Mismanagement and crisis of water resources in Pakistan
More than 80% of Pakistan's population is facing 'severe water scarcity'. And if there is no change, it is expected to increase. On the issue of water crisis in the country, The Third Poll spoke to Umar Karim, a professional in the development sector.
Karim has been working in the field of irrigation and water management for over 20 years and serves as a consultant to public and private sector organisations, as well as being a regular guest speaker and commentator on the media. are
They discussed dams, Pakistan's water and energy crisis and challenges related to data and water management. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you explain the debate regarding dams in Pakistan?
All provinces agreed, in 2010, on the Diamer Bhasha Dam (a dam being built in northwestern Pakistan, which will be one of the tallest dams in the world when completed). However, now there is a lot of criticism on this project. It is hard to understand why they signed the treaty, if it is now believed that we will suffer the consequences and our lands will dry up.
Some suggest that small dams should be built in the provinces. Please invite them to visit Chotiari Reservoir, a small dam built in 1996 on the Nara Canal in Sindh. No doubt it is very helpful and fulfills the needs of the low lying areas of Umarkot and Tharparkar whenever there is water scarcity. But the people living near this dam are badly affected by sem, salinity and land erosion. Small dams can be useful in sustaining communities, but they require proper operation and maintenance, as well as measures to remediate reservoirs and leaks.
Generally, dams are built in areas where sediment and salinity problems are expected to have less impact. For example, the Tarbela Dam recharges the groundwater table in the area and keeps them fresh.
There is considerable debate among those interested in the environmental benefits and harms of hydropower, but this does not include technical or scientific research or data. Therefore, the narrative regarding hydropower is superficial.
This year we have no water storage in the dams. The Tarbela Dam was emptied during the dry winter to repair its tunnels and Mangla was supposed to supply water to the upper reaches of Pakistan. Basically we are on the direct natural flow of the river, which is below average due to the low temperature on the glaciers, and this has created a number of problems especially for the lower reaches of the river.
Water storage in dams is not only for constant supply but also provides a buffer, which means we have a backup of water throughout the year. Dams serve the same purpose as tanks for storing water in homes.
Given the current energy and power crisis in Pakistan, what do you think is a sustainable way to generate energy?
Three things are needed for the development of this country. Cheap, sustainable energy is first, followed by low-cost labor and cheap raw materials.
Today we as a nation have created a serious economic imbalance and are now facing serious economic crises. Pakistan currently has a circular debt of 1.6 trillion Pakistani rupees (7.7 billion US dollars) in oil and gas sectors; It is close to 2.5 trillion Pakistani rupees (12 billion US dollars) for the power sector alone. In the year 2013, the then federal government eliminated the revolving credit and brought it down to zero, but by 2017, it again reached Rs 480 billion and today it has quadrupled. In comparison, the total cost of construction of Diamer Bhasha is about 1.5 trillion rupees. The main problem in the country's economic crisis is our revolving debt.
For almost 20 years since 1975, we have not built any dam. Moreover, we are stuck in the cycle of thermal power generation, importing fuel and coal at a higher environmental cost than hydropower.
Solar or wind energy cannot completely replace the need, and have their own environmental costs. Wind turbines are made of fiberglass. Where will we dispose of them when they reach their end after 20 years? There are additional costs of buying such technology from abroad and high interest that we incur. Most importantly, do we have to immediately restart thermal plants if these renewable sources are unable to provide power when needed, due to lack of wind or light?
Did you say that?
Do you think hydropower will provide a stable, cheap and local source of energy and help tackle circular debt?
The problem of circular debt started when we opposed cheap hydropower and switched from expensive fuel to thermal generation. Moreover, this electricity is so expensive and we tried to subsidize it. Despite this, the actual cost was not recovered and the revolving credit started increasing.
What about the relationship between irrigation for crops and hydropower dams?
Water and agriculture are inextricably linked. As with urban and industrial water supplies, there are specific times when we need water for crops. Because of the dams, the flow of water increases, but I believe that its use also increases. Especially our agricultural use has increased. It's constantly growing, and we're not measuring the agricultural area properly, so nobody knows what's going on. But we know that the number of sugar mills in the country has increased steadily in the last 30 years.
We should keep in mind that when we estimate the percentage of water used per sector, more than 90% is used by the agricultural sector and the rest by urban and industrial users in Pakistan.
Earlier, there were rules for crop planting, cropping pattern and specific amount of water per year. This used to be a boon to the fair distribution of water, especially when resources were limited and uncertain like this year. The construction of dams helped unregulated expansion and now we are suffering the consequences. Our rivers have dried up and our irrigated lands are being degraded.
I believe that one of the disadvantages of dams is that most of the water is used for agricultural purposes.
Let me give you an example. According to the Punjab Irrigation Department, the command designed cultivated area of Punjab is 21.71 million acres, but according to a report by the Bureau of Statistics in 2015, the province is cultivating 26.48 million acres and its water reservoirs. is facing severe shortage problems. The same trend has been observed in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but Balochistan is the most affected. Its command area was 2.69 million acres but remote sensing has estimated that it is cultivating only 2.01 million acres. For the entire country, our designed cultivated area is 38.68 million acres. In 2015 we reported 38.43 million acres of land, but the land cover assessments for that year show that we actually cultivated 46.58 million acres.
Unavailable data on how much is cultivated and produced, what is the domestic requirement and how much can be exported and its management is the real problem.
This year we faced more drought than usual, especially in Cholistan. What's going on there?
Pakistan is now officially a famine-stricken country. Cholistan is a desert region of Punjab. I belong to similar neighboring district of Tharparkar in Sindh. Drought is not new in these areas, but urbanization and other factors have made them more difficult.
In the past, after the monsoons, people in the desert would plant rain-fed crops, and later in dry periods they would migrate to settled areas with their livestock. Their siblings took care of grazing the cattle in the irrigated areas, while the men worked with the landowners. Next year, when the monsoon season started, they would go back to their original areas with healthy livestock and earnings. These days, with new developments and better access, men move to urban areas for work while women and children remain in Thar.
There are no canals or rivers supplying water to Cholistan. It stays dry unless it rains. Instead of politicizing these issues and competing in provinces over water scarcity, our focus should be on solving the problems of local communities. I have a success story from our region, where the Sindh Irrigation Department has done a great job by providing drinking water to the desert population from the Nara Canal, through pipelines and pumping stations. It has brought life to people's lives. Similar initiatives can benefit the people of Cholistan and other areas of Tharparkar.
(This story on environment and natural resources was published on The Third Poll and is being published on the ARY website with the organization's permission.)