Politics behind the water woes in Pakistan


By Samuel Baid

Come April, there begins a battle of water between Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan. The former accuses the latter of stealing its share of water from Indus River. Punjab tries to deflect this attack on to India’s Kishenganga project in Kashmir. Pakistanis, who don’t seem to be very sure that this project will hamper the flow of water to what River Neelum on their side, have repeatedly failed to convince the World Bank, even the World Court, of the justification of their objections to the project’s design. Sindhis don’t seem to take any cognisance of what Pakistan has to say about the Kishenganga Project. They only want Punjab to stop stealing their water.

In May the National Assembly heatedly debated distribution of river water among the four provinces. In 1991 the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had, however, amiably resolved this issue among the four provinces. Problems started when this Water Accord was put to practice – Punjab was again accused of dishonesty. Gen Pervez Musharraf tried to resolve this problem by promising to construct at least five dams including Bhasha Dam in Pakistan-occupied territory of Gilgit-Baltistan and Kala Bagh Dam in Punjab. While Gen Musharraf dared not initiate the Kala Bagh Dam because of Sindhi opposition to it, he went to lay the foundation of Bhasha Dam uprooting thousands of people. The foundation was laid with a lot of fanfare but Pakistan had no money to proceed further. International lending agencies required Pakistan to get an NOC (No-Objection Certificate) from India as Gilgit-Baltistan was an illegally occupied territory. Thus, no dam promised by Gen Musharraf happened.

All the three non-Punjab provinces – Sindh, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) – now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) – have opposed the Kala Bagh Dam right from the beginning in the 1970s. The then supremo of National Awami Party (ANP) Khan Abdul Ghaffar khan had warned that this Dam could be built only on his dead body. Baluchistan is not served by Indus but in sympathy with Sindh and NWFP it opposed this Dam. Sindh opposes this Dam more for emotional reasons. When Gen Ziaul Haq talked of Islamisation, father of Sindhi nationalism GM Syed retorted by saying Sindhi civilisation was much older than the advent of Islam. Sindhis trace their existence to the 5000 year old Indus civilisation. Therefore, they are very possessive about the Indus River. Some Sindhis had opposed Gen Musharraf announcement of Bhasha Dam saying they would not allow any dam on the Indus River. They had threatened separation from Pakistan.

At present Sindhis are more worried about their province becoming a desert if Punjab keeps on depriving it of its share of water. In the National Assembly debate in May, the Opposition leader Syed Khursheed Shah, a Sindhi, said: ‘The whole Sindh is being turned into desert because of acute water scarcity’. He said Sindh might come to close its borders with the rest of the country as a protest. He accused the Punjab government of using Sindhis share of water by opening two link canals. He said the federal government was not bothered that Sindh was turning into a desert and farmers were out on roads. The Indus River System Authority (IRSA) has advised the Sindh farmers to do only such water saving which is needed and avoid unnecessary savings. The IRSA, the federal government and the Punjab government have ignored Sindh government’s appeal that Punjab should be stopped from pilfering water from two link canals namely, Taunsa-Panjnad and Chashma-Jhelum. Sindh calls it theft of its share of water. At present Sindhis water deficit is 60 percent. This is likely to increase. It is not agriculture alone that is suffering because of water shortage in Sindh but industry and business, too. Some industrial units, which were already in bad shape, have closed down and their workers have become jobless in Karachi.

The water shortage in Pakistan is being ascribed to non-melting of snow in upper catchment areas, no rise of temperature in Skardu and deficit rainfall. This year even national capital Islamabad is in the grip of water crisis. The Simly Dam is the second largest source of water for Islamabad. Twenty million gallon of water is drawn from here per day. Unless the snow melts and rains come the national capital will be in real trouble.

Rains and trees are related. But where all trees going? In Gilgit-Baltistan trees, even precious fruit trees, have been devoured by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The same is the story of trees which came in the CPEC way from here miles down to Gwadar. Thus, Baluchistan, already an arid region, has lost much of its forestry. The adversarial environmental effects of the CPEC will be realised when if it is too late. At the end Pakistan will realise it has been used as a fattened sacrificial goat. Trees in other parts of Baluchistan are being cut everyday for firewood. It is an irony that homes in Baluchistan, which supply Sui gas to whole of Pakistan, have to depend on firewood to cook food. Because there is hardly any forestry, rain seldom visits Baluchistan. Potable water is an existential problem here. Ground-water level has gone down deep. The gravity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that the people in the poorest district of Balochistan, Awaran drink water from a pond which has been created by last rains.

Sindh has suffered the most due deforestation. As a result the province has suffered severe bouts of heat waves. The town of Nawabshah shocked everyone in May when the temperature rose to 52 degree Celsius. Karachi smarted under 42 to 44 degree. Forestry along the Indus River was said to be spread over 60 thousand acres. Now it is only 12 thousand acres. Land erosion, because of the sea water invasion, has destroyed trees (including orchards) and plants. Kutch is perennially drought-hit region where about a hundred children die of hunger of malnutrition every year.

India is blamed if there is dry spell in Pakistan. It is blamed again if there is flood. Besides ineffective flood control measures, there is one hardly talked about reason. It is illegal construction of houses and other structure in dry river beds thus obstructing the free flow of flood water to sea. The flood water, therefore, pushes its way violently where it can. There is no sign of Pakistan yet taking to rain water harvesting. This can, to a large extent, affect farmers who are faced with sowing problems every year.

However, the political class in Pakistan – mainstream and Islamists, including Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) – has for years been accusing India of unleashing a ‘water terror’ on Pakistan. Instead of creating an anti-India frenzy in Pakistan, especially during the general elections, it is incumbent upon the technocracy and informed people to formulate a comprehensive strategy for the whole country so that petty politics should not be the sole determinant of every year’s water woes affecting the common mass.