More than 80% of the population in Pakistan faces severe water shortage. Without change, this should increase. As the water crisis threatens the country, Umer Karim, a professional in the development sector, spoke with The third pole.
Karim has worked in the field of irrigation and water management for over 20 years and is a consultant to public and private sector organizations, as well as a guest speaker and media commentator.
He spoke about dams, the water and energy crisis in Pakistan and the challenges of data and water management. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Excerpts from the interview:
Can you explain the debate around dams in Pakistan?
In 2010, all provinces had a consensus on the Diamer Bhasha Dam [a dam being built in northwest Pakistan, which will be one of the highest in the world when finished]. However, now the project is subject to a lot of criticism. It is hard to understand why they signed the deal if it is now believed that we are going to suffer and dry up as a result.
Some people propose that small dams be built in the provinces. Please invite them to visit the Chotiari reservoir, a small dam built on the Nara canal in Sindh in 1996. It is undoubtedly very useful and meets the needs of the downstream areas of Umerkot and Tharparkar in times of shortage of water.
But people living near the banks of this dam are hard hit by waterlogging, salinity and land degradation. Small dams can be valuable in supporting communities, but they require proper operation and maintenance, as well as remedial action in the event of waterlogging and seepage.
Usually, dams are built in areas where waterlogging and salinity issues are expected to have the least impact. The Tarbela dam, for example, recharges the groundwater in the region and keeps it cool.
Among those interested in the environmental advantages and disadvantages of hydroelectricity, there is much discussion, but technical or scientific research or data is not included. The narrative around the hydros therefore remains superficial.
This year we had no water [stored in] dams. Tarbela was emptied for repair work on its tunnels during the dry period – winter – and Mangla had to provide support for these areas in the heights of Pakistan. We are basically on a direct natural river flow, which has remained below average due to low temperatures at the glaciers, and this has created multiple problems, especially for the lower riparian areas.
Storing water in dams is not only for consistency, but also provides a buffer, which means we have a year-round supply of water. Dams serve the same purpose as water reservoirs in homes for storage.
Considering the current electricity and electricity crisis in Pakistan, what do you think is a sustainable way to generate energy?
There are three things necessary for the progress of this country. Cheap and sustainable energy is first, followed by cheap labor and cheap raw materials.
Today, as a nation, we have created a serious economic imbalance and are now going through serious economic crises. Pakistan currently has a circular debt of 1.6 trillion Pakistani rupees in the oil and gas sectors. It is close to 2,500 billion Pakistani rupees for the electricity sector alone.
In 2013, the then federal government cleared circular debt and brought it down to zero, but in 2017 it was gone again up to 480 billion Pakistani rupees and today it is multiplied by four. In comparison, the total construction cost of Diamer Bhasha is around 1.5 trillion Pakistani rupees. In all of our country’s economic crisis, the main problem is our circular debt.
From 1975 [for almost 20 years] we did not build any dams. Additionally, we started [to fall] in love with thermal power generation, importing fuel and coal at immense environmental cost – more than hydroelectricity.
Nor can solar or wind power totally replace need, and they have their own environmental costs. Wind turbines are made of fiberglass. By the way, where are we going to throw them after 20 years, when they reach the end of their life cycle? There are also additional costs associated with buying such technology overseas and the high interest we incur. More importantly, if these renewable sources are not able to supply electricity – due to lack of wind or light – when it is needed, do we again have to instantly restart the thermal power stations?
Are you saying that no matter how you produce energy there will be environmental damage?
Do you think hydroelectricity will provide a stable, cheap and local source of energy, and that it will help to deal with the circular debt?
The circular debt problem started when we opposed affordable hydroelectricity and turned to thermal generation with expensive fuels…plus, because that electricity was so expensive, we tried to subsidize it. Even then, the true cost was not recouped and the circular debt began to rise.
What about the link between crop irrigation and hydroelectric dams?
Water and agriculture are linked; there are specific times when we need water for crops, as well as for urban and industrial water supplies. Due to the dams, the reliability of the water flow increases, but my assumption is – its use too.
In particular, our agricultural consumption has increased. It is constantly increasing and we are not measuring the cultivated area correctly, so no one knows what is going on. But we know that the number of sweets in the country has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years.
It should be borne in mind that when measuring the percentage of water used by sector, more than 90% is used by the agricultural sector and the rest by urban and industrial users in Pakistan.
Earlier, [there were rules for] cropping intensities, cropping patterns and water allocations. It used to be a blessing for an equitable distribution of water, especially when the resource was limited and uncertain like this year. The construction of dams facilitated the disorderly expansion and now we are suffering the consequences. Our rivers are drying up and wetlands are degraded.
I am convinced that one of the disadvantages of dams is that most of the water is diverted to be used for agricultural purposes.
I’m going to give you an example. The cultivated area of Punjab designed by the command according to the Punjab Irrigation Department is 21.71 million acres, but according to a 2015 Bureau of Statistics report, the province farms more than 26.48 million acres of land and its aquifer faces serious depletion issues.
Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have seen the same trend, but Balochistan is the ultimate victim. Its command area was 2.69 million acres, but thanks to remote sensing it is estimated that it farms only 2.01 million acres. For the whole country, our designed acreage is 38.68 million acres. In 2015, we reported 38.43 million acres, but through land cover assessments for that year, it turns out that we actually farmed 46.58 million acres.
Missing data – and their management – on how much is grown and produced, national needs and how much can be exported is the real problem.
This year we have faced more drought than usual, especially in Cholistan in Sindh. What’s going on there?
Pakistan is now officially a drought-stricken country. Cholistan is a desert region of Punjab. I come from the similar neighboring district of Tharparkar in Sindh. Droughts are not new to these regions, but urbanization and other reasons have made them more difficult.
In the past, after the monsoon, the inhabitants of the desert planted rainfed crops, then, in the dry period, they migrated to the inhabited areas with their livestock. Their brothers and sisters took care of the grazing of the cattle in the irrigated command areas, while the men worked with the owners.
The following year, when the monsoon season had begun, they returned to their home areas with healthy, well-fed livestock and income. It seems that has changed. These days, after new developments and better accessibility, men go to work in urban areas while women and children stay in the Thar.
There are no canals or rivers providing water to Cholistan. It remains dry except in case of rain. Instead of politicizing these issues and the provinces argue over water scarcitywe should focus on mitigating the problems of local communities.
I have a success story in our area, where the Sindh Irrigation Department has done a great job providing clean water to desert communities from the Nara Canal through pipelines and stations pumping. It revitalized people’s lives. The same type of intervention can benefit the inhabitants of Cholistan and other areas of Tharparkar.
This article first appeared on The third pole.