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No water means poverty, hunger, war

The Globe and Mail

Rallying cry has boosted recruitment in rural areas. A presentation by the Lahore Chamber of Commerce to a delegation from the local U.S. consulate this spring spelled out a nightmare scenario in the starkest terms: “It can result in confrontation between two nuclear states,” one slide said. Another slide repeated the warning: “No water means poverty, hunger, war.”

Ironically, these problems have their origins in a triumph of engineering: the spread of irrigation that allowed the Indus basin to support millions of extra people.
The region has always been arid, so farmers have depended on irrigation for thousands of years, but the network of canals and ditches expanded dramatically in the 19th and 20th centuries. Pakistan’s irrigated lands have almost doubled since the country’s birth in 1947; during the same period, its population grew fivefold.

Populations have also exploded across the border, in Indian states that rely on the same rivers.

“It’s like pouring an ocean into the sand,” said Abrar Hussain Kazi, president of a leftist party in southern Pakistan and author of two books on water issues. “But we’re increasing our population at terrific speed, and everybody needs water and sustenance.”

The grand experiment in large-scale irrigation worked well in the past century. In Badin district, south of Hyderabad, old farmers still recall the joy of seeing the digging machines carving canals into the dusty landscape. Nagi, a wizened 75-year-old (from a generation that often doesn’t bother with last names), gestured with his cigarette at an expanse of rice fields stretching to the horizon.

“Before, this was a desert,” he said. He took a long drag on the cigarette and looked down at his feet, where the hard-baked earth was starting to resemble a desert once again. Planting season arrived two months late this year, he said, because the canal water remained low. “Day by day now, the water is less and less,” he said.

Measurements of water levels in rivers have become controversial, as all sides accuse their opponents of fudging statistics. But nobody disagrees that the farmers at the bottom of the canal system, the “tail-enders,” are suffering.

Sindh province, in southern Pakistan, has already witnessed street protests, mass migrations and whole villages abandoned to the spreading desert. Some farmers are driven off their land by a lack of water, while others give up because the water has become too polluted or salty.

Mahmood Nawaz Shah, secretary-general of the Sindh Growers Board, says the meagre flows reaching southern Pakistan are not enough to wash away industrial contaminants or to prevent sea water from encroaching inland. Although farmland has increased in Pakistan as a whole, he said, Sindh now leaves 44 per cent of its arable land unused, compared with 28 per cent in 1947. “The soil is being destroyed,” he said. “I’ve seen people drinking water you wouldn’t want to stand beside.”


Along the edge of the muddy Indus, in the town of Kotri, the fishermen have their own way of measuring the loss of water. Mohammed Molah, district president for the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, stood on a bluff overlooking the river, high enough that leaping into the water would be a deadly plunge, and described happier days when the water would have reached his ankles. In those times, he said, flotillas carried whole wedding parties on to the river, and the waters reverberated with singing and the music of onestringed ektaras.

Mr. Molah estimated that 31 types of fish have disappeared from the river, leaving only smaller species that survive in shallow water. Only three years ago, his district had 112 fishing boats, he said, and now only 50 remain. Many fishermen have moved away, joining the throngs of poor in city slums. “It’s not just our livelihood, it’s our culture and customs that were lost,” he said.

Like the river itself, the reasons for the declining waters are murky. Pakistan’s own measurements of river levels flowing into the country show some declines in the past three years but no changes big enough to account for the shortages downstream. Climate change seems an unlikely culprit in the short term, as melting glaciers are expected to boost river flows over the next few decades, before the dwindling ice fields eventually start to hurt the supply.

A World Bank report observed that the volume of fresh water reaching the sea has fallen almost to zero in some recent years, suggesting that Pakistan now consumes too much water for irrigation. In theory, the canal system is regulated by the Indus River System Authority, which oversees a 1991 accord between the provinces. But the IRSA has been paralyzed by arguments among its board; three of five members tendered their resignations in recent weeks amid squabbles between delegates from downstream and upstream provinces.

A similar paralysis has prevented Pakistan from building dams that might store the excess water during monsoon rains, keeping a supply on hand for the rest of the year. Existing dams and storage reservoirs are filling up with silt. Former president Pervez Musharraf announced plans to build a new dam, Kalabagh, in 2005, but the project never got under way because of objections from Sindh and other parts of the country.

For those near the bottom of the rivers, any construction of waterworks raises the fear of the flows being manipulated by those upstream. Yet tail-enders have lost faith in local authorities too. “We’ve had mismanagement at the local level,” said Abdul Halik, who owns 20 hectares of rice in Badin district. “Nobody repairs the water channels. The government officers just come on festival days to collect money from us.” Faced with such arguments inside the country, some politicians in Pakistan have started to deflect the anger toward neighbouring India. Abdul Salam, deputy head of Badin district, who owns a farm himself, says most of his neighbours blame those immediately upstream for the recent problems.

But he is trying to persuade them to look farther afield, at the new hydroelectric dams under construction in India. He pours a glass of water drawn from the well on his farm. It looks cloudy and tastes of salt. “This taste does not belong in our mouths,” Mr. Salam said. “The next war will be over water.”

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.


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