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Water: Going with the flow

The Economist

To fix the country’s long-term problems, action needs to start now



Arid debates

FOR MILLIONS SUFFERING the misery of the past two years’ floods it must seem the cruellest of jokes, but Pakistan is one of the world’s most arid countries. Average annual rainfall is less than 240mm, and the total availability of water per person has fallen from about 5,000 cubic metres in the 1950s to about 1,100 now, just above the 1,000 cubic-metre-per-head definition of “water-scarce”. A shortage of water is a more serious peril than any of the others mentioned in this report. Combined with continued fast growth in its population, it is the true existential threat to Pakistan.

Pakistan is arranged along the Indus river basin and the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system which it feeds. From the air much of Pakistan looks brown, dusty and infertile. Only about one-quarter of the land is cultivated. According to a 2009 study by the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, at least 90% of Pakistan’s fresh water is used for irrigation and agriculture. But, it says, “intensive irrigation regimes and poor drainage practices have caused waterlogging and soil salinity throughout Pakistan’s countryside. As a result, vast expanses of the nation’s rich agricultural lands are too wet or salty to yield any meaningful harvests.”

The study forecasts that by 2025 Pakistan’s annual water supply will fall short of demand by around 100 billion cubic metres, about half of the entire present flow of the Indus. In parts of the country the shortage of water is already acute. Around Quetta in Balochistan, for example, the water table is now 330-400 metres (1,000-1,200 feet) below the surface and estimated to be falling by 3.5 metres a year. Over 2,000 tube wells have dried up. Electricity subsidies encourage expensive pumping of scarce water.

John Briscoe, a water specialist who used to work for the World Bank and is now engaged in a study for the Friends of Democratic Pakistan, a donor group, says that in any event some 60% of water supplies around Quetta are unaccounted for—leaked or stolen. The only solution, he argues, is to stop pumping except for urban use and put a price on it. Without some drastic action, Quetta, with more than 1m people, may have to close down.


Quetta’s thirst could become a national phenomenon. Already more than two-fifths of Pakistan’s population lacks access to safe drinking water. The glaciers of the western Himalayas, whose snowmelt and rains provide the Indus with its water, are dwindling as the world warms up. In the short term this, and spectacular rains such as those seen in the past two years, could lead to more floods. In the longer run, river flows could fall by what the World Bank calls a “terrifying” 30-40%.

Much could be done to avert disaster: repairing and modernising canal systems; developing spate irrigation schemes that divert flash floods to replenish aquifers; stopping electricity subsidies that encourage water-intensive agriculture; and building small and medium-sized dams. But many experts believe that Pakistan also needs some megadams, which are more controversial. They point out that, whereas America and Australia have dams that can hold 900 days-worth of river run-off, Pakistan can barely store 30 days-worth in the Indus basin.

For Mr Briscoe, storage would be the main benefit offered by Diamer Bhasha, besides the much-needed electricity generation and flood control. Another big dam, Kalabagh, under discussion for years, may never be built, because it would be in Punjab province and Sindh has objected.

For some, despairing of Pakistan’s perpetually messy politics, such disputes are reasons for suspending democracy. Only a strong government, they argue, undistracted by the quotidian dealmaking and corruption of parliamentary politics, can take the tough decisions needed: to combat Islamist extremism, broaden the tax base, curb political violence and counter the environmental and demographic threats to Pakistan’s future.

Such were the hopes for decisive, impartial, “executive” government that accompanied Mr Musharraf when he took over. And in Pakistan, it is still to the army that people look for strength. But military rule is not the answer. After all, it has been tried for half of Pakistan’s existence. What has not been tried is truly civilian rule backed by a wholly supportive army.

It is too much to hope that the army will withdraw from politics altogether. But it is not too much to dream that an enlightened high command might try to put its house in order. It might realise that the flirtation with terrorist groups has become a threat to the nation’s future as well as to its own image; that a true peace with India is in Pakistan’s interests; that politics would be less messy if the army meddled less; and even, at a mundane level, as a member of parliament said of the ISI last November, that “when they can finance political parties and interfere in democratic affairs, why can’t they pay electricity bills?”

Bananas are not the only fruit

The BBC documentary that prompted cable operators to block the channel indefinitely included an interview with Amrullah Saleh, a former head of Afghanistan’s intelligence services. He describes a meeting in 2007 with Mr Musharraf, Pakistan’s president at the time, at which he was told of Afghan suspicions that bin Laden was living in a settled area of Pakistan. Mr Musharraf lost his temper and shouted: “Am I the president of the Republic of Banana?” He need not have worried. The only sense in which Pakistan is a banana republic is that parts of the army are out of civilian control, and unaccountable

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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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