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Pani ki kahani – Running on Empty

Where all the players, which in recent months were used by Pakistanis as scapegoats for all their sorrows come together – a report on Pakistan’s water crisis. It includes Kerry-Lugar, the sugar industry, WAPDA, Kalabagh and India – and brings it all together to give a meaningful insight of what goes wrong and what right. It is a report I have, indirectly and not knowingly, long waited for. Addressing issues that are a lot less fancy than bellicose Pashtuns, drugs or remote controlled peace-bringers, it unveils issues that are of great importance for Pakistan’s future and thus for AfPak. But while most of the pundits who address the AfPak situation directly try to find solutions on a scale that a single person or even task force is unlikely to be able to ever grasp let alone decide on (Rubin and Rashid call their own suggestions “audacious, naive, or impossible“; Rubin, Barnett R.; Rashid, Ahmed; From Great Game to Grand Bargain; Foreign Affairs, November/December 2008) this report does give perspectives that seem very much achievable if addressed.

Michael Kugelmann introduces the report well, with dismissing water shortages as a “viability” for Pakistan but acknowledging the issue’s gravity. The link to the first “shaitan-in-pak-public-opinion” comes, when he highlights, that the Kerry-Lugar bill identifies “access to potable water” as shared “compatible goal” between “the people of Pakistan and the US”. He then moves on to recommendations, which include moving away from planting sugar cane extensively and abandoning the sugar growing lobby (which includes my personal favorite evil) to the most important, referring to Kerry-Lugar again and basically quoting what I like to return, when a Pakistani tries to explain me that the looming failure is entirely someone else’s fault:

„Much more of a commitment will be required—and not merely one of money, nor simply from Washington or the broader international donor community. Rather, a comprehensive commitment is needed—one of time, funding, and other resources, and one that comes not just from foreign friends and funders, but most importantly from Pakistanis themselves.“

Simi Kamal argues:

„The focus needs to shift from provincial distribution to uses and users of water—in terms of both rights and responsibilities—and away from the Sindh-Punjab debate and toward a discussion of better-managed water for all of Pakistan.“

She addresses an important point here, that was my take-home message from the whole report. While I always believed, water issues in Pakistan are foremost a conflict between India and Pakistan over water rights (Indus Water Treaty) and how that poses a security threat to the area and even is one explanation why Kashmir is such a big issue, this report made me understand, that if the deficiencies within Pakistan would be solved, most of the threats facing the country, its agriculture and its people would already be dealt with. I didn’t believe Jack A. Goldstone and didn’t read his footnotes in “Population and security” (“Population and Security: How Demographic Change Can Lead to Violent Conflict”, JIA, Fall 2002, vol. 56; footnotes xv: Aaron T. Wolf, “Water and Human Security” and Miriam Lowi, “Water and Conflict in the Middle East and South Asia: Are Environmental Issues and Security Issues Linked?”) and would have rather gone with a guy I otherwise do not agree with in most points (Op-Ed by Zardari in the WashPost; see second last paragraph for that matter). But Simi Kamal (and others in the report in less direct manner) do advocate a focus on end user problems rather than trying to see “the big picture” all the time, here even trying to focus away from the second riparian conflict (Punjab vs. Sindh, after India vs. Pakistan).

Kaiser Bengali then gets down to some raw numbers with a helpful analysis, also briefly addressing the conflict with India, especially with respect to the recent construction of a dam on Indian’s part of Chenab river which (water-use wise) should be entirely entitled to Pakistan. He brings the major recommendation down into his title – “the need for a paradigm shift”.

Shams ul Mulk, former WAPDA chairman represents the technocratic part of the report, a stance that is, according to the other writers, highly overrepresented in the decision making circles and thus leads to major shortcomings (Bengali’s paradigm shift addresses exactly that). But especially his account of the construction of Tarbela dam (the biggest of its kind worldwide) is worth reading.

Feisal Khan than marks the centre piece of the report, addressing corruption and governance in the water sector, including the sugar industry, yield and water productivity and the waste problem affecting Pakistan’s water ways (e.g. only 7.7% of urban Pakistani waste water is treated).
I have earlier argued, that the suggestions in this report are straight forward and realistic. Khan puts that in relative, cautious perspective:

„As is apparent, these policies are relatively straightforward but, to paraphrase von Clausewitz, while winning a war is a simple matter, it is the simplest things that are the most difficult.“

Papers on Women’s role in water conservation and provision and entrepreneurial approach are followed by a great insight in the urban planning aspect of waste and drinking water by James L. Wescoat who, as an Aga Khan Scholar at MIT has great insight and experience in Pakistan.

A single paper is dedicated to Lahore (Anita and Rabia Chaudhry) which ist he biggest city in Asia entirely relying on Groundwater!

Although – or just because – this report by the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars does argue for a paradigm shift away from discussions that are popularly associated with „water“ and „Pakistan“ – including the conflict with India and planned constructions of big dams like Kalabagh – to a focus on less fancy topics (women’s role, stakeholder awareness etc.) it is a document that hopefully has some influence on future decisons (or at least the voices of it’s contributors) and is accepted as an important buidling block of the bigger AfPak picture.

About Jakob Steiner

... lived, worked and studied in Australia, Europe and Asia.


3 thoughts on “Pani ki kahani – Running on Empty

  1. A must read on that topic is of course “Empires of the Indus” by Alice Albinia (http://www.empiresoftheindus.co.uk/)

    Posted by Jakob Steiner | November 1, 2009, 2:35 AM
  2. Perspectives from India on the IWT:

    Click to access IB129-Ploughshares-Suba.pdf

    Perspectives from Pakistan on the IWT:

    Click to access IB128-Ploughshares-Nausheen.pdf

    Posted by Jakob Steiner | December 5, 2009, 2:22 AM
  3. on glaciers of the himalayas, including the sources of the indus.


    Posted by Jakob Steiner | December 5, 2009, 2:28 AM

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October 2009


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