Responding to Water Scarcity Challenges

Pakistan's water crisis is serious and despite numerous reports compiled by the experts on how to overcome it no worthwhile efforts are underway for construction of water dams. A country that was water abundant in 1947 is now water stressed and it is not far-fetched to say that days are not far off when drought status is likely to set if resistance to mega water dams continues.


Pakistan, fortunately, is endowed with 145 million acres feet (MAF) of water per annum. Of this, Indus River provides 90 MAF (62%), Jhelum River 23 MAF (16%), Chenab River 25 MAF (17%), and other small tributaries, 7.0 MAF (5%). Out of 145 MAF, 102 MAF is diverted for irrigation system while losses through seepages are 12 MAF or so. Water discharged to the sea per annum is around 31 MAF, though international experts are of the view that release of 8 MAF beyond Kotri should suffice to stop the Arabian Sea intrusion. In addition, 48 MAF of underground water is pumped out annually for multiple usages.


Himalayan glaciers contribute fresh water to our river system, but according to a study conducted by the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) – a joint partnership between NASA of USA and DLR of Germany – Asian glaciers are losing ice. Naimona'nyi glacier which feeds the Indus River has been shrinking at the rate of 5 meters per annum since four decades. It has an implication in terms of reduction in water availability for the country. Likewise, underground water reservoirs are depleting fast projecting yet another threat of water scarcity in many well developed cities of Pakistan. Alarming decrease in underground water level in Karachi from 600 feet to 1200 feet in last few years, and 3 feet per year depletion in Lahore may present an alarming situation in the next decade. Situation in Quetta, Islamabad, Rawalpindi and other cities outside the canal irrigation system is equally serious.


Pakistan is predominantly an agrarian society where livelihood of a considerable population depends upon agriculture. Population of our country is now 220 million and likely to increase to 280 million in the next decade or so. Overpopulation will exert tremendous strain on our agricultural output if the water scarcity issue is not addressed. So far, out of 197 million acres of cultivable wasteland, 48 million acres are under cultivation and within this 27 million acres fall under canal irrigation. Pakistan has the potential to bring another 20 million acres of virgin land under canal irrigation system provided water dams and canal networks are built on war footing.

Two factors are seriously restraining our national efforts for building water dams in the country. One is India that has upstream control of Indus River System and its tributeries. The other is inter-provincial disunity based on misperceptions and distrust in every serious effort in construction of mega dams.


Two factors are seriously restraining our national efforts for building water dams in the country. One is India that has upstream control of Indus River System and its tributaries. The other is inter-provincial disunity based on misperceptions and distrust in every serious effort in construction of mega dams.


India's diversion of Kishanganga (Neelum) water for Rattle hydroelectric project in IHK, and Pakistan losing the case against water diversion first in the International Court of Arbitration and later with the World Bank, will certainly have negative impact on flow of water into Neelum River and drop in production of hydroelectricity by Neelum-Jhelum Project. Likewise, India’s mega dams in IHK like Salal and Sawalkot shall have detrimental impact on already water stressed Pakistan. Tulbul Project near Baramulla on River Jhelum will also provide India the ability to regulate flow of water into Pakistan. Indian PM Mr. Narendra Modi’s statement that blood and water cannot flow in one direction vividly explains Indian intentions to use water as tool of coercion against Pakistan. 100 plus upcoming small/medium size water projects in IHK will further complicate the already tense water situation 


As regards internal scenario, political resistance existed against construction of Tarbela Dam in the sixties. However, today the entire country benefits from this dam. We have water storage capacity of 14 MAF that is barely 10% of 145 MAF water flow in Indus, Jhelum and Chenab Rivers, whereas world's water storage average is 40%. In terms of days, Egypt, USA, Australia, India and Pakistan have storage capacity for 1000, 900, 600, 220 and 30 days respectively.


To start off, let's level up with the world average benchmark of 40%. No new mega dam sites are available at Jhelum and Chenab rivers which is why storage option is restricted to Indus River having annual water flow of 90 MAF. For Indus River, storage capacity should be enhanced to 36 MAF (40% of 90 MAF) against 12.5 MAF (6.1 MAF at Tarbela plus 6.4 MAF at Diamer/Bhasha). Indus sites deserve the highest weightage to be given technical merits instead of political factors overriding technical merits. 


Katzarah near Skardu, KBD, Akhori, and Soan offer promising sites along/near River Indus. Katzarah, the narrowest and a multipurpose dam site on the confluence of three rivers namely, the Indus, Shyok and Shigar about 18 km downstream of Skardu has not been listed for construction in WAPDA Water Vision 2025. This site was identified by a Pakistani engineer in 1957 with a reservoir capacity up to 35 MAF, the largest in the world. It can additionally generate 15000 MW of electricity. This site was verified by the World Bank (WB) in 1968 as reflected in a report on water resources in Pakistan by Dr. Pieter Lieftinck of the WB. Katzarah has the best capacity inflow ratio along the entire length of Indus River Valley and life span of hundreds of years. If built, not only more than 20 million acres of extra virgin land would been brought under irrigation, bringing agriculture revolution in the country but the 31 MAF water wasted into the sea could also be stored for irrigation/drinking purposes. Unfortunately, political considerations such as drowning of Skardu city, airport, fruit orchards and blocking of land link to Siachen/Kargil sectors led to the project being dropped.


Kalabagh Dam is another mega dam site on Indus that has faced vehement criticism from few political leaders from Sindh and KP. No serious national efforts have been made to respond to the prevailing fears and criticism. Stakeholders from Sindh have concerns on neutrality of IRSA, oblivious attitude about ecological needs beyond Kotri, likely construction of off-taking canals for Punjab and KP reducing downstream flows, the unlikelihood of Sailaba (Riverine) lands getting water from Kalabagh Dam and, above all, unnecessary construction of dam when water is not available. Kalabagh Dam, if built, would have a storage capacity of 6.5 MAF besides production of 3800 MW of electricity. It could turn newly built Rainee and Kachhi canals into perennial canals in Sindh and Balochistan respectively. KP political leadership’s objections to this dam are centred around fear of drowning of Nowshera valley and water logging/salinity in the fertile valley of Peshawar.


Another viable dam project site is near Akhori 28 km east of Attock. It is objected by Sindh on grounds that Akhori-Ravi link canal would draw Indus water for diversion to River Jhelum. This dam awaiting national consensus, when constructed, shall provide storage of 6.0 MAF besides production of 600 MW of electricity.
Soan Dam can be built on River Soan near Dhok Pathan/Attock. The engineers claim that this site could store up to 38 MAF of water, which can be ascertained after detailed feasibility study. Even if the storage capacity remains one-fourth of the projected capacity, it will be worth it. No political objections are likely to be raised as the dam site is on Soan River of Punjab.


Although we are stuck for want of national consensus on mega dams discussed earlier, WAPDA is doing a great job by actively pursuing construction of 32 small/medium size dams all over the country. It may provide some relief in water stressed regions.


Learning from international experiences is one way to remove mistrust and develop national consensus. Danube River is a shining example of cooperation between multiple countries to resolve disputes and work for collective benefit. The Danube originates from Germany and meanders through 10 countries for 2780 km before emptying into the Black Sea. 62 mega dams are built on this river from which countries are benefitting. Similarly, Ataturk Dam built on Euphrates that originates from Turkey, flows through Syria and joins Tigris in Iraq to form Shatt al-Arab. Maximum storage capacity on Euphrates is greater than 116 MAF, exceeding annual natural flow. These countries had a serious water sharing issue which was settled amicably. A high powered technical committee represented by all the provinces could be constituted to visit Germany and Turkey to develop consensus formula for our stalled dam projects.


Katzarah Dam’s construction project should be offered to Japan as they possess state-of-the-art expertise/technology which will save on dislocations to human settlements and road infrastructure. One such wonder is constructed by the Chinese in the form of a 26 miles long bridge over an ocean linking Qingdao with Huangdao. The bridge has a life span of 100 years. Fear of routes leading to Siachen/Kargil sector being submerged could easily be addressed by the Chinese construction of bridges over the water besides ensuring least possible infrastructure-induced displacement.


Akhori Dam provides more or less similar water storage capacity as Kalabagh Dam and can commence right away concurrently with consensus building on both Katzarah and Kalabagh Dam projects.


A national level water dams fund should be created under the Planning Commission and a Board of Trustees comprising the PM, Finance Minister, Dy Chairman PC, CJP, CJ High Courts, Services Chiefs and Chairman WAPDA should oversee its utilisation for purpose of dams only and on priority basis.


We can live and survive without electricity but life without water would become extinct. Lets take it as a serious challenge to national security and instead of slipshod methodology to generate consensus, follow a fast-track by engaging international water dams experts for presentation(s) to decision makers for national consensus and construction execution.


The writer is a retired Brigadier and has served in National Accountability Bureau and Prime Minister's Inspection Commission.
E-mail: usmansaeeds@hotmail.com

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