Pakistan Reader# 229, 14 October 2021
Inter-provincial water disputes are bound to continue as long as there is no clear interpretation of Water Apportionment Accord of 1991Sneha M
Sindh, Punjab and the IRSA
On 1 October, Pakistan officially entered Rabi season; however, the country is marred by differences in water distribution among the provinces. The central authority vested to resolve inter-provincial water disputes, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), is facing the familiar issue over distribution, with Sindh unhappy with the details.
The IRSA predicted that the water availability for the Rabi season had dropped down by 28 per cent, paving a path to inter-provincial water disputes. As a way forward, the IRSA's advisory committee convened a meeting on 30 September to review the water availability and anticipated water shortages for the upcoming Rabi season. The session was adjourned with inconclusive decisions as Sindh representatives protested against the irrational water distribution formula. The allegations between Punjab and Sindh have continued regardless of national waters significantly declining in the past few years. Moreover, since October, IRSA has been facing constant criticism from Punjab and Sindh for violating the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord.
IRSA’s strategy: Where is the problem?
Through successive meetings, the IRSA proposed to adopt the three-tier formula of water apportionment. However, Sindh's Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah had rejected this form of distribution and suggested that they welcome water-sharing based on the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord. This formula of water distribution is highly problematic for Sindh because, during the Kharif season, the total water available under the formula was 73.68 Million Acre Feet (MAF) water. In that case, during the Kharif season, Punjab would receive 38.21 MAF of water, Sindh 31.80 MAF, Balochistan 2.85 MAF, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 0.82 MAF. Nevertheless, if the water distribution were according to the 1991 Accord, the distribution would be 36.57MAF, 33.49 MAF, 2.81 MAF, and 0.80 MAF to Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan, and KP, respectively. As per the above-stated statistics, it is clear that Sindh had received less water (-1.69 MAF) and also suffered shortages when Punjab's canals were opened. Hence, Sindh insists that water distribution must be established in paragraph 2 of the accord. Additionally, Sindh also calls for equal sharing of water shortages without providing exemptions to Balochistan and KP.
In contrast, Punjab blamed Sindh for using 3.42 MAF more than its fair share of water for the Kharif crops, with over 30 per cent more water losses than the permitted limit of 15 per cent set by the authority. Therefore, Punjab considers that they must be counted among the province's share if the water losses are above the legal limit. In many cases, smaller provinces at the tail-end of the water supply system have been affected.
The problem of water sharing in Pakistan
Looking at it holistically, the Pakistan Water Apportionment Accord signed by four chief ministers in 1991 has failed to end long-simmering tensions between Sindh and Punjab. To an extent, it resolved the apportionment of water between the provinces. However, the issue of sharing water shortage has led to round-the-clock conflicts between upper and lower riparian provinces. These conflicts have been worsened by water shortage and climatic variations in recent years.
The Water Apportionment Accord of 1991 has its flaws. For example, paragraph 2 of the accord guarantees that 117.35 MAF of water will be distributed among the provinces; however, evidence shows otherwise. Moreover, the accord falls short of the future needs of the country. Therefore, a country that has amended its constitution several times must not treat its water treaties as sacrosanct.
The cultivation of wheat, gram, and barley during the Rabi season contributes heavily to the country's GDP. Wheat, in particular, being Pakistan's staple crop, is critical to the country's food security. According to Pakistan Economic Survey 2020-2021, wheat makes up 9.2 per cent of agriculture's share and contributes to 1.8 per cent of the GDP. To eradicate inter-provincial disputes; a) The federal government must strengthen the Indus River System Authority and the Council of Common Interests to resolve water disputes independently; b) Amendment of Water Apportionment Accord to address the gaps and enforcement of the accord diligently; c) Establish trust among the provinces to build dams to ensure water storage, and d) Water infrastructure and management should be considered a national priority.
In conclusion, Pakistan is a water-stressed country. Thus, efficient water utilization is critical for the provision of sustained agricultural and industrial development. The agriculture industry, which is at the heart of the country's economy and food security, is susceptible to water scarcity. In the face of an impending water catastrophe, comprehensive and inclusive planning is essential among the provinces and beyond.
Khalid Mustafa, “Amid protest from Sindh: IRSA enforces three-tier formula for Rabi season,” The News International, 6 October 2021
Mohammad Hussain Khan, “Irsa draws ire of Sindh by invoking controversial three tier formula,” Dawn, 5 October 2021
Staff Reporter, “Punjab wants IRSA to ‘go by the book’ in water distribution,” Dawn, 5 October 2021
Staff Reporter, “IRSA fails to finalize water distribution formula as Rabi season starts,” Dawn, 1 October 2021