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Pakistan Sinking Into Water Crisis

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VIENNA, Feb 10, 2011 (IPS) - Pakistan is still reeling from flooding that caused one of the world’s costliest natural disasters in 2010, with millions of people lacking shelter, infrastructure in ruins and donations falling short of appeals. But worse may come.

The United Nations’ disaster coordination agency announced on Jan. 24 that the Pakistan floods caused damages of at least 9.5 billion dollars - the world’s third costliest natural disaster in 2010 - and killed 1,985 people - the fourth deadliest in a year of cataclysmic events.

But Pakistanis will face a water challenge of a different sort in the years ahead - the possibility of dire scarcity.

"There are so many other priorities that the government is facing, particularly at a national security level, and to be frank, Pakistan’s government has never really made genuine, sustainable commitments to human development and human security issues, such as guaranteeing better access to water for the masses," says Michael Kugelman, an Asia analyst at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.

A Woodrow Wilson Center report titled ‘Running on Empty’ that Kugelman oversaw in 2009 warned that Pakistan’s water situation is "extremely precarious" and that the South Asian nation could face widespread shortages within 25 years. He said last year’s floods exposed the government’s neglect of infrastructure, including dams, "one of the big manifestations of the water management policy failures."

"I think you could argue quite conclusively that if repairs had been done in a more timely fashion or more efficaciously in the last few years, that the damage from the flood would not have been as extensive as it was," Kugelman told IPS.

Aid officials say restoring water and sanitation services - already inadequate before the inundations - remain a priority six months after torrential rains turned the Indus River and its tributaries into destructive torrents. Floodwaters raged from July through September, causing nearly 1 billion dollars in damage to dams and irrigation systems and 93 million dollars damage to water and sewerage facilities, according to relief agencies. The U.N.’s humanitarian affairs agency says only 59 percent of the 1.9 billion dollars in immediate recovery aid has so far been provided.

Lack of safe drinking water, stagnant pools and wrecked or non-existent wastewater disposal are creating a health threat that is magnifying flood recovery problems.

The Red Cross and the South African anti-poverty group ActionAid have both warned that waterlogged and silted croplands are threatening subsistence farming and creating food shortages, and that malnourishment - particularly among children and mothers - is growing.

The Red Cross reported on Jan. 21 that four million people lack adequate shelter, and contaminated water supplies in southern Pakistan are "creating breeding grounds for waterborne diseases."

The U.S. State Department said that more than a million children are at risk of contracting infectious diseases, including waterborne ailments that were a main cause of death among children before the 2010 inundations.

Aside from urgent recovery needs, donors and analysts say Pakistan must address its future water management practices if it is to serve its rapidly growing population of 170 million.

A flood damage report prepared by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and World Bank says the country’s water supply and sanitation services "fail on three accounts - quality, access, and sustainability of services."

"Piped water supply is frequently intermittent and not potable; only 35 percent of the population has access, at best for 3-6 hours a day in all but the largest cities. Sewerage services are inadequate with most households not connected to a system; 33 percent of rural inhabitants have no toilet," says the 188-page report issued in December.

Inadequate and neglected infrastructure is the legacy of Pakistan’s chaotic and endemically corrupt politics, analysts say. Efforts to take power away from Islamabad and give regional governments more responsibility over water and sanitation services have failed, the ADB/World Bank assessment says, because local officials "were not provided the skilled staff, management capacity and systems, and operating budgets to do the job."

Pakistan’s civilian authorities have not been aloof to the need for improved water supplies and other infrastructure. Two years ago, Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon inaugurated Pakistan’s participation in a scheme aimed at streamlining foreign assistance in areas of health, agriculture, rural development and disaster management.

Local authorities also back ambitious dam-building projects - including two on the Indus, the Kalabagh in Punjab and the Diamer Basha in Kashmir - designed to prevent floods, generate electricity and provide stable water supplies. Gilani has told reporters that had the dams been in place before July 2010, the country might have been spared the worst flooding.

But there are growing fears that the country is outstripping its ability to feed itself, and overtaxed water supplies are likely to fuel conflicts between competing agricultural and urban demands.

Irrigation practices are primitive and account for 90 percent of the nation’s water use. According to the U.N., Pakistan consumes 75 percent of its water resources, compared to 34 percent for India.

Meanwhile, the U.N. estimates that the country’s population will double by 2050. Urban areas accounted for 36 percent of the population in 2008, up from 33 percent in 2000, with poverty forcing rural Pakistanis to seek greener pastures in cities.

Kugelman says more attention should be paid to urban water management to avert health and resource problems. "It’s not going to be that long from now when the majority of the country lives in urban areas, and even now, the government really cannot provide sufficient water supplies, clean water, and water at all to the current populations in the cities."

The report by Kugelman and his Woodrow Wilson Center associates warns that Pakistan faces an imminent water crisis, with careless practices having a ripple effect on food production.

"Intensive irrigation regimes and poor drainage practices have caused water logging and soil salinity throughout Pakistan’s countryside. As a result, vast expanses of the nation’s rich agricultural lands are too wet or salty to yield any meaningful harvests," says the report.

Kugelman sees the flood recovery as an opportunity for change. Instead of constructing expensive dams, "doing more modest things like (investing) in more high-efficiency irrigation technology that doesn’t waste as much water, or just (trying) to fix up existing structures instead of building new ones."

But much depends on the country’s leadership.

Violence, displacement, a restless youth population, endemic corruption, the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan and creeping extremism - these challenges would confound the most audacious statesman. The Jan. 4 assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the Punjab state governor and prominent secularist who was gunned down by his own bodyguard, symbolises the country’s volatile condition.

"I think we’re seeing much more of a disturbing gain being made by those that really do not support democracy," Kugelman said. "I still don’t think the country is about to collapse, the military is too strong to allow that to happen. But it’s pretty scary."

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