NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 20

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, as Sindh is ruled by the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), while the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of Prime Minister Imran Khan has been in power in the Centre and Punjab. 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 is annoyed at the move, because it fears the failure to fill the reservoir could worsen water shortages for both summer and winter crops in the province. It demands 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.

The water row between Punjab and Sindh intensified after PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari accused the federal government of failing to ensure a fair distribution of water and depriving Sindh of its share. In a statement, he said the PTI government had deliberately created a water crisis in Sindh and must be held responsible for any consequences. “The water supply to Karachi has been severely reduced. Other districts of the province, including Thatta, Badin, Sujawal and Tharparkar, are also facing water shortages due to the brutal policy of the federal government.” He also alleged that 2,000 cusecs of water of Sindh was being stolen through the Chashma Jhelum Link Canal and warned of a sit-in on Punjab-Sindh borders if the water issue was not resolved.

Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said the province suffered a 35pc shortage in the first 10 days and a 37.7pc shortage in the second 10 days during the ongoing Kharif season-2021. “On the other hand, Punjab faced just 17.3pc and 16pc shortages in the first and second 10 days, respectively,” he charged.

Meanwhile, 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,” Punjab Irrigation Minister Mohsin Leghari alleged at a press conference. He said Punjab irrigation officials deputed at the Sindh barrages had also been reporting figure fudging but Irasa failed to take action. The Punjab irrigation minister 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. “Sindh faced only 4pc water shortage so far while Punjab faced 16pc,” he claimed.

Amid the bickering, Prime Minister Imran Khan has claimed that 10 dams and hydropower projects, initiated by the PTI government in 2018, would complete by 2028, which besides generating cheaper electricity will also make the country’s 8 million acres of land cultivable and ensure food security. Talking to the media after overseeing progress of construction of the Mohmand Dam, he regretted that despite having a large potential, “no dams were constructed in Pakistan after the decade of 1960s or over the last 50 years”. He said that 10 dams, including Bhasha and Dasu, would be built under the vision of clean and green Pakistan and in view of the climate crisis.

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.