Water shortage is worsening with each passing day at all three barrages of Sindh due to reduced upstream flows, forcing irrigation authorities to resort to rotation programme to apportion limited water among all recipients in measured quantity.Presently, Guddu and Sukkur barrages are facing 19 per cent and 14pc shortage.
The Water Apportionment Accord is an agreement on the sharing of waters of the Indus Basin between the provinces of Pakistan. It is based largely upon the historical use of water by the provinces; Punjab 47%, Sindh 42% Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 8% and Baluchistan 3%.
The Accord was signed into effect 25 years ago on 21 March 1991 and is the most significant piece of water legislation in Pakistan after the Indus Waters Treaty, which is an agreement on sharing of waters between India and Pakistan.
Yet the 25th anniversary of the Accord has passed without acknowledgement from the government, popular press or any civil society group. The irony is that it coincided with World Water Day on 22 March, when Pakistan pledged to do better when it comes to managing water.
In Pakistan water agreements quickly become sacrosanct. We are prepared to amend our constitution but somehow our water agreements are perfect first-time around in perpetuity.
The reality is that our water agreements are not perfect. The fact that India and Pakistan have not gone to war over water is often cited as a measure of the success of the Indus Waters Treaty, or that the provinces have not gone repeatedly to the Council of Common Interests over inter-provincial water disputes is hardly a testament to perfection.
The Accord failed to end long simmeringtensions between Sindh and Pakistan over water sharing. Of all the provinces of Pakistan, Sindh feels the most aggrieved because the accord does not guarantee a minimum “environmental flow” of river water through the province and into the Arabian Sea. Sindh worries extractionof water for dam building and irrigation in upstream provinces will deprive the region of the water it needs.
People feel their rights have been usurped and that the provincial political leadership of the time was forced into signing this document. There is a mechanism for India and Pakistan to try to resolve disputes through the Indus Water Commission, after which it escalates to neutral experts, and as a last resort, goes to the international court of arbitration.
With the inter-provincial water accord, if a dispute cannot be resolved within the Indus River System Authority, the only other resort is the Council of Common Interest, which resolves power sharing disputes between the federation and provinces.
There is only one tier to resolve disputes and in many cases a province may not wish to escalate a concern to that level – in which case there is no mid-way.
Furthermore the Council of Common Interest like any court of law will evaluate a dispute against the existing Accord, not debate the Accord itself.
The Accord is not without its problems. Its clauses and terminology are ambiguousand can be interpretedin different ways.
Clause 2 stipulates how 117.35 million acre feet (MAF) of water in the Indus Basin shall be allocated among the provinces. However in reality there will never be exactly this amount since water is notoriously variable.
Of note is that clause 4 does not stipulate anything if the volume available is less than 117.35MAF.
The Indus River Systems Authority responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Accord reports, what are euphemistically called “gains/losses”.
A more appropriate term for this would be “volume balance error”, as it is simply water that cannot be accounted for. This error is significant and growing each year. For a country that claims it suffers from water scarcityit is quite incredible that we fail to account for these large volumes of water. If we extrapolate from the current rate over the next twenty five years we will be reporting volume balance errors equivalent to the entire annual water resources of Pakistan.
Water trading could go some way to resolving tensions between provinces over water. But conversation about water trading in Pakistan is equivalent to “water blasphemy”; we refuse to engage in it. We have a simple philosophy when it comes to water – if you can extract your share of water, do with it what you will.
This philosophy stems from our vast irrigation system where water was shared amongst farmers and farmers where left to their own devices as to how they use this water.
Basin level water resources are dominated by this irrigation engineering philosophy prevalent in the sub-continent. This unduly punishes provinces such as Sindh, Baluchistan or KP which can only extract limited water due to topography.
They cannot extract the value from the resource because the Accord prohibits water trading. Water trading would involve Punjab paying KP for water that KP was unable or did not wish to use.
Without opportunities for water trading, Baluchistan and KP will be incentivised to exploit all the water they can from the Indus Basin as for them this remains the only way in which to extract value.This twenty five year milestone has gone unmarked because water, as opposed to power, is very low on the national agenda. Power (or lack of) draws crowds on to the street in protest. The pain is felt immediately, the political gains from addressing the challenge immediate. Water is a significantly poorer cousin. Its effects are slower, but far more lethal. There is no substitute for water, and without with the wells will run dry, and food will disappear from the table.
The federal government has currently opened flood canals in Punjab that can bring worst-ever water crisis in Sindh. More than 55,000 cusecs of water were required at the Sukkur Barrage, while only 37,000 cusecs were being received at Guddu. Water shortage in Chotiari Dam, Keenjhar Lake and other canals was deepening, which could lead to an extreme shortage of drinking water in Karachi.
Sindh has faced 35 per cent water shortage in early Kharif. therefore, people of Sindh should be compensated by releasing more water to enable them to water their drying crops. It is the responsibility of Irsa to balance the shortages at the end of early Kharif season, but it has failed in this regard. Due to unfair distribution of water by Irsa, Sindh was deprived of 824,000-acre feet of water from April 1 to July 31. “Consequently, there remains an acute shortage of water in Sindh and sowing of cotton and rice crops has been badly affected and there is great hue and cry in the farmer community. Even today Sindh is receiving water as per (Para-2) Water Accord but many tail areas are still without water due to unjust distribution of water by Irsa.
Sindh has always pressed one point as far as water distribution is concerned. “Give us water in line with the Water Apportionment Accord 1991. We don’t accept three-tier formula which is bone of contention.Sindh disagrees with the viewpoint of Punjab, which accuses Sindh of providing fudged figures [incorrect ]. The situation is so bad that people have started crying for drinking water, what to talk of irrigation.
Compromised water flows will continue to put rice growers in Sindh in a quandary, suffering since the start of the summer.
It is imperative that this long-standing dispute is resolved at the earliest because of the serious repercussions it has on our already struggling agricultural sector.
With the water crisis in Pakistan assuming dangerous proportions with each passing day, it is essential for IRSA to resolve disputes over water provision in a manner that secures the buy-in of all provinces,even if that requires a re-evaluation of the existing water accord.