It is often said that there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. And if the idea comes from the man-in-charge, even if ludicrous, it receives greatest attention; as anyone who has ever attended a corporate meeting would vouch.
The dam fund was one such idea. And like its architect, has now mostly been forgotten. But for the first time since Indus Water Accords, it helped mainstream the specter of water shortage in public discourse. For that reason alone, we should be grateful.
On World Water Day, the challenge is to keep last year’s momentum going. Research identifying roots of issues facing the water economy has led to a broad-based consensus centered on two themes: inefficient consumption patterns, and inequitable resource distribution.
Because nearly two-thirds of country’s population continues to live in rural areas with agriculture employing 42 percent of labour force, sector’s disproportionate share in freshwater consumption was taken as a given. The outgoing year has helped challenge that dogma.
Despite accounting for only 20 percent of GDP, farming sector consume close to 95 percent of available freshwater resources. Sadly, statistics breakdown beyond this point, as no official estimates of sub-sectoral distribution by major crops; livestock; or domestic consumption in rural areas exist.
The rural-urban divide in water economy remained justifiable for a long time because it promised food security. Yet, abundant output of cereal grains and other cash crops has failed to uplift the rural economy, as over 63 percent of rural families continue to depend on subsistence farming, and 65 percent of farms in the country consist of landholdings of 5 acres or less.
Connect the dots, and one begins to appreciate that the inefficient consumption of available resources goes toward propping a system that not only fails to add value to the economy but is too feeble to fend for itself.
The status quo has continued not because the state loves to spoil the downtrodden with a water glut, but because it has no alternate vision for the millions of people currently toiling on wheat and cotton farms.
At a time when the urban centers are already struggling to cope with over two million fresh heads entering workforce every year, it is arguably more rational to not disturb the rural equation with policy initiatives such as full-cost recovery water charges for canal water. What if the move tips the shaky balance, pushing even more people out of rural areas, ever increasing the pressure on urban jobs?
If there is any lesson to be drawn from a decade-long war over terrorism, it is that problems cannot be wished away. The arrow of time points only in one direction, and Pakistan can be no exception to the rural-urban demographic shift witnessed globally. Avoiding policy prescriptions to make agriculture more efficient (and arguably less attractive financially) will not help keep the challenge at bay.
Pakistan produces major cereal and fiber crops not only in excess but also with lower productivity, which makes them uncompetitive in foreign markets without government support, at times extended at both inputs and export stages.
It is time we at least “thought-experimented” with abandoning our national fixation with food self-sufficiency. Public sector spending instead needs to be steered toward building soft infrastructure around workforce training in skills needed for today and tomorrow’s digital and knowledge economies. That is the only way the country can absorb ever growing numbers of rural population that currently have nowhere else to go.
2018 was a good year as the country saw lively discourse on the future of water security and the incremental steps needed to make Pakistan more resource efficient.
One year after, we are ever closer to time-zero or 2025, when Pakistan will officially run “dry”. It is time to realise that only a paradigm shift in water consumption patterns can reverse course. And that can only be achieved if the door is left open to radical ideas.