It is astonishing that despite facing an acute situation in the water sector, no government in Pakistan has been able to develop a national water policy with the consultation of all stakeholders. The draft National Water Policy was finally taken up by the Council of Common Interest for approval in 2017 but nothing came of it. In this connection it may be mentioned that the first draft was prepared in 2002-2005, and then another attempt was made in 2010. This took two years but could not be finalized due to the unresolved dispute over federal versus provincial domain debate. The latest attempt was made in 2015, which finally reach the Council of Common Interests. It is, indeed, regrettable that the country is suffering from severe water scarcity, but the government has not been able to formulate a sound national water policy. It is relevant to mention here that neighbouring countries – India, Bangladesh and Nepal – have had their water policies in place for decades.
It is a matter of concern that the water sector continues to be neglected by the authorities concerned. This is proved by the fact that although water supply and storage seem to be among top priorities of the government, the utilisation of funds for water projects has gone down. This is so in the face of the fact that the country is facing an acute shortage of water. Figures show that during the current fiscal year 2016-17, the government has allocated Rs31.72 billion for development schemes in the water sector, but only around Rs24 billion, or 76% of the total, would be utilised by the end of June. This has been disclosed in the Annual Plan 2017-18. The government has not only delayed the release of funds for water projects designed to enhance the country’s storage capacity, but it has also cut fund allocation substantially since coming to power about four years ago. Instead, its focus has been on building the road infrastructure and metro bus projects.
A detailed analysis of the situation shows that after coming to power in mid-2013, the government earmarked Rs59 billion for fiscal year 2013-14 to be disbursed among different projects aimed at conserving and enhancing the country’s water resources. However, out of the total, only Rs35 billion could be spent as the government slowed down the release of funds. In 2015-16, the allocation for water projects was slashed by around 50% to Rs30.12 billion. However, only Rs23 billion was disbursed for injection into the schemes. In the next fiscal year, almost a similar amount, Rs31.06 billion, was set aside for water schemes, but only Rs24 billion would be released by the end of the year. For the upcoming fiscal year 2017-18, a slightly higher amount estimated at Rs36.7 billion has been earmarked for water projects.
It is common knowledge that Pakistan is fast becoming a water-scarce country with dearth of storages, while India plans to build more dams on rivers coming to Pakistan. So far no workable water management policy has been put in place and farmers are forced to consume groundwater with the help of tube wells to irrigate their crops, which inflates power consumption bills. Faced with increasing difficulties, the farmers staged a protest in Islamabad last week on the eve of the budget for 2017-18 to invite attention to their plight as the government seemed to have relegated the agriculture sector to the lower priority zone. In the previous fiscal year, the agriculture sector did not grow, falling far short of the target, which had a negative impact on the overall national economic growth rate. In the current fiscal year, however, the agriculture sector grew 3.46% – its highest level in the past five years.
In the new budget, the government increased the agriculture credit target by 43% to Rs1.001 trillion and has announced loans of Rs50,000 for small farmers. Still, it has paid more attention to the manufacturing sector, which is provided loans at low interest rates whereas the farmers are compelled to bear high interest costs. The fertiliser manufacturers and sugar millers have got billions in government subsidy, but its benefits have hardly trickled down to the farmers.
Experts have warned that Pakistan will face energy and food security challenges in future as the government is showing little interest in water supply projects, which are closely related with agriculture production that needs water as a major input. Pakistan has been facing flood devastation for the past seven years, but calls for building more water reservoirs have fallen on deaf ears. At present, water storage capacity of the country is 14 million acre feet (MAF) whereas annual consumption stands at 117 MAF. Consumption of 1 MAF of water has a positive impact of $1 billion on the economy. Pakistan has been losing billions every year because of water wastage as reservoirs are short of the need.
Little is known about the details of the water policy which has now been drafted, but experts and industry insiders say that the water policy should have representations from all sectors and should have all the following aspects covered: objectives, plan of action, implementation methodologies and the time frame. The water policy is likely to have the Indus Water Treaty as its part, but the experts are also of the view that the policy should look beyond the Indus Water Treaty as it does not talk about the impact of climate change on water availability and the groundwater usage.
Much has changed over the past few years and the changes must be reflected in the water policy. Critical areas include climate change, building storage capacity, addressing inefficient irrigation practices, rationalising household, industrial and commercial water use, introducing water rights and proper pricing. A research organization last year published a report titled Recommendations for Pakistan’s National Water Policy Framework which highlighted five key focus areas for the policy to look at: improving water access, financing the urban and rural water value chain, safeguarding the Indus Basin and its infrastructure, improving water institutions and their governance, and finally building a base for science, technology, and social aspects of water.
First, the country needs to address water issues in irrigation as over 90 percent of the water consumption is in the agriculture sector. Smarter and efficient methods need to be adopted that consume less water. Efforts to bring agriculture in the tax net as well as fixing the water tariffs and the uniform pricing structure are much needed. Apart from reforming the water pricing for the commercial and the industrial sector, the scarce resource needs to be priced adequately for the domestic and household consumers as well.
Infrastructure investment in water for conservation, recycling water treatment, waste management should also be the government’s top priorities among other infrastructure projects. Finally, a lot can be also achieved with public awareness; awareness campaigns and behavioural sensitisation should represent a key area of the National Water Policy. The goal of the national water policy should be to bring water quality, equality and sustainability to the forefront of public attention.