Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Dehydrated Future is coming

Water resources are declining and different UN reports confirm that serious shortages are occurring soon. Thus we see a future when there will be no or less drinking water.

Access to water is a human right. Current declarations on human rights include basic water needs sufficiently. Basic water rights focus only on water for domestic use, and speak only of amounts of the order of 30-50 liters per person per day. Nonetheless, for many poor people, access to water for productive purposes is a crucial basic need as well. This is because water is a key factor of production in agriculture and for most other forms of economic activity that are vital to the livelihoods and opportunities of the poor.

Some question the wisdom of providing water of drinking quality at great expense, only to have a large share flushed down toilets, to carry waste, where after it is cleaned again for the few that can afford this costly practice. Opinions differ: some water experts advocate ecological sanitation, others dry toilets, some people argue that only bottled water should be of drinking quality and piped water quality should be limited to fit all other use made of it. All these alternative approaches deserve more attention.

Water infrastructure of Pakistan is turning into archaic. Reservoirs are silting up irrigation networks and turning disrepair. Groundwater levels are falling in important aquifers that have contributed substantially to food security in recent years by providing water-on-demand to millions of farmers that tapped them using tube-wells to grow their crops. This situation has impacted adversely causing a serious scarcity of water resources. This scarcity has hit the poor and vulnerable-first and hardest.

Pakistan’s per capita water availability in 1951 was 5,650 which has fallen to around 1,200 cubic meters 1,200 and with current population growth rate, it will be reduced to 1,000 cubic meters by the year 2012. So the hard reality that we as people faced today is that Pakistan in the past fifty years has turned into a water-scarce from a water-sufficient country and the situation continues to go downhill. This is the specimen of a mismanaged case.

Pakistan is the victim of repeated wrong planning of its land and water resources to produce food. All this is due to the pathetic and inert attitude of the technocrats, bureaucrats, politicians and the government as no national policy on water development was framed.

Large-scale development of river and groundwater resources is less acceptable today, for environmental reasons. It is also less cost effective than it was in the 1960-1990 period, when the large majority of the world's 45,000 large dams were built.

Water can be distributed through government institutions or the market. Privatization of water service provision, however, does not imply privatization of water resources. Water is a public good, which should be treated as an economic good where it is used for economic purposes. The public-private sector role nevertheless does not imply the role of multinational companies but the role and significance of the small-scale private sector.

In agriculture, private farmers have been largely responsible for the major investments in groundwater development. This groundwater use has contributed significantly to food production and the creation of wealth in rural areas. But government has failed to elaborate rules and mechanism ensuring that groundwater is used in a way that minimizes the risks of over-use and protects groundwater quality.

Increasing the efficiency in irrigated agriculture can result in large water savings. The UN Secretary General once rightly uttered: We need a Blue Revolution in agriculture that focuses on increasing productivity per unit of water. Indeed, at the farm level, the focus on water productivity in physical terms, crop output per unit of water, is a necessary and useful framework. Likewise, appropriate soil fertility and plant nutrition management can be a way to achieve more crops per unit of water. Water productivity at the basin level must be defined to include crop, livestock and fishery yields, wider ecosystem services and social impacts such as health, together with the systems of resource governance that ensure equitable distribution of these benefits.

For sustainable development, it is clear that better water management should be a means to reduce poverty. Strategies to address water-poverty relationships need to improve the different capabilities of the poor in their battle against poverty. These strategies also need to address the pervasive gender issues in water. Those affected by water problems are too often women, while those deciding on solutions tend to be men. Building gender-equitable capabilities of the poor to manage their water resources should also be at the heart of capacity building in the water sector.

The Provinces should formulate a water supply master plan and continuous planning process to estimate demand for drinking water and identify alternative ways of meeting that demand.

They should also establish and allocate resources to local governments for the preparation of provincial-mandated water supply plans. The Provinces should also enact legislation requiring local governments to formulate and administer comprehensive watershed protection programs in designated future water supply watersheds.

A system needs also to be evolved to promote the adoption of best management practices to minimize agricultural erosion in designated future water supply watersheds by funding and extending existing state cost-sharing programs to those watersheds and by targeting federal, state, and local technical assistance programs to them. A framework also has to be in place to increase technical assistance to local governments to help them prepare and administer watershed protection programs for designated future drinking water sources.

In evaluating alternatives for conjunctive use, water managers should also view ground water as more than a supplement to surface supplies. In particular, managers should assess the value of ground water in optimizing storage capacity, enhancing transmission capabilities, and improving water quality of the system. Asif J. Mir Organizational Transformation