NationalVolume 14 Issue # 03

Waking up to the climate crisis

At long last, the government has woken up to the worsening crisis of climate change.

Climate change has begun to affect Pakistan seriously. Earlier this year, drought-like conditions hit most parts of the country. The situation was specially grim in barani areas of Punjab, lower KP, south Punjab, southwest Balochistan and southeast Sindh. This dry condition caused acute water stress in the agriculture areas of the country. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, the months of January – May received below normal rainfall. In view of this, the department called for “an immediate water management strategy by all the stakeholders to avoid negative impacts of deficit rainfall on water and agriculture”.

This year, our river flows have been at an all-time low due to lower-than-normal precipitation in the catchment areas triggered by climate change. In recent meetings, the Indus River System Authority has pointed to acute water shortage in the Indus basin river system. Irrigation supplies for winter crops in Punjab were 40 per cent lower than historical averages. This is a matter of concern as more than 90pc of our fresh water is used in agriculture and 60pc of our population is directly or indirectly associated with agriculture.

Pakistan is inching towards a serious water crisis as per capita water availability is falling due to diminishing freshwater supplies and the burgeoning population. The challenges are two-fold: decreasing river inflows and reckless water management. Pakistan began in 1947 with 5,650 cubic metre per capita fresh water annually. A water management expert associated with the Punjab Irrigation department recently said that our annual water availability is now 1,000 cubic metre per person and the situation is worsening day by day.

For years the authorities in Pakistan neglected to address the issue but things have begun to improve now. Although a little late in the day, a climate change ministry has been set up at the federal level along with a climate change national authority. In addition, a multi-sectoral national network on climate change has been established. It consists of a dozen scientific and research organisations, civil society groups and government departments.

The function of the network is to develop information exchange, hold forums for raising awareness (especially in the media) and dissemination of research material. In addition, there is the Pakistan Disaster Management Authority to deal with the many inevitable climate change-related disasters.

However, to implement the new policies and measures, we need to streamline the working of the line departments of which those of irrigation, local government, forest and roads are the most important. It has been reported that the 2010 floods took a worse turn because canals, barrages and headworks had not been de-silted, preventing the flow of water. Flood protection and canal embankments had not been maintained, and in many cases, the trees on them had been cut illegally and sold.

Over the years, new roads that have been built usually block many of the smaller drainage channels making the disposal of water difficult. The floodplains of the rivers are clearly demarcated and no construction of any permanent nature is permitted on them under the law. However, entire settlements, complete with social and physical infrastructure, have been built on them over the years, often with the help of government agencies. It is also on record that where the local government and line departments were better organised and community organisations existed, flood prevention, relief and rehabilitation was organised more successfully than in areas where such linkages and groups did not exist.

This underlines the need for improving the functioning of line departments; developing various tiers of local government and supporting them with technical advice and managerial guidance. If this is done effectively, it will lead to the creation of empowered local communities and prevent powerful landlords from breaching canal and flood protection embankments to protect their lands, as happened in 2010.

One of the major climate change-related concerns is the growing water shortage in Pakistan which experts feel is already at crisis level. This has led to renewed pressure for the building of the Bhasha dam. Some 92 to 95 per cent of all water in Pakistan is spent on agriculture. At present we follow the flood irrigation system under which water is flooded into the fields. These fields are for the most part uneven as a result of which a very large volume of water is required to flood them.

This requires land levelling. Such a programme has been initiated both in Punjab and Sindh, and farmers who have levelled their fields claim that, as a result, water usage has dropped by 20pc to 25pc. Another government programme is the lining of canals with brick and concrete to prevent seepage and hence loss of water. This again would save another 15pc to 20pc of water usage. However, field reports suggest that laser levelling and canal lining programmes have not really taken off. It is important that they be expanded with immediate effect because for the time being they are a quicker and cheaper way of saving water.

Successive governments in Pakistan have shown criminal disregard for managing our water resources — surface and ground — efficiently. In the last six decades, Pakistan hasn’t built a single major water reservoir. Wapda sources claim that Pakistan fritters away water worth Rs25 billion every year. Tarbela, one of the two existing reservoirs, has lost its storage capacity by over three million acre feet due to silt buildup. Our failure to build any new reservoirs after its construction in the mid ’70s shows our short-sightedness and ineptitude. Out of the 145 MAF we receive annually, we store only 14 MAF. There could not be a more damning indictment.