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The cost of incompetence


By Arshad H Abbasi

The government's plans and strategy pronouncements are undoubtedly getting louder in declaring its commitment to efficient and sustainable use of water. But this has not led to any basic change in policies of the Capital Development Authority (CDA). Rather a lethal combination of bad water governance and incompetence continued and the authority damaging the government's ambition to make Islamabad's water supply a model for others cities.

The emphasis and preoccupation continues to be overwhelmingly in favour of massive investments to augment water supply from Ghazi Barotha, Indus River, by spending Rs30 billions instead concentrating on institutional reform to improve weak water governance that encourages overexploitation and use of water. According to project details, instead of wasting public exchequer on lifting water from a site 915 feet below the level of Islamabad, CDA ought to focus on efficient use of existing water resources and rectify the situation simultaneously.

In the past 35 years Rawalpindi has been almost every year in the form of the swelling of Lai River (nullah) causing 23 severe floods in Rawalpindi including the historical flood occurring in July 2001 (considered as a national disaster). The fundamental cause of flood in Rawalpindi is lack of storage of rainwater coming from Margalla hills by the CDA management as 80 per cent of catchment of Lai falls in Islamabad. In 1980, Margalla hills were declared as a National Park (reserved forest) by the efforts of WWF and now forest at Margalla hills will be converted into a thick natural vegetative cover. An analysis of Islamabad's rainfall data for the period 1980 to 2006 reveals that this thick forest canopy provides an excellent model for this.

The highest percentage of water losses speaks of the efficiency and competence of CDA. Though Capital Development Authority engaged a number of consultants, including JICA (1988), Nespak (1992), MM Pakistan (Pvt) Ltd (1998) and a special study conducted with the help of the government of Japan in 2000, for the improvement of the supply system all the consultants recommended that first 60 per cent leakage must be addressed before exploring new water resources. Lately in November 2005, the government of France conducted a study on "strategy for the control and management of unaccounted for water" through world reputed experts in this basic and chronic problem of water supply system. The study substantiates the previous findings as well.

According to the statistics, per capita availability of water in Islamabad is more than 440 litres per person as compared to other highly consuming cities of Asia like Shanghai and Seoul, which consume 250 and 210 litres per person respectively. Besides, receiving the highest per capita water per person, the residents of Islamabad get water only for one hour throughout the day. In other words it means that despite the existence of sufficient water, residents of the city get far less quantity, even less than the minimum amount according to the charter of United Nation, i.e. 100 litres of water per person per day. CDA management, being a model civic authority, neither acknowledges this right nor recognises water as an economic commodity.

Another gloomy aspect that illustrates gross negligence and mismanagement of the CDA is non-metering and intermittent water supply operation philosophy, causing water wastage at the consumer end. This devastating policy forced dwellers to install electric pumps on water connections due to low pressure. Inadequate and irregular supply of water is also one of the fundamental causes of contamination and leakage in secondary water supply network. In the original water supply plan, meters were planned to be installed but later declared obsolete, visibly an attempt to hide massive leakage.

An interesting fact that may arouse curiosity of the readers is that water meters were installed in Murree in June 1887 and the system is still working. Effective water-metering system makes water administration accountable on water losses. Islamabad is the only capital where flat rates are charged from consumers irrespective of water consumption. Just imagine the discriminatory policy of CDA that a house in a posh sectors mostly having big swimming pools installed additional illegal connections charged on the same flat rates as small houses in other sectors.

This apartheid policy forced dwellers to store more water than needed. Not only this, an inadequate and irregular supply of water due to low pressure also forced dwellers to install electric pumps on water connections, bore holes, and dig wells to increase the supply of water; thus causing inequitable distribution and water feuds. The metering system increases the awareness of water being consumed in a household and, therefore, reduces wastage and leakages. This in turn helps to conserve precious water resources and benefits the environment.

The tract record of CDA on the management of water resources is an example of its own kind. For instance in February, March 2005, more than 29, 000 million gallons of water from Khanpur and Simly dams spilled over and escaped to the sea resulting in another artificial crises in the following months for the residents. Khanpur Dam can alone cater the water needs of the capital till 2050, firstly if its conveyance root is adopted according to recommendation of JICA, WAPDA and other international experts. The same will also save more than Rs95 million annually on account of electricity bill alone for pumping water. Secondly, the addresses the chronic problem of seepage in Khanpur dam that is 35 million gallons monthly.

There is a need to bridge the gap between the higher management sitting in the offices and ground realities pertaining to potential existing water resources. The need is to utilise additional storage capacity of Simly after the construction of auxiliary spillway, tapping water from the seasonal water of streams of Margalla Hills, optimum use of Khanpur water resource, in addition to digital water meters, giving cost effective solutions of shortage of drinking water for Islamabad city.

Water conservation and rain harvesting techniques were part of the building by-laws 2005 but were never enforced. The immediate example for CDA authorities is in India where rain harvesting is mandatory in many cities. Even, the annual requirement of the Indian president's palace is met from its rooftop rainwater.

Spending 30 billion rupees on bringing water from the Indus River would not only be an economic disaster but also prove to be a catastrophe in terms of operating cost. Efficiently managing existing water resources is the call of the day which will make Islamabad the model of water governance for other cities of Pakistan as proposed and planned by the Federal Capital Commission in October 1959, while shifting the capital from Karachi.

The writer is an adviser on water and construction to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. Email:abbasi@sdpi.org