Feburary issue 2006
Interview: Simi Kamal
“Water is everybody’s business. We are almost at a point of no return, and something has to be done quickly to conserve and best use the resources we have”
– Simi Kamal
“Water, water, everywhere, nay any drop to drink.” This lament of Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, stranded at sea, could well be Simi Kamal’s. One of Pakistan’s eminent geographers, the Cambridge educated Simi believes that water is everybody’s business and should not be politicised. Quoting oft-frightening figures, Kamal steers clear of the current debate on dams, focusing instead on what can be done to salvage the water situation in the country. Having devoted herself to the development sector, Kamal boasts an extensive resume which includes gender empowerment, social development and environment issues. She has collaborated with government and private sector organisations in her impressive career and is a member of the Stockholm-based Global Water Partnership Technical Committee, founder and chair of the think tank Hisaar Foundation and co-founder and co-chair of Pani Pakistan, among others. With her own development consultancy, Raasta, Kamal is determined to show Pakistan the way towards a future where we can make water, not war.
Q: What is your position on the dams? Are the arguments of the pro-dam lobby feasible?
A:If the objective is to meet the future water requirement in a way that promotes the food security and needs of a growing population then, strictly speaking, one or two particular dams are not the only or even the best solution.
The need for dams is argued on four main points by proponents: more water for irrigation and agriculture, more storage capacity, more flood control and more hydroelectric power. Let us look at each one of the arguments more closely:
Pakistan is indeed an agricultural country and as our population grows, more water is ostensibly needed for irrigation to support agriculture. But of the total sweet water availability of approximately 144 Million Acre Feet (MAF), 97 per cent is already used in agriculture. Of the 104 MAF diverted from the rivers through a network of irrigation canals, about two-thirds is lost due to poor transmission and seepage, and only one third actually reaches the farms for growing crops. This means that about 68 MAF is potentially usable water, if the canal system can be better maintained and kept in repair. Together, Bhasha and Kalabagh will process a maximum of 14 MAF. Even if a third of the lost 68 MAF is saved through better repair and maintainance, it will be a little over 28 MAF — double of what Bhasha and Kalabagh will produce. Improving the current system efficiency by just 50 per cent would release the same amount of water as is to be produced by the two big dams. There are thus other feasible options available for increasing water supply for agriculture. Putting up two or more dams when the downstream distribution structure is so inefficient does not make sense. Even if Bhasha and Kalabagh dams are built, two-thirds of the 14 MAF they produce will be lost through poor distribution and only one-third (i.e. only about 4.7 MAF) will be available in all of Pakistan at the current projected cost of about US$ 11 billion!
It is argued that large reservoirs are needed to carry over water from wet months to dry months and from wet years to dry years. They are also needed to offset the storage capacity loss in existing dams due to silting. My argument is that a more efficient and maintained distribution system that carries 97 per cent of diverted water will lead to substantive savings in the total amount of water lost in transmission and thus free at least a reasonable proportion of this water for storage. The needs of lean years can be met through this source.
In terms of flood control — another favourite argument of pro-dam proponents, it needs to be pointed out that much of the flooding occurs because levees upstream from barrages are breached to protect the barrages. It would make more sense to improve the strength and upgrade the barrages as a means of flood control and mitigation. One of the well known disadvantages of big dams is that they accentuate flood peaks.
Hydroelectric power would be the major benefit of Kalabagh and Bhasha but, interestingly, this is not the main argument put forth. A run-of-the-river type dam where water is used to generate electricity and then allowed to run in the existing channels would be far more acceptable to the three smaller provinces, as there would be no diversion. Even in this scenario there are other ways and other locations where hydroelectric power could be generated without mega dams.
Q: What is the water situation in Pakistan right now?
A: Water is locked up in glaciers in the northern parts of our countries. Due to glacier melts in the summer and monsoon seasons, water flows down our river systems and makes its way to the sea. En route, there are seepages into the ground, where water-bearing rocks or aquifers already exist, and these are replenished with the system. If we keep taking water out of these aquifers at a faster rate than they are being replenished, then they are being destroyed. The quality of water in Pakistan’s water cycle remains essentially the same and, unless dramatic climatic changes occur, there is unlikely to be a net increase. What has changed drastically, though, is our population. Currently estimated at 150 million, it is set to double in 2.5 decades, thus reducing the per capita availability of water. We are a water scarce country, with a per capita availability of 1200 cubic meters per year. At our present growth rate, Pakistan’s per capita availability will, by the year 2012, have gone down to 1000 cubic meters per capita per year. This is very close to where Ethiopia was when they had their drought and famine.
Unless we control our population, we are headed for disaster. People don’t relate the increase in population to its effect on water availability. If you continue to pollute this water, it will be less available for human consumption, food production and other uses. There are several lakes in Pakistan which are close to atrophying, so the life systems they support are either already dead or dying. Once a lake atrophies, it is very difficult to rejuvenate and the entire ecosystem is lost. Our largest lake — Manchar lake — is not even protected under the Ramisar Convention although many of us have been pushing for that for some years.
Q: Do you think we have enough infrastructure, that rather than building new dams, we just need to repair and maintain the existing ones?
A: We, as a nation, tend to build, neglect and throw away, only to build again. There is no concept of maintenance. Pakistan has the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. It is supposed to be a miracle of engineering that has helped increase our food production. But we don’t maintain it. Operation, maintenance, and replacement costs a lot of money. Where is that money coming from?
Some of the data in the recent World Bank report, “Pakistan’s water economy running dry,” is quite frightening. When comparing Pakistan with Australia, the report shows that in Australia, the entire cost of efficient operation, maintenance and replacement is paid by the actual users, whereas taxpayers pay the interest on any loans that may have been accrued in putting that water system into place.
In Pakistan, taxpayers — not users — are paying most of the operation and maintenance costs, no one is paying for replacement. Excessive manpower, employed supposedly for maintenance, is also funded largely by taxpayers. Is this really sustainable? When we can’t even look after our existing infrastructure, is there even a case for building new infrastructure?
The World Bank report has some very alarming data, but then it makes an existential leap and calls for more infrastructure, whereas the arguments presented in the report do not lend support to that. Pakistan is already a water-scarce country, we have large tracts of land that are being rendered uncultivable due to water logging and salinity, and which are direct results of our irrigation methods.
We have little additional water to mobilise. We’ve already used up everything that exists in our water cycle so when we say we’re putting up another dam or reservoir, it doesn’t necessarily mean there will be additional water coming in, we are just re-appropriating what’s already in the system. Who’s going to pay for the additional investment? We’ve taken so many loans to be returned over a long term period, how much more can we sustain? Our water resource base is severely degraded because of pollution and atrophying and overuse, groundwater is being over-exploited. Flooding and drainage problems are also going to get worse, partly because of climate change but also because of the way we manage our water system. The water infrastructure is in terrible disrepair — everything is broken, there are leakages, powerful people create their own direct links. We have poor governance, low levels of trust, water productivity is extremely low, what we produce per acre, regardless of the crop, is still less than what others are producing.
In 2000, when there was a major drought in the country, Pakistan produced a record wheat crop of 22 million tons. Obviously we have been over-watering, and these crops probably need a lot less water than we are putting into them. In terms of productivity in farms between the head, middle and tails of canal irrigation systems you would expect that the farms at the head part of the system, which get more water, would have higher productivity. But, in fact, those in the middle have the highest productivity. So we have to do more solid research on this. I fail to understand the demands for more water emanating from our landed classes, most of whom are sitting in the National Assemblies.
Q: You have said irrigation methods have to be changed in order to preserve the water that we have. Do you think that would be enough to stave off a water crisis?
A: We must look at the different uses of water rather than the division according to administrative or provincial boundaries. We need water for life — for agro, for industries, municipal and city uses and also to keep our water bodies running. This attitude of some people who say that every drop of water that goes into the sea is wasted does not make sense, because the balance between sweet water that is brought to the sea by rivers keeps a very critical balance in the coastlines. If you destroy that balance, then the entire water system is affected and will, over time, be felt right up till the watersheds. I find it appalling that the natural water bodies, on which our irrigation system rests, are being destroyed and there are few voices of concern.
Why has agriculture taken priority? We need to look at the situation more holistically. It takes an average of 3000 litres of water to grow one kilogram of rice in the Indian subcontinent. Typically, 20 litres are consumed per person in developing countries. For Pakistan, in terms of demand for domestic and industrial uses, there is a net deficiency of about 25 per cent, how will this need be met? Some of the products coming to us are very severely contaminated, especially those in and around cities. Once we look at the water sector in a more holistic way then there are better chances that we will move towards solutions that are more feasible and will aid better management and preserve these resources for the future.
Q: What led to your involvement with water issues?
A: I am a geographer, so the way I look at the world professionally and academically is to consider the land-man-water nexus. When I first started studying, I realised that geography was more than the study of the surface of the earth. It puts together the study of people, history of science and philosophy, climate change, hydrology and how all these impact on each other. I was very excited by these linkages. Returning to Pakistan and working in social development sectors, I became aware of the acute water problem in Pakistan and saw some of the socio-economic conditions that exacerbated these problems.
Q: Do you find that your background allows you more of an edge when you’re lobbying with the government?
A: If there is an edge, it comes partially from the understanding of the interrelationship between land-man-water. Understanding the disadvantaged situation of women, the poor in our society, how the feudal system operates, not just in the rural areas but elsewhere, also helps me put forward arguments in both the water and environment sectors.
Q: Is there a sense of civic responsibility among Pakistanis?
A: I think we’re very low on civic responsibility. Pakistan is very high in terms of individual philanthropy but once we give to charity, (we feel) our responsibility is over. People do not readily take on civic causes. There is this big divide in the way in which governments and political parties take decisions and the way people think, because the way they think never gets translated into civic pressure. There is not much of a tradition of worthwhile civic action, least of all in the environment and water sectors.
Q: How can we inculcate this sense of civic responsibility in the public?
A: The issues around water and the environment have been delineated in such a manner that there are only one or two questions which the entire country seems to be debating. Unless we look at water and the environment together, I don’t think we can take very rational decisions which will affect our future generations. Bridges need to be made, and some of the ways we can begin to work towards this is to provide at least a level field for people to discuss issues of water and environment. Right now, most people have been made to feel that water and environment are ‘technical’ issues to be tackled by engineers or at most ‘political’ issues to be bandied about for political gains. There is a sense that whatever decision the government takes is okay and must be accepted. In my view, water is everybody’s business. We are almost at a point of no return, and something has to be done quickly to conserve and best use the resources we have.
Q: The provinces are constantly squabbling over water distribution. Sindh particularly, consistently suffers from water shortages. Does this mean that its landed classes are under-represented in the National Assemblies?
A:I don’t think the landed classes of Sindh are underrepresented in the national assemblies. If anything, they are over-represented. Water rights in Pakistan is tied to ownership of land, so in spite of so many reforms, we still have very big farms owned by very powerful people, (rather than smaller farm owners) and landless peoples who actually work the land. The biggest farms are in southern Punjab and upper Sindh, while northern Punjab has smaller, more owner-worked farms. Where we have bigger landlords with their rent-seeking behaviour on the land, their payment for water is not a major consideration. Where sharecropping arrangements have been perpetuated, there isn’t much impetus to change because the system suits the landowners.
So all we hear about is a demand for more water. The entire world is going on to use less water and grow more crops but here we are shouting for more water to maintain some of the lowest productivity not only in the world, but also in the subcontinent. There are so many cheap technologies available — drip and sprinkler irrigation and there are already people here producing this equipment. In our rural economy, the whole use of labour on farms suits those in power, while others have no voice. Women sometimes have to walk miles and miles to get water. There is a need to recognise that just because these practices have gone on for centuries, perpetuating the system is not okay.
Every river has a Punjab and a Sindh — an upper and lower riparian part of the river . This is not a situation peculiar to Pakistan. Others live with this and so can we. We have IRSA to sort out problems between the provinces — irrigation departments at the provincial level, we have the Ministry of Water and Power, we have WAPDA at the federal level, we even have farmer organisations coming up. So there are institutional structures, we just have to look at them rationally. If we consider the Sindh-Punjab debate, it would appear as though everyone in Punjab is benefiting and everyone in Sindh is suffering. This is not true. Even within Punjab, the tail-end farmers do not have as much supply as the tail-head farmers. Within Sindh, we are not getting water equally and equitably. Both provinces face the same issues, so why are we talking about provinces?
If we look at different uses of water and the different categories of users, we will find that there are some right across Pakistan that have more access than their due share and some who get less.
When Sindh gets its share of water, within that there is a certain amount which is to be released into the sea, but this is not happening. One viewpoint in Punjab is that every drop of water that goes to the sea is wasted. I ask them if they had any idea how much this will destroy the entire Indus system, affecting them as well. The whole issue has been so politicised that you have to be either for or against the Kalabagh dam. I do not approve of this type of debate because one cannot reach any kind of conservational, rational or management related decision on the whole water sector based on just one point — dams. When we talk of water problems, there are certain ways of dealing with water that we never seem to think about and I think part of the reason is our whole national psyche. Why are we so afraid of using the same water many times for different uses? Why aren’t we thinking of cleaning our water before putting it back into the system and using it again? There is enough technology available to do so. Once we take care of these issues the debate will not only be about being for or against one or two dams.
Q: What can we do to alleviate this?
A: We should start recycling water that is used for agriculture, industries. There is one very simple principle that we have to adopt. No user should be allowed to put any polluted water into a fresh-water body. The user that pollutes the water should clean up the water before it is put back into the system. This principle has been used across the world for a very long time. It has to be done at every level. We have to “make water” by saving and cleaning water from basic domestic units, right up to managing entire systems. In my house all the water from condensation caused by air-conditioners is piped and re-used. We only use hand sprinklers, and we use the flushes very sparingly. There are many ways to save water. I’m very passionate about this issue. We need to build a people’s voice to call for saving, re-cycling and rationally using water. Only this people’s voice can change the focus of the debate on water in Pakistan, shifting the focus from one or two dams to the entire water sector.