Conducted by Aisha Khan
Q: What are the major water-related challenges of Pakistan?
A: Clearly the drastic decline in the per capita availability of fresh water in Pakistan, from 5300 cubic meters in 1951 to less than 1000CM at present, which places it in the category of water scarce countries must be regarded as our biggest water challenge. The drivers of this steep decline are explosive population growth and unregulated urbanization, economic development, which has led to an increase in the number of wasteful consumers of water, decaying water infrastructure, profligate use of water for irrigation, policy and governance deficits, including low water pricing and poor coordination among water-related institutions at both the federal and provincial levels. The inordinate delay in the finalization of a water policy, despite the preparation of a well prepared draft, highlights the inexplicable indifference of our political system to the existential threats related to water resources.
A unique feature of our water resource situation is the excess versus deficit syndrome, which is due to seasonal variability – 80% of our water supply from the monsoon rains comes during the four summer months, creating an unmanageable surfeit, whilst there is a serious shortfall during the rest of the year. Our extremely meager storage capacity estimated at 14 million acre feet( MAF) means we can barely meet our fresh water contingencies for 30 days!
Inter-provincial disparities in availability of and access to water are another somewhat unique feature of our water woes. There is adequate supply of water in KP from rivers and lakes, but it is not available to large areas of the province due to geophysical constraints and insufficient infrastructure. The water challenges of Sindh result from its position as a lower riparian in the Indus Basin and its large desert and semi-desert areas. Baluchistan is also predominantly arid, receives insufficient rainfall, has limited access to the Indus Basin, and its water infrastructure projects have been plagued by corruption and mismanagement.
The most serious water-related challenge of Pakistan is the poor quality of water. According to a recent study entitled “Provision of Safe Drinking Water”, prepared by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), 84% of the country’s population does not have access to safe drinking water. 72% of the water supply schemes are dysfunctional and 84% of water supplied to citizens is unfit for consumption. All the 15 lakes in the Punjab province are heavily polluted. Water-borne diseases are endemic in both urban and rural areas. Half of all hospital beds in Pakistan are reportedly occupied by people afflicted by diseases linked to poor quality of water. The deterioration of the quality of drinking water in rural areas is largely due to excessive use of chemical fertilizers and excessive abstraction of groundwater. Unless remedial measures are adopted on urgent basis, a catastrophic health crisis cannot be avoided.
Q: What are the main reasons for surface water losses, ground water depletion and poor aquifer storage and recovery?
A: According to Pakistan’s water resource experts, out of the 104 MAF of river flows diverted for canal irrigation, about 44.25 MAF is lost in conveyance and only 59.75 MAF reaches the farm head. Another 15.0 MAF is lost in field application leaving 44.75 MAF for the crops. The shortage of water is made good by our farming community through excessive abstraction of ground water enabled by a million or more tube wells, for which electricity is available at heavily subsidized flat rates. The amount of ground water withdrawn from the aquifers is estimated at 50 MAF. Transmission losses from siltation in the canals and channels can be reduced by lining and adoption of water saving irrigation techniques.
The huge withdrawals of ground water which threaten the sustainability of the aquifers, as well as the quality of water, have been encouraged by the absence of any regulatory system for groundwater management. Efforts must be made to ensure the sustainability of groundwater in Pakistan.
Q: Surface water pricing has not been revised since 1972. Do you think that water pricing needs to be increased for domestic use and how much does low irrigation tariff contribute to ground water misuse?
A: Rates of Irrigation charges (Abiyana) are extremely low and do not even cover the salaries of the employees of the provincial irrigation departments. The virtually free of cost availability of water certainly incentivizes wastage and must stop. There is indeed a strong case for raising the water charges.
Q: It is estimated that Pakistan has incurred $16 billion in economic losses since 2010 due to floods. What kind of sector reform and policy planning is required to “climate proof” the Indus Basin?
A: According to a 2013 study commissioned by the Asian Development Bank, Pakistan experienced 21 floods between 1950 and 2010, causing economic losses estimated at USD19 billion (in 2010 dollars). The 2010 super flood alone resulted in losses calculated at USD 9 billion. Climate change is feared to trigger more frequent, longer lasting, and more intense floods with devastating socio-economic and humanitarian consequences.
US geographer Gilbert White once stated: “Floods are acts of God, but flood losses are acts of man”. Given the enormity of the subject of flood prevention and management, I would only stress the need for a deliberate shift from our traditional flood management approach based on mitigating the losses from floods to the comprehensive integrated water resource management (IWRM) paradigm in order to integrate flood warning with infrastructural improvements to reduce the adverse effects of floods.
Q: How can we control fresh water wastage in relevant riverine areas?
A: Fresh water losses can be reduced considerably, if not eliminated, by enhanced protection of watershed, especially through protection of forests and wetlands coupled with upgraded and well-maintained water infrastructure.
Q: What are the main causes of surface and ground water contamination and how can these be addressed?
A: The exponentially increasing use of chemical fertilizers in Pakistan, due to intensive farming and poor quality of our soil and the dumping of all kinds of waste in the rivers and lakes and other watercourses, are among the major causes of surface and ground water contamination.
Q: Public debate on water is largely ill-informed. Is lack of reliable water data a major cause and how can we make water discourse inclusive and well-informed?
A: Lack of reliable and regularly updated data in Pakistan impedes the formulation and implementation of policies and action plans on all issues, including water resource management. In addition to impeccable data and objective analysis, a functioning regulatory system, and the active involvement of stakeholders is a prerequisite of an inclusive and informed discourse.
Q: There is no institutional role of women at the community or policy making level on water management. How does this affect water consumption patterns and management practices?
A: Women are invariably at the receiving end of all policy making and management processes, making the gender mainstreaming a key issue. This is especially relevant in the case of water consumption decision making.
Q: How much does the absence of a uniform method of measuring river flows contribute to misinformation in the public debate and policy engagement on water issues?
A: I understand that the only institution in Pakistan that has telemetry apparatus for gauging river flows is the Water and Power Development Authority. I am not sure whether WAPDA’s telemetry findings are in the public domain. Water flows data can help in preventing misinformation on water issues.
Q: What role can the Council of Common Interests play in resolving inter-provincial water issues and preventing actions that put ground water quality at risk of contamination?
A: In the wake of the 18th Constitutional Amendment, the role of the Council of Common Interests (CCI) has become crucial in respect of all subjects that concern all provinces. Given the transboundary nature of issues related to shared rivers, CCI can greatly contribute to the protection of the quality of fresh water. The institutional arrangements of the CCI are still evolving and are far from being perfect.
Q: Since water management impacts many other policy areas, what adaptation and mitigation appraisals need to be conducted across multiple water dependent sectors to improve water efficiency and ensure water supply during average and drought conditions to develop robust demand and supply strategies?
A: All water user sectors, such as agriculture, industry, construction and civil works, mining and municipal and local government authorities, have to devise measures for improving water use efficiency and conservation within a macro- level integrated water resource management policy. The draft National Water Policy covers nearly a dozen and a half topics, including ensuring supply of water to different sectors and the general population, as well as the quality of water and sustainability for ecosystems. Let’s hope the policy will be formally adopted and will serve as the basis for revising the Terms of Reference of all water-related departments and institutions. To revert to your question, given the constraints impeding increased supply, greater attention should be paid to rationalizing the demand for, and preserving the quality of fresh water.
Q: How will climate change affect the function and operation of existing water infrastructure including hydropower, structural flood defense, drainage and irrigation systems, as well as water management practices?
A: Nearly all the impacts of climate change listed by the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – rising sea-level, rapid melting and recession of glaciers, erratic monsoonal precipitation causing recurring floods and frequent and long droughts, higher levels of temperature and accelerated evaporation of surface water, heatwaves and increased thirst of plants and crops – would affect the supply and quality of freshwater and all water-dependent human activities and ecosystems. Rising sea water would inundate the coastal areas threatening aquifers and surface water infrastructure. Floods cause similar damage on a much larger scale, in addition to destroying roads, railways, human settlements, and standing crops. Reduced supply of water adversely affects hydropower production as is common during the lean supply season and droughts. Shortage of water also affects thermal and nuclear power generation. These challenges can be at least partially addressed by effective adaptation measures.
Q: What are some of the key actions in domestic and agricultural consumption practices that are required to transform consumption patterns, and are most likely to contribute to conservation, and are robust enough to cope with impacts of climate change?
A: At the level of households, conservation and efficient use of water can help. Razor land leveling and water saving irrigation techniques, such as the use of drip and sprinkle irrigation, especially in orchards, can reduce the water demands of the agriculture sector. On the supply side, diversion of flood water and rainwater harvesting are the only feasible measures for adoption.
Q: What are some of the major gaps in knowledge in terms of observation and research related to climate change and water?
A: Although climate science is robust,there are uncertainties over the scale and magnitude of its adverse impacts and the timing and location of the extreme weather phenomena. A major reason of the existing uncertainties is that we are not sure whether the international community will be able to carry out sharp and deep cuts in the global carbon emissions and arrest deforestation and forest degradation and other practices, which are driving global warming. These uncertainties oblige the IPCC to draw up over forty scenarios of global warming, corresponding to the different levels of expected mitigation.
The consequent uncertainties cause gaps in reliable forecasting of the impacts of climate change, including water resources. There are also serious knowledge gaps in respect of the recession of the glaciers, of which its snow and ice melt feed our rivers.
Q: How will climate change impact water quality, aquatic ecosystems and ground water, including its socio-economic dimensions?
A: All major impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, rapid recession of glaciers, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and erratic monsoons would cumulatively reduce the quantity and deteriorate the quality of water and bring enormous pressure to be borne by the aquatic ecosystems. Forests, including mangrove forests, would be degraded, fisheries will be threatened, and animals and plants would be hard pressed to cope with higher level of thirst amid declining supplies.
The socio-economic effects would include slowing down development and making poverty alleviation more challenging.
Q: While shortage of water in Pakistan is a fact, how much of the scarcity can be attributed to gaps in internal management practices?
A: Deficits of internal management have exacerbated Pakistan’s water woes. We have failed to evolve management policies and tools to address water issues. We do not have an integrated water resource management policy that would take care of the needs of the major user sectors – agriculture, industry, households – as well as deal with the challenges of relative abundance during the four months (June-September), when the rains triggered by the monsoon winds descend, causing floods or scarcity during the remaining eight months marked by reduced flows in the rivers and dwindling flows in the three major reservoirs critical for both irrigation and energy.
The Ministry of Water and Power has limited capacity for policy coordination, highlighted by the fact that only one out of its five joint secretaries deals with water. There is meager coordination among water-related institutions, such as WAPDA, the Indus River System Authority, the National Flood Commission, and the Water Resource Research Council under the M/O Science and Technology, all of which operate as isolated silos and some of them face technical, financial and human resource limitations. Coordination between the Federal and Provincial Governments is inadequate. The management of water in the rapidly and chaotically growing urban areas is especially inefficient. Water charges for irrigation and other uses do not even cover the cost of maintaining water infrastructure. There is no governance of groundwater which is being abstracted unsustainably.
The mismanagement of water not only complicates the challenge of availability but also encourages deterioration of the quality of water in both the rural and urban areas, which has negative economic and health consequences.
Better management practices, especially in irrigation which consumes nearly 90% of all available water, can help in alleviating our water woes for a few more years.
Q: While the quantity per capita of available water has declined, the absolute quantity of water has remained the same. What is the cause of decreasing per capita availability of water, and what measures can be put in place to prevent water losses, including transmission losses of water flowing through the Indus Basin?
A: The quantity of water in absolute terms has indeed declined due to the loss of three eastern rivers from 1970 onward, consequent on the completion of the civil works for storing and transporting flows from the western rivers to regions served from the eastern rivers. Our experts have also observed decline in the flows of the western rivers, which is perhaps due to the silting of the rivers and prolonged droughts in the catchment areas of those rivers across the border. Apart from that, the decrease in per capita availability of water has occurred because of the over fivefold increase in our population and poor maintenance of water infrastructure, especially the canals and channels. The most effective way of reducing losses in transmission of water is the lining of canals and channels, which is costly but worth the expenditure.
Q: Large dams have become contentious issues. What are some of the other options that can be utilized for storage of water?
A: Large dams have become contentious because they often cause displacement of communities living in areas submerged by the reservoirs, as well as habitat loss for plant and fish and other aquatic species. Dams are also extremely costly to build, require expensive maintenance, especially for de-silting, and entail losses of water caused by evaporation. The best alternative ways of storing water include proper maintenance of rain-fed lakes and rural ponds by the communities using their waters, recycling of water used by factories and rain harvesting by the municipal authorities, the corporate sector and individuals.
Given Pakistan’s extremely inadequate water storage capacity and the seasonal abundance versus scarcity syndrome, the building of a few medium size and large dams appears to be unavoidable, but they must be planned, designed and maintained according to the guidelines proposed by the International Commission of Dams.
Trans-Boundary Water Sharing Challenges
Q: River Indus water system serves almost 300 million people living in the Indus River Basin, of which the largest cohorts are in India and Pakistan. The Indus Basin is spread over 1.12 million square kilometers with 47% of its expanse located in Pakistan. The Indus Water Treaty (IWT) divides the Indus Basin between India and Pakistan. Given the importance of water on the political economy of both countries and the changing socio-economic dynamics, do you think that the Treaty needs to be revisited and renegotiated to meet future challenges?
A: The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) negotiated and signed in 1960 does not address a number of issues related to water resources, which were not considered crucial or were not well understood at that time, and were not covered by the negotiations. These include the impacts of climate change, groundwater management, watershed management, environment flows in the eastern rivers allocated to India; coping with likely reductions in flows caused by climate change and the negative impacts of cascades of hydropower projects by India utilizing the waters of the western rivers, including those on the ecology of the lower riparian. Moreover, whilst the IWT does refer to the need for preventing pollution of river flows, it does not prescribe stringent measures.
None of the aforementioned topics has been discussed by India and Pakistan. The Permanent Indus Commission has been preoccupied with Pakistan’s objections concerning Indian hydropower projects on the Western rivers. However, during the past decade, in Track 2 meetings, Indian and Pakistani experts have recognized the relevance of the issues omitted by the IWT, and suggested technical investigation of the facts by experts of the two countries. The studies should offer options for consideration by the Indian and Pakistani governments under Article 7 of the IWT on “Future Cooperation”. There is no need to “revisit” or “renegotiate” the IWT; cooperative arrangements on the hitherto neglected or omitted issues can be spelt out using soft instruments, such as joint statements or memoranda of understanding.
Q: How much is Pakistan dependent on trans-boundary waters, and which sectors of the economy rely most on it?
A: The trans-boundary Indus Basin is Pakistan’s main sources of fresh waters; the 50 or so lakes and a few rivers outside the Indus Basin being a secondary source. The Indus Basin flow accounts for around 80% of our freshwater resources. Agriculture claims around more than 85% of the water resources of the Basin, which also meet the needs of all economic sectors and our population.
Q: What are some of the major misperceptions about IWT and trans-boundary water sharing challenges in the public discourse?
A: The Government of Pakistan has time and again reiterated its commitment to the IWT as the indispensable means of addressing Indo-Pak trans-boundary waters issues. However, adverse comments on the Treaty recur frequently in historical narratives of the Treaty and statements of politicians on the subject. The main grievance of Pakistani critics of the IWT is that it deprived Pakistan of the three eastern rivers – Ravi, Sutlej and Beas – by allotting them to India. There are also complaints that the IWT did not prescribe the maximum number and capacities of the hydropower projects built by India on the western rivers.
Q: Has the devolution of water to the provinces after the 18th Constitutional Amendment, while leaving regulatory authority for access and equity with the federal government, created issues of coordination or improved water management?
A: Management of water resources and infrastructure has all along been shared by the federal and provincial governments. The dual responsibility was preserved by the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which has mandated the Council of Common Interests (CCI) to deal with inter- provincial disputes over riverflows. The Indus Rivers System Authority (IRSA), a federal statutory body, is charged with overseeing the implementation of the 1991 Indus Waters Accord on the inter-provincial apportionment of the Indus Basin’s flows.
Q: How effective is the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) in regulating provincial water sharing according to the Indus Apportionment Accord on 1991?
A: The Indus River System Authority (IRSA) was established through an Act of Parliament in December 1992 to lay down the basis for the regulation and distribution of surface waters amongst the four provinces of Pakistan based on the allocations stipulated in the 1991 Indus Accord. IRSA’s functions, include reviewing and specifying river and reservoir operations patterns; coordinating and regulating the activities of the Water and Power Authority (WAPDA) in regard to exchange of data on water flows; fixing priorities for river and reservoir operations for irrigation and hydropower generation according to the provisions of the Accord, and reviewing withdrawal indents submitted by the provinces and issuing consolidated operational directives to WAPDA. IRSA is also mandated to settle inter-provincial questions in respect to river and reservoir waters, and to consider and make recommendations on the availability of water against the allocated shares of the provinces in respect to water related projects.
The governance system of IRSA comprises members nominated by the four provinces and the chairman appointed by the federal government. The proclivity of the provincial representatives to stoutly pursue their briefs often leads to stalemates obliging the chairman to use his casting vote to resolve issues. IRSA lacks a water gauging apparatus of its own and has to rely on WAPDA’s telemetry system, whose findings are sometimes contested by the provinces.
Finally, IRSA is required to ensure that the irrigation needs of the provinces are met and has no authority to adjust allocations during floods or droughts, or for power generation. This handicap will undermine IRSA’s ability to effectively handle variations in flows caused by climate change.
Q: How will the Treaty’s shortcomings on climate change and environmental flows affect lives and livelihoods in the future?
A: The IWT divided the six rivers of the Indus Basin between India and Pakistan. It allocated the three eastern rivers to India for its exclusive use. It legitimized Pakistan’s rights over the three western rivers, but allowed India to utilize specified quantity of water for irrigation and human consumption, as well as run-of- the-river hydropower projects with restricted pondage. All differences between India and Pakistan over the Indus Basin since the mid-1970s relate to the designs of some Indian hydro projects, which in Pakistan’s view, violate the storage limits laid down in the annexes of the IWT.
The dispute settlement mechanism established by the Treaty has thus far helped in settling most of the differences, except the Kishenganga Dam, and a few new projects that are yet to be resolved.
According to Pakistani experts, the flows of the western rivers seem to have declined during the past decade. Indian experts attribute this to prolonged droughts linked to climate change in the catchment areas of the rivers. Climate scientists fear that climate changes – induced recession of the HKH glaciers, recurring droughts and erratic monsoons – are likely to cause a drastic reduction in river flows, which will adversely affect India and Pakistan. The IWT neither specifies quantities of water nor does it suggest how the two riparian are to deal with fluctuations in flows. India and Pakistan need to consider this and other questions related to the impacts of climate change on the Indus Basin with a view to agreeing on measures to respond to the impacts of climate change. A joint study by the experts of the two countries, assisted by experts from multilateral agencies and third countries to examine the effects of climate change on the Indus Basin under different scenarios of higher temperature, would be highly useful in preventing misunderstandings and conflicts.
Q: What are the pros and cons of a basin wide approach to address trans-boundary issues in South Asia?
A: There are three major trans-boundary river basins in South Asia that are shared by two or more neighbours. These are the Indus Basin shared by Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, and the Ganga or Ganges and the Brahmaputra Basins, which are shared by China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal. The Indus Waters Treaty resolved the major issues related to the Indus Basin between India and Pakistan by dividing the rivers between them.
The IWT is not, as the World Bank had initially hoped, an agreement on the joint, cooperative development and sharing of the Indus Basin waters. There is no agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan on the Kabul River, which is a major tributary of the Indus Basin. Similarly, the various agreements between Bangladesh and India, including the Ganga/Ganges Treaty signed in 1996, cannot be called blueprints for the basin-wide development and utilization of the Ganges Basin as they deal with some aspects of water sharing.
The 1996 India-Nepal Treaty on the Integrated Development of the Mahakali River also addresses some issues concerning the shared rivers and does not qualify as a basin-wide agreement. The implementation of the Mahakali Treaty has been lopsided and the agreement does not enjoy broad-based support in Nepal.
South Asian states sharing trans-boundary river basins need to seriously consider the benefits of a basin-wide cooperation in the development and optimum utilization of the water resources of the river basins shared by them, as has been done by riparian of nearly two dozen trans-boundary rivers in several other regions.
Q: Does the Treaty have adequate safeguards for conflict resolution to address emerging threats that are creating new pressures on per capita water availability?
A: The IWT has an elaborate, 3-tier dispute avoidance and resolution mechanism for addressing issues relating to the provisions of the Treaty. The joint Permanent Indus Commission, comprising the Indian and Pakistani Indus Commissioners, is meant to serve as the main conduit of communication on all matters concerning the provisions of the Treaty. It is expected to help prevent differences by clarifying questions related to the implementation for the Treaty.
If the Commission is unable to resolve any “question”, it is deemed to have become a “difference”, which can be referred by the two parties by mutual consent to a “neutral expert” appointed by the World Bank for a decision. If the neutral expert is unable to resolve the “difference”, then it becomes a “dispute”, to be settled by a court of arbitration appointed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. As mentioned earlier, all the problems between India and Pakistan over water issues is due to the Indian hydroelectric projects on the western rivers. So far each tier of the mechanism has resolved at least one major dispute.
The IWT lacks safeguards against what you have described as “emerging threats creating new pressures”, such as the impacts of climate change, the quality of water, excessive abstraction of groundwater, which is likely to adversely affect river flows, and environmental flows in the eastern (Indian) rivers close to Pakistan. Obviously, emerging threats can be prevented or addressed provided the two countries trust one another and carry out a purposeful dialogue to deal with any, or all emerging issues.
Q: What are the key drivers and building blocks for a discourse on water that can reduce tensions and pave the way for collaborative actions?
A: Indian and Pakistani political leaders should eschew irresponsible rhetoric on issues concerning shared trans-boundary rivers. Instead the two Governments should aim at initiating, as early as possible, a wide-ranging bilateral dialogue on cooperatively managing the water resources of the Indus, which are threatened by climate change. The dialogue should encompass all aspects of optimum utilization of the waters of the Indus Basin, including jointly building and managing hydropower projects, enhancing water use efficiency, groundwater management, environmental flows, and so forth. They should also encourage greater interactions between the water-related institutions and civil society organizations in order to expand the pro- cooperation constituencies on water issues. Think Tanks, civil society organizations, and the media of both countries, can vitally contribute to the promotion of multi-faceted collaboration on water issues.
Q: Indus Water Treaty addresses only surface water sharing between India and Pakistan. How much is trans-boundary abstraction of water affecting aquifers in Pakistan, and what steps can be taken to ensure that extraction/recharge is fair and equitable?
A: Aquifers are fed by fugitive flows from rivers, lakes, and man-made reservoirs, and replenished by rainfall. They are, therefore, an integral component of surface water. In the case of aquifers linked to the trans-boundary rivers shared by India and Pakistan, estimates of the impact of water abstraction from those aquifers across the borders can be made only if reliable data, is provided by India. The topics on which joint studies have been suggested in Indo-Pak Track 2 dialogues include the sustainability of groundwater.
Q: Should trans-boundary water sharing be made part of the bilateral agenda with Afghanistan?
A: Afghanistan and Pakistan share the waters of the Kabul and several other, smaller rivers, which have flowed into Pakistan from Afghanistan for centuries without any hindrance of an effort or interruption. But there is no agreement on shared rivers. The Kabul, joined by the Swat and other rivers in Pakistan, drains into the Indus at Attock, adding 18 MAF of water amounting to 17% of the Indus flows. A former head of IRSA and the Pakistan Indus Commissioner, as well as our print media, have voiced concern over a likely reduction in the flows of the Kabul into Pakistan due to diversion for multi-purpose (hydropower cum irrigation) projects in Afghanistan, which will adversely affect Pakistan. Pakistan should initiate discussions with Afghanistan on joint development and management of the water resources of the Kabul Basin, which would hopefully lead to mutually beneficial and sustainable cooperation.
Q: Is there a survey of trans-boundary aquifers and what can be done to recharge/ replenish them?
A: The sustainability of aquifers all over the world has emerged as a major water- related challenge since the 1990s due to growing reports of excessive abstraction of groundwater in both the three major grain producing countries (China, India, and the United States), and critical scarcity in the hyper arid regions, such as Arabia, the Persian Gulf and Jordan/Israel. The inclusion of groundwater in the list of watercourses by the UN Convention on Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, adopted in 1997, also focused search lights on the imperative of protecting the health and resilience of trans-boundary aquifers.
To date, the most comprehensive survey of international aquifers is the one launched by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 2003, with the collaboration of European aerospace institutions called the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), whose results have been analyzed by scientists at the University of California’s Center for Hydrological Modeling and similar institutions elsewhere. According to studies analyzing the NASA data, 21 out of the 37 major world aquifers are being unsustainably drained mainly in order to irrigate more land to feed growing world population.
The aquifers in the Ganges Basin shared by India and Bangladesh were identified as one of the three most depleted in the world. A 2011 study issued by the Indian Ministry of Water Resources based on declassified information noted that aquifers in the Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan were over-exploited. The Indian government has not published information on groundwater abstraction in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, where the Indus Basin aquifers are located. However, during the past decade or so, a number of reports, including a study undertaken by the International Water-logging and Salinity Research Institute (IWASRI) for WAPDA, a couple of years ago, and one by the Global Food and Water Crisis Research Program published last year, have described the Indus Basin – which concerns Pakistan – as a “rapidly depleted water body”, mainly due to growing demand for irrigation.
According to various studies, Pakistani farmers draw 50 million acre feet (MAF) of underground water to supplement surface water, 40% of which gets lost during transmission. The downstream areas in Sindh are facing serious water depletion, forcing subsistence farmers and fishing communities to move to cities for alternative livelihoods. The consequences of over exploitation of ground water include the drying up of wells; reduction in the flows of lakes, streams and rivers in the vicinity; deterioration in the quality of water; higher costs of pumping, degradation of soil and chronic shortage of drinking water.
The best remedial measures in the face of depleting aquifers are better maintenance of the water courses feeding the groundwater, higher water use efficiency by the agriculture sector, and effective governance for groundwater.
Q: What would be the best approach to manage shared national and trans-boundary aquifers?
A: Indian and Pakistani water experts have suggested several remedial measures, such as an effective regularity system for national aquifers, which should include higher charges for groundwater and monitoring of the underground wells. The Track 2 discussions between Indian and Pakistani experts have recommended a joint study of the trans-boundary aquifers. Indian and Pakistani governments should accept this suggestion and enable the relevant institutions to undertake the study so that they have a reliable basis for decision making.
Q: Gilgit Baltistan (GB), Ladakh and Western Tibet constitute a fragile but critical ecosystem. What kind of remedial measures are needed to protect and preserve it?
A: I do not know much about these high altitude regions, but I am inclined to think that their remote location, the lack of infrastructure to connect them with cities where decisions are made, and population growth would exert pressure on their inherently fragile ecosystems. What is worse is that these vulnerabilities are likely to be exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. The Attabad Glacial Outburst Lake (GLOF) in GB, which cut large areas off from the rest of the country is a relevant example.
With regards to remedial measures, the suggestions contained in the GEF-funded GLOF project are relevant. Needless to say, the focus of all interventions should be on strengthening the resilience of the communities in GB and Ladakh in the face of the looming climate change related challenges.
Q: In what manner is our experience with the Indus Waters Treaty relevant to a future water treaty with Afghanistan?
A: I believe that the key factors responsible for the success of the negotiation of the IWT were, (1) the active role of the World Bank in facilitating technical discussions, (2) the funds mobilized by the World Bank and the US, and other OECD countries for the huge civil works (multi-purpose dams and reservoirs in Mangla and Tarbela for storing water of the western rivers, link canals and barrages for transferring water to Punjab and Sindh, tube wells for increasing water supply, etc) for compensating Pakistan for the loss of the three eastern rivers, whose waters had irrigated most of the cultivated land in Pakistan, and (3) a strong government in Pakistan which accepted a solution entailing loss of waters from three rivers. The elaborate dispute settlement mechanism stipulated in the IWT is also relevant. In my view the most important lesson from the IWT experience is the proactive role of the World Bank, which has accumulated invaluable expertise in promoting cooperative initiatives in respect of shared river basins during the five and half decades since the signing of the IWT and is, therefore, uniquely qualified to facilitate an Afghanistan-Pakistan Treaty, or agreement on the Kabul River Basin.