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Floods and the Illusion of Water Management

Climate change and non-linear weather patterns have caused catastrophic flooding in Pakistan, impacting more than half of its landmass and resulting in the collapse of the water management system. The governance apparatus of Pakistan appears to be comfortable with natural calamities being represented as solely responsible for floods and subsequent losses of life, property, and livestock with thousands to survive without shelter. The government of Pakistan initiated the mitigation and response measures after floods in 2010 but the illusion of development is shattered again just after a decade.

Some observers categorize Pakistan as a water scarce country with low access to clean water and irrigation. Even the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources fears that Pakistan may run out of water and land will become dry if existing patterns continue. The scientific study of the regional climate and geography suggests otherwise. If the argument of water scarcity has merit, Pakistan should not suffer moderate flooding every year and catastrophic flooding once a decade.

The problem lies in our academic and cognitive incapacity, and in institutions that ignore interdisciplinary research which can work to identify the interrelated root causes and generate a comprehensive response. The water-food-energy chain is critical for understanding the interlinked challenges to Pakistan and generating a unified response.

Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, the largest mass of glacier ice outside the polar region, now melting on a massive scale due to global warming. What does this imply? Even a layman will say ‘more water'. Should we take climate change as a blessing? If it serves us, Why not but at what cost? Everything but loss to human life, property and food systems.

It is challenging to prevent ice from melting, which resultantly raises the water level in streams and tributaries. The solution is simple; build more reservoirs and store the water downstream. Build river banks, small dams, and preserve natural waterways. This pattern is equally helpful in the ‘water scarcity’ monologue because it potentially saves water for drinking and irrigation.

From a financial and technical perspective, building small dams and consolidating waterways are indigenous solutions with no massive technological and financial requirements. This pattern of water management guides the food and energy security of Pakistan in a very positive direction; indigenously built small dams produce cheaper hydropower due to no debt and interest servicing, while acting as the primary reservoir for irrigable land. This dimension alone is sufficient to reinforce human security in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, our system finds mega projects worth billions of dollars with years of construction time and decades of debt servicing, to the point where these mega projects themselves become victims to the natural calamity they were intended to prevent i.e. Mohmand Dam. Flood water breached the Dam’s diversion tunnels and overtopped the protection dyke, causing damage to the project itself but also to the land and human settlements in the vicinity.

It should not be taken as criticism of major dams but the pressing focus on major dams has clouded institutional judgment regarding the utility of smaller dams. The issue of the Kalabagh dam is not the scope of this debate, but how many dam-building opportunities have we, as a nation, ignored in hopes of building the Kalabagh dam, while failing to prevent floods in abstraction.

The current challenges are too enormous to handle through water management and warrant comprehensive ‘water governance’ at the national level. Increasing housing and feeding needs of the population are inversely impacting the size of irrigable land and food production. Pakistan possesses the largest canal system in the world; yet, a major chunk of irrigable lands consume groundwater, burdening energy consumption and food affordability.

The interplay of surface and subsurface water cannot be separated due to natural reasons, but subsurface water should not be the backbone of irrigation. Instead, surface water should be provided through the canal systems

Over-exploitation of groundwater through 1.2 million tube wells has reached up to 60 billion m3; whereas Punjab, the house of interconnected canal system, leads with 90% consumption. It not only depletes the subsurface water, drops water level, and consumes unnecessary energy, i.e. diesel and electricity, but also adds to the cost of food production by making a joke of comprehensive water management. Water governance should give due attention to waterways in Punjab to reinforce surface water based irrigation so as to rationalize food costs and energy consumption.

This debate identifies two major problems in the water-food-energy chain. The first is the imbalance between prospective water availability, including from melting glaciers and proportionate reservoirs to store surplus water, which causes the floods. Second is the sheer mismanagement of waterways from rivers in the North to the canals in the South which burdens water reserves, energy costs, and food affordability. The solution lies in building water reservoirs, producing cheaper electricity, and working towards cost-effective food production for sustainable development in Pakistan.