Political fallout of Punjab’s water crisis

Post Source: Dawn Economic and Business Review

By Ahmad Fraz Khan

RAJA RIAZ, who heads the PPP parliamentary party and holds two more provincial portfolios – the senior minister, next only to the chief minister, and provincial irrigation minister – on Thursday hosted an all-parties conference at the Punjab Assembly to strategise “how to meet water crisis in Punjab.” The convening of APC heralds a new path for the PPP, particularly for its provincial chapter. It also signifies changing political milieu in which the PPP and other parties have to operate in the most populated federating unit. Farmers from Punjab, who constitute around 68 per cent of the vote bank, are getting “exceedingly uneasy” with the current federal water policies.

They are becoming increasingly vocal, regularly taking to streets at local level and criticising all parties, which “fail to protect their water and, resultant, agriculture and economic right.” Their increasing belligerence has forced almost all political parties to calibrate their response to “escape wrath of politically-charged farmers.”

That is precisely the pressure which the PPP was trying to ward off by convening an APC on the issue, and looks alive to their plight. Otherwise, its provincial chapter has so far been blindly following the federal line of “total inactivity” on the issue.

The joint declaration, issued at the end of the conference, further expanded the political space, which the PPP provincial chapter was ready to concede: it demanded the “construction of Kalabagh dam after building national consensus.”

Whether the demand made by the provincial PPP chapter is a tactical move to “temporarily deflect growing political pressure or it indicates a strategic shift, remains to be seen.” The provincial chapter was, in fact, responding to the growing political pressure on the party for “working out a national water strategy, which protects Punjab’s water rights – as being popularly defined in the province. It is particularly true for the southern part, which, by and large voted for the PPP in last elections.”

The PPP, so far, has to face such pressure mainly from Sindh and, to a lesser extent, from Balochistan and the NWFP. It is for the first time that farmers from Punjab have started generating political heat on major parties to protect, what they perceive to be, their water right.

A more active Punjab voters clamouring for their water rights is a new phenomenon for the PPP to deal with. How it balances between its voters from Punjab and Sindh would be a big test for the party.

The parties now have to respond not only increasing domestic pressure, but the Indian tactics as well, which are worsening domestic scene.

The PPP, being the largest political party, will have to take a lead in this regard. It should realise that water crisis is not a provincial subject. Provinces suffer or benefit from federal policies but they do not execute them. As such, provincial crisis, be it of Sindh or Punjab, cannot be handled unless national picture improves, and every federating unit has something to get. If the provinces are left to share water poverty, crisis would not only go away but deepen. It is also not a Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan or NWFP crisis. The crisis is that of Pakistan, and the federation must deal with, taking provinces along.

Meanwhile, the forecasts, pouring in from all sides – from domestic to international experts – are becoming increasingly scary. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United Nations, all environmental agencies have put Pakistan in the danger zone. How the PPP government plans to deal with the scare, no one knows – so far at least.

The only dam which would probably be built in the foreseeable future is the Diamir-Bhasha. But its current time line creates more fear than hopes. It is expected to start storing water, if all goes well, by 2020. By that time, the country would have lost seven million acre feet of storage capacity, if 1976 storage (post-Tarbella) level is a benchmark. The dam will store only six million acre feet water. That means, that the country would not be able to restore water situation even in 2020, which it had achieved 44 years ago in 1976.

On the other hand, the current pattern of dams getting empty, only bringing drought closer to the country every passing year. For the last five years, the country’s largest dam, Tarbella, has been regularly hitting dead level by mid-March. It used to serve the country up to mid-June. The silt has eaten up three months’ irrigation supplies. Every year, ten days’ supplies are lost. In next five years, it would start hitting dead level by the end of January, leaving Sindh without last watering for its wheat, Punjab without last two watering for wheat and both without water for Kharif crops.

The Mangla Dam, which was raised by 30 feet by last year, has not been able to store more water because of the resettlement issues. During the last two years, the federal government has not been able to spare funds to move people living on the new lake level. This is despite the fact that the country had already invested over Rs80 billion on it but is not benefiting because it could not spare Rs8 billion to move people. This is suicidal, to say the least.


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