Volume 22 Issue 11, November 2018


Ineffective and lackluster governance of the water economy is the root cause of our problem. We start with examination of the water scarcity issue in comparison with average productivity of water. A cubic meter of water in Pakistan produces 0.13 kg of agricultural produce. In comparison, the same quantity of water produces 0.39 kg in India. In China the produce is 0.28 kg and in the US, it is 1.56 kg. Other countries like Canada produce even more. The reason for better produce is use of modern irrigation techniques. 90% of water in Pakistan is used in agriculture. We can easily save 50% of this quantity. But our farmers are not inclined to leave the age-old flood irrigation practice.

It is common knowledge that laser leveling of agricultural land would save water by up to 50%. Investment in sprinkler systems and drip irrigation would save more water. Despite efforts of the provincial governments, the adoption of such techniques is not popular among farmers. The Agriculture University in Tandojam has provided a simple answer. The total cost of cultivating one acre of wheat is approximately Rs.25,000. This includes all expenditures - labour cost of sowing and harvesting, cost of seed, fertilizer and water, etc. If the farmer is inclined to use water efficiently, the additional cost of laser land leveling would be Rs.1,000 per acre. A drip or sprinkler irrigation system would cost much more.

Surprisingly, in Pakistan the average cost of water is only Rs.55 per acre. It would not be rational for the farmer to invest a much larger sum to save a percentage of water cost i.e. Rs.55. It is safely concluded that the price mechanism is not used for creating a balance between supply and demand in our water economy.

Similar is the issue of saving water from percolation. On an average, 100 million acre feet water enters the canal system. 40 million acre feet does not reach the farm gate. 5 million acre feet evaporates in the air and 35 million acre feet is lost to percolation. Out of 35 million acre feet, 15 million acre feet percolates in the sweet water zone and becomes a future asset. 20 million acre feet are lost to brackish subsoil water. Out of this, (20 million acre feet) half the quantity can be saved by lining of canals. However, the provincial governments have never shown any inclination to invest in such projects. The federal government is also reluctant to finance such initiatives which do not promise financial returns.

Another fault line is the country’s taxation policy. Somehow, income from agriculture and industry is treated differently. A factory, however small, is subjected to all kinds of taxation but income from an agricultural farm may be in millions but it is not considered taxable. This creates an anomaly. With a share of 20% in the national income, agriculture as a segment of the economy contributes only 1% to the revenue stream. The investment by government in development of water resources may result in increase of agricultural produce, but increased productivity would not result in generating income for the government.

To further compound the problem, Pakistan has one of the lowest tax to GDP ratios. It has very limited fiscal space to invest in projects which do not become revenue-generating assets. We tend to treat water as a free commodity, without a price tag. This is the crux of what ails Pakistan’s water economy.

The situation was not always like this. Under British rule, the water economy was established on sound lines. Huge investments were made in irrigation infrastructure. Barrages were constructed. Rivers were diverted into newly constructed canals and an elaborate network was developed to irrigate the uncultivated land. The capital expenditure and maintenance cost of irrigation infrastructure was recovered in full, from end users as water rate (aabiana). The cultivation of uncultivated areas would bring additional revenue as land tax. When the central government of united India advanced a loan to the Bombay Presidency (of which Sindh was a part) in 1923 for construction of the Sukkur Barrage, it was made mandatory for the provincial government to recover the capital expenditure in full.

After independence, recovery of capital expenditure was stopped. The maintenance cost of water reservoirs at Tarbela and Mangla is recovered from electricity consumers. Readers may be surprised to know that the cost of maintenance of huge irrigation infrastructures, especially in Punjab and Sindh, is partially recovered from the farmers. Approximately, one third of the total cost is billed. Of this, the recovery ratio is approximately 33%. The gap is filled from tax payer’s money.

In the absence of a price mechanism to create a balance between supply and demand, the water economy is literally going down the drain. To tackle this fundamental problem, a robust water policy is required with inter-provincial consensus. However, this has been ignored for a long time. In 2015, WAPDA was entrusted with the task to finalize the basic draft. In October and November, 2015, WAPDA organized seminars in Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, Quetta and Hyderabad. Water experts, journalists, engineers and economists were invited. A wide range of topics were covered in discussions. Heated debates were witnessed. Provincial governments gave their official point of view on diverse issues which included water storage, water management, efficient use, cropping pattern, flood management, sustainability of Indus Delta, maintenance of irrigation infrastructure and impact of climate change on water resources. Finally, a report was prepared and discussed in a day long session in Islamabad which was presided over by Federal Minister for Water and Power.

It is a matter of satisfaction that the Ministry of Water and Power finally came up with an excellent Water Policy in March, 2018. The approved document provides a framework to move forward. The accompanying Pakistan Water Charter rightly points out the urgency of the situation. It states, “The looming shortage of water in our beloved country has now become a grave threat to our food, energy and water security. Today Pakistan’s water economy is in acute danger of running dry. The prevalent water scarcity is inching towards a full blown water crisis and is likely to become an existential threat, unless we act decisively.”

In my humble opinion, unless we stop discriminating between incomes from different streams and introduce the self-correcting price mechanism in the water economy, sustained investment in preserving and developing this precious resource cannot be assured.

The writer is a former federal secretary and chairman of the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). He can be reached at zmahmood1952@gmail.com

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