hold is 350 ppm, if we want a planet similar to the one on which civilisation developed and to which life on earth could be adapted. The planet is, however, facing 390 ppm that is increasing beyond the earth’s carrying capacity.

Bill McKibben, author, educator and environmentalist, in his latest book titled “Eaarth”, remembers the earth as free of all environmental problems. He also mentions about the 350 ppm CO2 as the target advocated by most nations at the Copenhagen Conference. The pre-industrial CO2 that was 281 ppm in 2005 is currently 381 ppm, according to Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) in Hawaii, a premier atmospheric research facility.

Many nations agreed to reduce the CO2 emissions to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012. While the emissions in some countries of the east fell by 33 percent due to an economic downturn, they increased by 12 percent to 30 percent in the US and many developing countries.

Needless to say, the importance of land and water resources was also recognised by the early man, who abandoned the hunter-gatherer habit in favour of food production and settlement into communities. That later evolved into cities, states and empires of civilisation, which developed on river banks - many along the Tigris-Euphrates, the Nile, Huang-He and the Indus are well known.

No wonder, the early societies relied primarily on small dams (water storage reservoirs) for irrigation and food production, since the changing weather patterns often gave fewer but irregular natural water flows. Besides the construction of dams, calendars were created by the Mesopotamians to keep track of planting times, rainy seasons and floods (Norman Smith).

In modern times, the number of large dams in the world that was 5,700 in 1950 has grown to 45,000 today - 80 percent of which are in China, Spain, Japan and the US as well as India (Pennington and Cech).

India now plans to build additional 30-35 large and 135 medium dams (in addition to other numerous sites) on the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers. If this happens, it will permanently deprive Pakistan of the surface water flows by at least 33-35 million acre feet annually and add to the people’s misery, i.e. lack of water for drinking, food production and energy.

Against this backdrop, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is on record of having warned that like 2010 and 2011, Pakistan would face another terrible flood in 2012. Regrettably, it happened and it affected nearly 30 million people in Charsadda, Peshawar, Nowshera, Muzaffargarh, Rajanpur, Laiyyah, Khushab, Muzaffarabad, Sargodha and lower Sindh, while the government machinery, both at the federal and provincial level, remained largely ineffective.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Pakistan ranks 12th among the countries most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, and this calls for a strong political will and immediate action plan for its survival.

While the need for the construction of a large reservoir like the Kalabagh Dam has long been felt, the recurrent floods in the country also necessitate a network of small dams to preserve flood and rain water to avert inundation, ensure the availability of water for drinking and agriculture, and meet the acute shortage of energy.

Sine 90 percent of the water is being used for agricultural production in Pakistan, an additional 13 to 14 percent more water would be needed for the production of food for the growing population.

The two striking examples of construction of dams by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during years of dustbowl and great economic depression (by employing youth), and the founding of the US Corps of Engineers by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 for the preservation of rain water and flood control project for irrigation and drinking, contain important lessons for us.

Also, Sydney that has one of the biggest water supply system in Australia depends on 11 dams, which can store four times more water than that of New York and nine times that of London. Despite this, the Australians are discontented and believe that the government needs to do more to develop water storage facilities.

Pakistan spends a huge amount to foreign exchange on the import of energy resources. The amount could double by 2030.

Currently, it is barely harvesting 6,500 MW (that is a major bulk of the total generation) out of a hydel capacity of 42,000 MW of its waters, claims Robert M. Hathaway, Bhurnika Muchhala and Michael Kugelman, co-editors of “Fueling the Future: Meeting Pakistan's Energy Needs in the 21st Century”.

While Canada is the largest producer of hydropower in the world, followed by US, the Itaipú Dam (643 feet high) in Brazil and Paraguay is the largest hydropower dam that caters to 25 percent and 78 percent of the power needs of these countries; here, in Pakistan, the much need Kalabagh Dam, unfortunately, seems to be buried once and for all.

The situation is quite grim. The contribution of agriculture to GDP in the country has fallen to less than 20 percent from an over 50 percent in 1947. Over 60 percent of its land has been degraded and 93 percent of its people own barely 12.5 acre of land - with 60 percent possessing less than three acres.

Now that Pakistan’s population has risen to 180 million from 32.5 million in 1947, besides global warming and climate change that are also on the rise, it is high time that the construction of Kalabagh Dam is initiated, in addition to building small dams to preserve rain water, as the shortage of water and energy is growing.

The writer is the ex-director of NIAB and former professor of Environmental Sciences, GCUF.  Email: drahmadsaeedbhatti@gmail.com