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Will Nawaz Sharif face up to Pakistan’s dismal water crisis?

Water should be a top priority for the new government, as escalating domestic and international disputes, floods and mismanagement threaten Pakistan’s future stability, according to Mushtaq Gaadi

Pakistan’s general election in May this year brought Nawaz Sharif and his centre-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party into power. Whilst this is good news for strengthening democracy in Pakistan, it’s unclear what the consequences of this new power configuration will be for the politics and management of water resources in Pakistan.

In November last year, the Lahore High Court ordered the federal government to start construction of the highly controversial Kalabagh dam on the Indus River in Punjab province. This project has strong support in Punjab, but is vehemently opposed by Sindhi and Pakhtun nationalists for a variety of reasons.

Owing to the status of Sindh as downstream province, as well as the bitter history of water disputes between Sindh and Punjab since the colonial era, almost all political forces in Sindh consider the dam a strategic tool which Punjab can use to control the Indus. Similarly, Pakhtun nationalists, particularly the Awami National Party (ANP), fear the dam will lead to massive flooding and water logging in the upstream districts of the Peshawar Valley.

Growing water disputes

The new government’s rise to power at the Centre and in Punjab province is also likely to intensify Punjab-Sindh water disputes around the controversial Kalabagh dam and the thorny issue of inter-provincial water distribution. By all indications, the government will try to take advantage of the High Court verdict and prevailing judicial activism to push ahead with the construction of the Kalabagh dam. However, the issue is politically explosive and could incite ethnic protests and violence.

The Bhasha-Diamer dam on the Indus River in the northwest is another mega water project that the new government wants to complete quickly. The dam will be used for irrigation and produce 45,000 megawatts of power in a country wracked by energy shortages.  The project is less controversial within Pakistan, but has struggled to secure international financing because of a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over the status of the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region, where the project is situated. Given the bilateral conflict, the World Bank has already refused to finance the project without an agreement to go ahead from India.

Nawaz Sharif has expressed his wish to resolve all disputes and establish peaceful and cordial relations with India in recent media interviews. The resolution of water disputes including the Bhasha-Diamer Dam and Kishanganga hydropower project will dominate any meaningful bilateral negotiations if these take place in the near future.

Shoddy water infrastructure

Another crucial problem the new regime faces is very low irrigation efficiency and high risk water infrastructure. The Indus is one of the most overbuilt river basins in the world. About 90% of river flows are diverted to a vast irrigation network comprising three major storage reservoirs, numerous barrages, canals and thousands of minor watercourses.

Many independent water experts believe that the overbuilt basin has done more damage than good to the agriculture and ecosystem of the country. Experts estimate that half of all the diverted water is lost to seepage and evaporation. Agriculture is thus either unproductive or suffers from poor crop yield.

The overbuilt river basin has created two additional problems: the high risk of flood disaster and rising financial costs for replacement and maintenance of unwieldy water infrastructure. On the one hand, huge quantities of sediment are trapped by large dams, barrages and protective dykes which raise the riverbed and cause devastating breaches. Over the last three years structural failures of water infrastructure has inflicted floods and suffering upon millions of people.

On the other hand, significant financial investment is required to replace and maintain the fast decaying water infrastructure. According to the World Bank, Punjab province alone would require US$5 billion a year to keep its vast stock of water infrastructure in good shape and free of risk. At present, the provincial government is almost entirely relying on external loans from international financial institutions for the rehabilitation and maintenance of its critical water infrastructure.

China fuels hydropower investment

An acute energy crisis, particularly prolonged power cuts, is one of the explosive political and economic challenges facing the new regime. Presently, China is the only country investing in the energy sector. A few weeks ago, the EXIM Bank of China signed an agreement with the government to provide US$448 million for 969 megawatt Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project in Pakistani held Jammu and Kashmir.

Apart from producing energy, the project is being built to secure priority water rights to the Indus River in the context of a water dispute with India. China is also involved in the construction of hydropower projects at Jinnah and Taunsa barrage in Punjab province.

Neither the government nor the Chinese investors have recognised the significant adverse social and environmental impacts of these projects. For example, local people believe that the failure of Jinnah barrage during the 2010 Indus floods and subsequent disasters were caused by the wrong location of the hydropower project on the banks of the Indus River.

Similarly, the hydropower project being constructed at Taunsa barrage will aggravate the flooding problems because of silt deposition and other factors. Similarly, the Neelum-Jhelum project will lead to forcible land acquisition, drying up of local springs and irreparable damages to the mountain ecology.

New approaches to water

Against this backdrop, the new leaders will face numerous challenges: intensified inter-provincial water disputes; settlement of bilateral water conflicts with India; rising risk of flood disaster, inappropriate investment in water infrastructure and the problem of mounting foreign debt.

The new regime has yet to spell out the main contours of its water policy. However, it is clear a complete paradigm shift is needed; policymakers should focus on restoring river basins, developing alternative water and energy resources; and creating space for people’s voices and democratic, transparent decision-making.

Mushtaq Gaadi is a researcher who teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University in Pakistan.