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EDITORIAL: Hardly a few days pass before everybody is reminded of how the water scarcity crisis is ticking like a time-bomb and how, unless something is done about it urgently, it is going to explode with devastating consequences. It will compromise agriculture production, increase unemployment and poverty, drag down industry and even hurt the current account because of a drop in textile exports and rise in food imports. It seemed in the early days of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government that this issue would finally get top priority, but apart from making a lot of noise for a short while it hasn’t done much so far. Just last month, the World Bank noted in a report that Pakistan faced a severe groundwater crisis in 2020 and warned of a visible decline in economic prosperity that will affect generations if reforms are not introduced at once.

And now the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) has also joined the chorus with its General Manager (Hydrology and Water Management) Shahid Hameed briefing a delegation of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) War College Karachi that per capita water availability in the country, which has come down from 5060 cubic meters per annum in 1951 to 908 cubic meters now, is fast pushing us towards water scarcity. This situation is in fact so bad that we store hardly 10 percent of our annual river flows against a global average of about 40 percent and our carryover capacity is only 30 days compared to over 170 days in India, 700 days in Egypt and 900 days in America.

This is an alarming situation because no matter what the government does to improve social indicators and get the economy moving again, depleting water resources will simply pull the rug from under all its plans; and that too in a hurry. Already, the country’s very high population growth rate is combining with unfavourable climate change to make the problem much worse than it has to be. So the government has its work cut out for it. So far, we are told, Wapda is doing what it can to get a number of very important projects going that will not only address storage issues but also add ‘a sizable quantum of hydel electricity to the national grid’. But all this, important as it is, is easier said than done. The government is going to face a number of problems as it turns its attention to this issue, of course, but two at least are going to stand out.

First, of course, will be money. There just isn’t enough in the bank right now to throw at things that require patience and sustained funding. Some prominent international institutions have helped in the past, but they were never too impressed by our commitment or the results. And secondly, as the World Bank report last month pointed out, groundwater resources are still not well understood at the basin level or by local administrative units, where most of the water-related service delivery is concentrated.

So it’s not just a matter of allocating resources, pressing a button, and waiting for the results. Controlling this problem will require thorough research, meticulous planning and very strict oversight. And people are beginning to wonder if a government rattled by opposition protests and consumed by protecting fragile alliances can give something as serious and pressing as the prospect of painful water scarcity the kind of attention that it needs. Ideally, the government and opposition should work together on something like this. But since there is clearly not going to be any convergence of interests between the two, not even when it comes to something that is so essential for the survival of the people and the state, the ruling party should have understood by now that it has neither the luxury of bipartisanship in this nor of time. It must once again give water the same centrality that it did very early in its tenure; before it was overtaken by politics as usual that mostly requires locking horns with the opposition even on the most trivial of matters. Hopefully, it will be able to stitch together the kind of plan that will work in the time needed to make a difference. And now that the IMF programme is back on track it should be able to divert enough resources towards this to get the ball rolling, at least.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021