As Decision Makers Dither, Pakistan Water Crisis Deepens

A woman with her children in Badin district, an area of Sindh province facing acute water troubles. Photo: David Lepeska

By David Lepeska

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: Water taps choke and spit. Irrigation canals dry up, shrinking farm output and making food scarce. Suddenly fallow regions are depopulated as villagers migrate to urban areas. Blackouts and drinking water shortages hit Karachi and Lahore. Hungry, thirsty, desperate peoples jostle - violence surges, the country falls apart.

As water becomes increasingly scarce across Pakistan, this apocalyptic scenario is not far from what experts envision.

"The very sustainability of Pakistan as an independent nation may be at stake, as shortages could lead to increased social discontent and disharmony amongst the federation and the provinces," a May 2008 World Bank report on Pakistani infrastructure warned.

With a population expected to shoot from today's 170 million to 220 million by 2015, the country's already weak water storage capacity will become woefully inadequate in the very near future. The problem is particularly acute in a developing nation that relies on water not only for drinking and agricultural production, but also for energy. Pakistan is already facing a 4,000 MW power shortage and will likely require several hydro-electric plants to satisfy demand.

Speaking in late April at a conference on the water crisis in Lahore, Sindh Water Council Chairman Hafiz Zahoor ul Hassan Dahir said a lack of water could devastate the country.

"Pakistan could become Somalia or Ethiopia," he said.

In 2007, the World Bank listed Pakistan among 17 nations facing acute water shortages and noted that the country had used up nearly all of its surface and groundwater. Indeed, nearly half the population has no local access to safe drinking water. One quarter of irrigated farmland suffers from acute salinity.

"Unless plans are put in place urgently," the World Bank report concluded, "these critical shortages will continue to undermine the efforts to improve socio-economic indicators and to reduce poverty."

But which plans, or more accurately, whose? The bank has put forth several ideas and the government is discussing at least two mega dams. Various independent experts and non-governmental organizations have countered with smaller, community-based water storage and usage schemes. But as Pakistan works to achieve a bright, democratic future, none has received widespread approval. The hesitation may be warranted.

If At First You Don't Succeed…

Pakistan's recent history of World Bank water projects is less than stellar. After $1 billion and 13 years of construction between 1984 and 1997, the Left Bank Outfall Drain collapsed under storm surges in 1999 and again in 2003. The LBOD project was financed by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, Saudi Fund and U.K.'s Department for International Development, among others, and implemented by the Pakistani government. It preceded the World Bank's National Drainage Program, which mostly failed to undo the damage. Progress reports and a bank-led investigation found that the poorly designed canal had irrevocably damaged the fragile ecosystem of the coastal estuaries, failed to benefit most local groups, and made life more difficult for the poorest of the poor.

More recently, a $130 million emergency rehabilitation project for an aging reservoir called the Taunsa Barrage, also backed by the World Bank and executed by Islamabad, led to forced displacements without adequate compensation, severe river erosion, and a wall breach that killed several villagers. Locals are pushing for an independent commission to examine the failures and provide reparations.

Even the Tarbela dam, widely touted as a success, has its faults. Completed in 1976 some 50 kilometers up the Indus River from Islamabad, the dam has effectively stored water for agricultural use for some 30 years.

It has reduced seasonal flooding, but also severely curtailed downstream water supply: The flow of the mighty Indus River, which supplies 90 percent of Pakistan's water, fell to one-fifteenth of what it was in 1947, according to the Water and Power Development Authority of Pakistan (WAPDA). Further, the waters of the Indus carry a great deal of silt. Bank and government experts agree that within three years, the Tarbela dam will become useless because its reservoir will have filled completely with sediment.

Other water projects have faced problems from the start, including the plan, approved in 1953, to create a new dam in northwest Punjab's Kalabagh District. Design and paperwork were completed in 1984 and construction was set to begin with U.N. Development Program assistance, World Bank supervision, and WAPDA execution.

Then the real trouble began. Sindh legislators worried that construction of the dam, occurring far upstream in Punjab Province - which contains more than half of Pakistan's population and is considered its bread basket - would curtail their water supply. Two other provinces, Baluchistan and Northwest Frontier Province, soon joined the chorus with the former alleging rule by Punjab fiat and the latter downplaying the project's anticipated benefit. In 2005, President Pervez Musharraf overruled the objections and declared the government would go ahead with the project. But construction had not begun when a new government was voted into office this February. Some 55 years after it was conceived the Kalabagh dam exists only on paper as Pakistan's water crisis deepens.

Despite these hiccups, in late April the World Bank announced it would spend $8 billion on the construction of the Daimer-Bhasha dam, as well as two related Indus River projects at $500 million each. The offering represents one of the bank's largest single country loans - to a nation with a poor track record for mega-development projects.

Bigger May Not Be Better

Why have these large projects repeatedly disappointed? There's enough blame to go around.

"The state is culpable, the multilaterals are culpable of reproducing the failure time and again," said Assim Sajjad Akhtar, history professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences and a leader of the People's Rights Movement, a left-wing political group. "You have a very deeply entrenched bureaucracy, and their planning conception is very colonial, paternalistic, top-down; if you try to give advice, you're not helping, you're committing sedition."

Projects are designed in a very short-sighted manner, as illustrated by the impending Tarbela dam failure, Akhtar said. The government rarely makes design plans public or explains how funds are being spent, he added, and the resulting constructions are often faulty and spur discontent among locals.

"The World Bank, Asian Development Bank, all the donors refuse to accept that they are somewhat responsible for what happens," Akhtar said. "They are the ones who describe this whole development and liberalization paradigm as interconnected, but whenever they fail they say it's not their responsibility."

Development analyst Syed Mohammad Ali, a fellow at the Open Society Institute, put it this way: "When you go for mega-projects you have mega-squandering."

The World Bank offered a laundry list of Pakistani shortcomings in a May 2008 report: a lack of adequate education and skills training; a lack of government commitment, vision, planning, and budgeting ability; corrupt contracting procedures; no protection against adverse physical conditions or external processes; delays in payment and absence of credit; and unfair competition from government-linked contractors and consultants.

Ayesha Siddiqa, visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, argued that the real machinations occur behind the scenes and that Pakistani farmers have been completely removed from shaping policy. According to Siddiqa, politicians and bureaucrats do not much care whether projects succeed.

"The whole thing is political," Siddiqa said, citing the example of Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan's foreign minister and a former Farmer's Association of Pakistan leader.

"Instead of putting him in charge of agriculture, they put him in charge of foreign policy," she noted. "There's a great gap between growers and policy, between rural and urban populations, and those gaps will only be narrowed once the government realizes there is a problem."

Stemming the Crisis

To Akhtar, the solution is obvious.

"Don't do big projects, do small projects," he said.

Small, community-led projects are more cost-effective, he argued, as well as more ecologically sustainable and less divisive.

The water minister of neighboring India has expressed similar views.

"The era of big dams is over," Saifuddin Soz told the Indian Express in late May. "We should have small dams and try and do something on rainwater harvesting and recharging ground water."

Pakistan faces a more severe water crisis than India, but the minister's views are relevant.

If the mega-projects were to continue, program managers should take into greater consideration the needs of affected residents, Akhtar suggested.

"Large projects can only work if the state actually does it [sic] in a manner where people are not looked at simply as objects to be transformed," he said. "They have to be the end, not the means."

Siddiqa takes more of a macro approach to improving water management.

"The problem with this government: It doesn't have a clear-cut agenda," she said. "To begin with, they have to define their plan to develop the rural areas, one that appreciates the gaps in the Pakistan economy and seeks to bridge them."

Projects should include lining all canals to prevent water seepage and switching from flood irrigation to the drip-sprinkle approach Israel uses, Siddiqa said. To break the industrialists' monopoly, farmers should shift away from cash crops. Siddiqa acknowledged such efforts would be costly, but said that returns would validate the expense.

Ali, the development researcher, recommended a more holistic approach that takes into account local needs and seasonal river flows, government capabilities, and donors efforts.

The panel that investigated the failure of the World Bank's LBOD and National Drainage Program seems to agree.

Its report "highlights the need to take a holistic view of water and drainage systems to ensure risks are identified and assessed and harm to people and the natural environment minimized," panel chair Edith Brown Weiss said upon the report's release in 2006. "We trust that the Bank's Action Plan will be implemented in close consultation with affected people."

But the bank appears to have other ideas. Despite identifying a long list of inadequacies with Pakistan's capacity to build and sustain its infrastructure, the bank suggested in a recent report that Pakistan "needs to establish frameworks under which it will deliver say Bhasha, Kalabagh, Karachi Mass Transit, or other large infrastructure projects and procure teams based on ‘framework' agreements."

Thus, the World Bank, which employs some of the most well-educated and skilled development experts, is counting on a series of working agreements between designers, builders, and suppliers to curb the failures that have destroyed thousands of livelihoods and bedeviled $1 billion in projects, including the LBOD.

Whether it's small, community-led projects, integrated, holistic approaches or mega-project partnerships, Pakistan needs to act soon.

"The ethnic divide is huge in Pakistan to begin with, and water is increasingly a source of that conflict," Akhtar said.

In newly settled regions and along provincial borders and shared irrigation canals, the tensions are particularly high.

"These areas are waiting to explode," he explained. "It's a time bomb."

--- posted on devex.com on 01 July 2008


Tariq said...

Hi David-
A very insightful, well written article. Actually, I have been working on a project to set up a Drip irrigation manufacturing facility in pakistan since last year, and had gone through the incopetent and corrupt official's circle of "what is in for me?".

What I want to ask you if you have found one serious politician, who you think can make a difference?


Tariq said...

And by the way... I am in the US, but born and raised in Karachi Pakistan. My company's owner is also from Pakistan.


David said...

No, I haven't, Tariq. But I have found some serious Pakistanis working hard to make their country a better place. The Future Leaders of Pakistan (www.flp.org.pk/), for instance, are good people.

Merugu said...


this is from osmania university,india,i think u r article is very heartfull in terms of u r narration among the situation in pakistan,this indian sub-continent now it is moving towards "sahara desert",it is not because, of these environmetal condition,and also developed countries mind set,whenever change their attitude towards global warming,definetly its impact on innocent third world contries.any way iCongrulate to u r Line of work,