Grappling with increasing water scarcity and its far reaching implications on everyone, the Pakistan government has readied a comprehensive National Water Policy. The 20-page draft, which has been prepared by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and will soon be presented to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his approval, advocates an ‘integrated water resources management regime’ for full exploitation of the country’s water resources.

This includes building reservoirs, efforts at water conservation and improving the availability, reliability and quality of freshwater resources to meet critical municipal, agricultural, energy security and environmental needs. Besides, the policy pushes for promoting appropriate technologies for rainwater harvesting in rural as well as in urban areas, controlling groundwater pumping and reducing over-extraction. The draft policy also introduces the concept of adequate water pricing for proper operation and maintenance of the irrigation system and its long term sustainability.

The upper Indus River flowing through the Yasin valley of Gilgit [image by Maraj Abbasi]

The upper Indus River flowing through the Yasin valley of Gilgit [image by Maraj Abbasi]

Other key features of the policy include

  • emphasis on flood and drought management;
  • assessing the impact of climate change on receding glaciers and increased siltation of dams and reservoirs;
  • protecting the environmental integrity of water basins through afforestation, soil conservation and improvement in land use;
  • conservation of the flow of water to maintain the ecology and morphology of rivers as well as deltas, coastal ecosystems and fisheries;
  • efforts at mitigating the impact of rising temperatures, particularly heat and water stress in arid and semi-arid regions, and its effect on agriculture productivity; and
  • acknowledgement of changing precipitation patterns.

Transboundary water sharing

The draft water policy notes that a substantial part of Pakistan’s fresh water comes from outside the country. The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) between Pakistan and India provides a sharing mechanism. The draft water policy says that the provisions in the IWT for unlimited hydropower development in the upper catchments – within India – have the potential of threatening water availability in Pakistan during low flow periods. The treaty, it adds, does not provide for minimum environmental flows downstream of the international boundary.

According to the draft, upstream development on the Kabul river is being planned and implemented. However, there is no formal agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan on sharing waters of the river.

Nallah Lai, in Rawalpindi during 2015 monsoons [image PM Bagel]

Nallah Lai, in Rawalpindi during 2015 monsoons [image PM Bagel]

The draft says that a mechanism shall be worked out for sharing of transboundary aquifers and joint watershed management. This will include sharing real time flow information. A study shall also be conducted to evaluate the impact of developments in the upper catchment of western rivers on the environment, agriculture and hydropower projects in the lower catchment.

Experts voice their concerns

Although the government claims the draft water policy is a national one and all provinces are stakeholders, some experts feel that the federal government may be overreaching its mandate.

Abid Qayyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development and Policy Institute (SDPI), said water was a subject for provincial governments and the centre cannot bring a national water policy on its own. “The federal government can only give a policy framework to the provinces in this regard.” He suggested that the centre bring all the federating units together to the Council of Common Interest to create consensus on a broad-based water policy.

In his view, there must be a clear-cut mechanism for monitoring, regulating and utilising water resources, besides extensive mapping and testing of water tables. The new water policy must also contain a land usage plan so that water can be used in conformity with the ‘crop per drop’ idea.

“Our water resources are rapidly depleting and we are moving towards water crisis in the coming 10-15 years, just in the way the country is facing electricity and natural gas shortages today,” Suleri said.

Water expert Pervaiz Amir agreed that water was a provincial subject and the federal government must take the provinces on board and include their inputs, not something that has been done yet, according to him. The policy must contain broad-based guidelines so that every province can enforce it according to convenience and need.

Pointing out that the document seems to lack ownership as to who would provide resources and which institute would implement it, Amir said, “There must not be any ambiguity about the provision of resources and implementers.” He also discussed the need for mentioning a timeframe – how many dams will the government build in how much time, for instance. “Finally, the policy must also be equitable and sustainable.”

“There must be treaties and agreements on water issues within and between the provinces over the rights, utilisation and conservation of water resources besides strengthening of the transboundary water treaties,” added Simi Kamal, an expert on water issues and chairperson of the Hisaar Foundation. She added that the provinces were not ready to trust one another and that was the reason a new water policy had not been possible so far. “I think water is a basic need… and it must not be make a political issue in the way we see in our country,” she said.

Wanted: more treaties

Kamal felt there was a need for a comprehensive water policy, with a water treaty with China as well as India on the Indus river basin in addition to a treaty with Afghanistan on the Kabul river. She added that the new policy must also take into account the need for a mechanism for utilisation of underground water. Pakistan’s population, she said, was “increasing rapidly and there is need to use recycled water, particularly in urban areas, for car washing and other similar purposes”. To deal with this, the policy must determine uniform regulations and water rights and advocate for a water pricing mechanism. “There is need for a water price mechanism for industrial and irrigation use of water.”

Responding to the concerns, Zafar Yab, spokesperson of the ministry of water and power, said the draft water policy was a national policy and all provinces were on board. All stakeholders had given their inputs during several brainstorming sessions. A senior official of the ministry added that their inputs had been included, which would be a guide to determine future action. All provinces would implement the policy as per their needs, he said.