FeaturedNationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 29

Sindh-Punjab water tensions

Pakistan faces a serious water crisis for its summer crops and the situation has heightened tensions between Punjab and Sindh. The shortages not only threaten food security in the country but also undermine national harmony.

The situation is not unexpected. Water shortages are worsening year by year and summer crops were feared to suffer after experts had warned of an acute shortfall of water. However, the Central and Sindh and Punjab governments failed to take timely measures. At least, they could have launched drives to create awareness of judicious water use and its conservation. The water shortages have also created tensions between Punjab and Sindh. It will also add to the political temperature in the country. Experts say the shortages for the summer crops have jumped to 30pc from earlier projections of 10pc, with a drop in temperature in the catchment areas. It forced the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), the sole arbiter of water disputes under the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord, to release water from the Mangla Dam for the cotton crop in Sindh as the provincial government accused the authority and Punjab of stealing its water share. On the other hand, Punjab was annoyed at the move, because it feared the failure to fill the reservoir could worsen water shortages for both summer and winter crops in the province. It demanded water distribution among the provinces in accordance with the new estimates of shortages and available river inflows. Besides, Punjab also accuses Sindh of under-reporting water availability for irrigation in the province.

The two provinces have had reservations against each other for decades. An accord was reached in 1991 to solve water disputes among provinces but it failed to achieve its desired results. Sindh is concerned because the accord does not ensure a minimum environmental flow of river water through the province into the sea. It opposes the construction of dams upstream because it fears it would deprive it of its due water share.

When the water row between Punjab and Sindh intensified, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari accused the then PTI federal government of failing to ensure a fair distribution of water and depriving Sindh of its share. He said the PTI government had deliberately created a water crisis in Sindh and must be held responsible for any consequences. He also alleged that 2,000 cusecs of water of Sindh was being stolen through the Chashma Jhelum Link Canal.

The dispute has not subsided even after almost all parties have formed a coalition government in the Centre. The PPP is a coalition partner with the PML-N in the Centre, but it still accuses the PML-N government in Punjab of a conspiracy to turn Sindh into a desert as “the province has not been getting its due share of irrigation water owing to collusion between Punjab and the Indus River System Authority (IRSA).” Adviser to the Sindh Chief Minister on Agriculture Manzoor Hussain Wassan said the Chashma-Jhelum and Taunsa-Panjnad link canals had reached their dead levels owing to the mishandling of the water situation. He lamented that many crops in Sindh were about to be ruined due to an acute shortage of water. “Sindh has to face up to 53pc shortage of water than its due share due to IRSA’s incompetence,” he alleged.

According to the Sindh government, the water level in the Keenjhar Lake has dropped to an alarming level while water also reduced in the Chashma and Taunsa barrages by 40,000 cusecs. Cotton and sugarcane crops in Sindh have dried up due to the unavailability of water and more crops could be ruined if the drought situation persisted. Water is not even available for livestock as cattle have started to die in Thatta, Sujawal and Badin.

However, opposition leader in the Sindh Assembly, Haleem Adil Sheikh, claimed that Sindh was receiving more water than its share. He accused provincial ministers and local leaders of being involved in water theft. “Feudal lords and PPP leaders steal water in Sindh and small growers are deprived of it,” he alleged at a press conference.

On the other hand, Punjab claims that Sindh has been fudging data on the availability of water in its canals by exaggerating transmission losses to get extra share at the cost of other provinces. “Sindh has been tampering with water availability data in the province and teams of IRSA during surprise visits have repeatedly found more water at Guddu, Sukkur and Kotri barrages than was being reported by Sindh irrigation authorities,” ex-Punjab Irrigation Minister Mohsin Leghari alleged. He said Punjab irrigation officials deputed at the Sindh barrages had also been reporting figure fudging but the IRSA failed to take action. He feared that the country could face food security if the Mangla reservoir was not filled and water was not available for wheat sowing. He accused the IRSA of releasing additional water for Sindh under pressure from the PPP.

In response to the allegations, an IRSA spokesperson claimed that all provinces were receiving their fair share of water.

Dams and water reservoirs are also important for meeting the demand of clean drinking water in major cities. It is hoped the new dams will be built in the stipulated time, which would not only provide low-cost electricity to people but also ensure food security in the country.