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The Water Factor The News, By Masood Hasan


So the good news is that in just a few years time, Pakistan will slide into the dreaded Red Zone where water resources are concerned. I have no idea what the Red Zone is, having never been there, instead being fed for years on the more popular No Go Zones which pop up with alarming regularity wherever things are not going right. But going by what the WWF is saying, by 2011 (by which time hopefully the Uniform issue will have been settled), water availability will be about 146 million litres against a requirement of 180 million litres and the gap will continue to widen fast. The reasons are fairly simple. Over-population, indiscriminate exploitation of precious groundwater resources, gross misuse of water by all and sundry and a flawed system of irrigation where losses stand at a staggering 70 percent.

The nation's per capita requirement that currently stands at 12,000 cubic metres versus a minimum requirement of 1,000 cubic metres will fall to 837 cubic metres in just six years. Overall, the water deficit will shoot up to 21 percent from the current 11 percent. Here too, the gap will go on increasing. In Balochistan, although I am the first to admit that it is not popular to talk about its problems, in just 15 years there will be simply no water. Not that they are actually revelling in water sports even as we read, but the country's largest province will be waterless. In Lahore, thanks to excessive and unplanned use, the water table has plunged from 300 feet to 800 feet. This means that we have to go deeper and deeper into the earth to get the water we need and that is not a journey without an end. I don't know what all we are going to do other than the national solution to such problems -- nothing, but for starters can we dynamite the Irrigation Departments including all the brilliant lights inside it? With 70 percent of what they supply disappearing God knows where, they might as well blow up the canals and let the water flow about freely so that we can finish it in record time and get into desert sports in a big way. Even Wapda looks good given the irrigation haemorrhaging performance that has been going on unchecked for years.

Of course Karachi has been dry for years now. Ask any Karachiite about water and you will hear hair-raising stories. Elsewhere particularly the Punjab where all the Chief Minister's dreams seem to be entirely taken up with educating the province, things are pretty rosy and have been for a long time. However, this particular dream where men float about in slow motion washing cars with hundreds of gallons of water may soon be over, replaced by another one which will not be a dream by any stretch of the imagination. It wouldn't be off the mark to imagine that elsewhere in the province-of-all-provinces, things must be the same.

While in parts of the country, where rivers still flow and large expanses of water are visible, the picture may be misleading at first glance, the truth soon surfaces. Provision of clean, drinking water, a basic requirement for any sustainable development -- or if that is too large a word to comprehend, basic life, has been a glaring failure of this and previous governments. There are millions in Pakistan who do not have the luxury of opening a tap and drinking water. The stories of animals and human beings drinking from the same dirty ponds are far too many to repeat here -- so is the long list of diseases but such is the thickness of the national hide now that nothing pricks it or makes an impression. Life goes on merrily because everyone is only looking at today. While other images abound and there are two nations in Pakistan, as Shakir Hussain eerily put it the other day, there are also two water classes. Those with and those without taps and the gaps have become chasms.

There are two levels at which we need to act unless we are into serious desert sports, in which case we should simply just carry on. At the national level, the rising wailing of the water and power experts must be listened to without further delay. It does not require a zillion masterminds to tell this country that it must build dams to stay alive. We have spent over twenty years dithering over Kalabagh Dam and the debates go on and on. The hot air that has been expended on this issue alone could have heated a thousand frozen Arctic oceans. And still there is no end. Everyone has an opinion; the crackpots have more than everyone else. Strange twists of logic occur with despairing regularity as the wise owls chant new mantras daily. Yes, no, no, yes.

In the meantime, time still being an independent entity is simply clattering along. When the gig is up and it will be up -- the bionic mouths will still be holding forth debating the issues. It is also a fallacy to believe that once we decide on the mega dams they will be up in a flash and perform miracles. It will be years before that happens and dams have their fallout as well, but to someone as illiterate as I am on the aqua business, we simply have no way out. There should be an immediate end to this Kalabagh caper that's bored everyone to death. Far more fundamental decisions have been taken here without even sharpening a pencil. What's holding up the lordships here? A pragmatic, do-it policy at the national level is absolutely essential. Of course it is not likely to happen, but what's the harm in daydreaming? After all we are already performing miracles in education.

As for the 70 percent water that is going God knows where, should we import some aliens to set this right? What do irrigation losses mean? Does the water seep through the canal linings and disappear? Is it being illegally routed elsewhere? Is it simply not arriving? If we are losing almost all the water in our irrigation system, why are we using it? Can no one stop the losses -- no that is silly thinking, diminish the losses? And if this has been going on and getting worse, why is everyone into a Rip Van Winkle number?

As for the second level, when will people, particularly those in the Punjab, stop wasting water? No one really cares or even thinks long enough at what they are doing. Cars, trucks, buses -- anything that moves and has wheels are washed everyday. Service stations sprout like pimples and huge reserves of good water simply hose down yesterday's mud. Taps leak everywhere. Wherever WCs are installed, they invariably leak. Gardens are watered daily, sometimes twice a day. Homes, shops, workshops, drives, verandas, floors -- everything is constantly being washed. There is no public outcry over this obscene wastage. It is like an addiction and it gets worse. Pakistanis cannot see beyond their noses, on clear days that is. This false notion that things will take care of themselves is our undoing. A mega change is necessary. Can water trigger it off?


The writer is a Lahore-based columnist

Email: masood_news@hotmail.com