Dam Equivalents: The solution to Pakistan’s water crisis

We don’t need another mega project to solve our problems. What we need is a mega-vision.

There’s a general rhetoric that, one, Pakistan is soon going to run out of water; and, two, building more dams is the ‘only solution’ to the crisis. Is this really the case?

Nature’s mechanism that brings water to Pakistan has three major components: the Indian Ocean in the south, the sun in the sky, and the high mountains—Himalayas, Karakorum and Hindukush (HKH)—in the north. When the sun shines on the ocean, it creates moist air (aka clouds) that moves north towards the land. When it strikes the mountains, it cools down and releases the moisture as rain or snow—creating glaciers, rivers and streams flowing into our landscape all the way to the Arabian Sea. This system is in place for millions of years and is not going away any time soon. For Pakistan to really run out of water, therefore, either the Indian Ocean should be dried up, the sun switched off, or the mountains flattened. As long as the sun, the ocean, and the mountains are there, Pakistan is not running out of water.

And global warming can only increase rainfall because it will provide more heat to the ocean which will result in bigger clouds – and more rains. This is evident from the data of Rawalpindi/Islamabad rainfall which has slightly increased in the past 115 years as shown in Figure 1. Global warming is not going to reduce the amount of water in our country.

Figure 1 

Now let’s see how much water we need and how much nature brings for us.

After Pakistan permitted India to divert three eastern rivers of Indus Basin away from the country, we now get an average of 145 million acre-feet (MAF) of water in our rivers each year with which we have to manage all our needs. The primary needs are food production, drinking, hygiene, sanitation, municipal, and industry.

Pakistan is now a food-surplus country and we consume 104 MAF of water annually to grow our food. However, Pakistan’s current irrigation system is one of the most wasteful systems in the world. Compared to us, Israel produces 70 per cent more, California 50 per cent more, and even Indian Punjab 30 per cent more with the same quantity of water.

If we upgrade our outdated irrigation system, we can produce surplus food with less than 50 MAF of water.

According to international standards, a community needs 35 gallons per capita per day to meet drinking, cooking, health, hygiene and municipal needs. If we want to supply this amount of water to every community in the country, all we need is 12 MAF. Catering for growing requirements of 207 million individuals, our domestic requirements can be managed well within 17 MAF.

Finally, our industrial requirements at the moment are around eight MAF. With a combination of industrial growth and efficient use of water, our future industrial requirements can be met with 10 MAF or so.

Water availability in the country versus the demand is summarised in Figure 2. This shows that we have almost twice as much water as we need.

Figure 2 

Then, why the crisis?

In the irrigation sector, which is the biggest consumer of available water, the wastage is too high both in state-managed distribution system of canals as well as on-farm practices by the farmers. The wasteful consumption has raised the demand in irrigation sector at least twice more than the need. But wastage of water aside, this is the prime reason that from neighbouring provinces to neighbouring farmers, every water user is fighting with the other over, so called, water rights and allocations. This has, therefore, compromised on the peace in the country, and thus has created a dangerous dividing line within the communities and the provinces.

The next major problem is pollution of water resources. Despite having enough water, our cities, industries and agriculture sectors, all have become engines of pollution for the natural water repositories. There is indiscriminate pollution of both the rivers and underground aquifers – leaving their waters unfit for use.

The third major problem is mismanagement and corruption within the water sector, both in the rural and urban settings. The rural sector suffers from head and tail disparities along irrigation canals where theft and manipulation of water by the powerful is common. In the urban sector, selling of public water supply through tankers is an everyday routine. Poor planning, leakage, theft, and pitiable maintenance of water supply systems in the cities deprive the citizens from getting water even when it is available.

And finally, our water managers are always lamenting that though there is enough water in the natural system, most of it is only available during the monsoons.

So, what is the way to go around these problems?

Dams don’t help

Let’s first consider dams in relation to the problems identified. Would dams fix wasteful irrigation practices? Would they control pollution? Would they help curb corrupt practices? Would they help manage excessive water supply of monsoon?

Except for the last issue, dams don’t seem to help at all. And even if the last issue is fully resolved through the construction of a large dam, the first three issues would continue to loom and our water problems would hardly improve. Moreover, dams have many downsides. Besides being exuberantly expensive, environmentally destructive and taking decades to build, they have a limited useful life before they silt up. But worst, they can act like a hammer on the dividing line between provinces on water issues and dangerously compromise peace within the country. In other words, dams do not provide a holistic solution to our major problems.

If dams cannot address wastage, pollution, mismanagement, and corruption issues, nor does their storage last long, do we have any alternatives?

The good news is, yes. Because we can think of Dam-Equivalents or DEs.

A DE comprises suites of contemporary technological, structural, and institutional interventions within a hydrologic regime, which mimic the purposes for which large dams are built, but avoid replicating their downsides.

Today's knowledge, tools and technologies, together with a naturally-gifted hydrological regime of Pakistan, present us a grand opportunity to develop DEs in Pakistan and become the world leaders of contemporary water management.

DEs can help transform our outdated canal irrigation practices—which account for 95 per cent of all water consumption in the country—into modern systems, not only rivaling that of California’s in terms of smartness and productivity, but also raising the bar for the rest of the world in terms of sustainability, eco-friendliness, and low-carbon green-growth standards.

DEs can help us exploit the potential of Pakistan’s 3,500 kilometers of natural river network to be used as inland navigation waterways, connecting Lahore and Peshawar—and possibly Afghanistan—to the Arabian Sea, providing warm water access to the land-locked Central Asian States, thus adding billions of dollars in our economy through trades and tariffs.

DEs can help build urban water security in a way that not only every urban dweller, industry, and public utility gets enough clean water for drinking, health, hygiene, and other uses, but also provide sufficient water for horticulture that may be required for the greening and landscaping of public and private areas throughout the cityscapes.

To top it all, DEs in most cases are cheaper and faster to build as compared to building large dams, yet their functionality is way more sustainable and robust, compared to large dams – with much higher economic dividends.

Fortunately, the much-publicised water crisis in the country has nothing to do with the shortage of water. The real problem lies in obsolete infrastructure and outmoded management practices, resulting in the over-use, misuse, and pollution of our water resources.

Here’s how a DE could help

Take the example of the proposed Kalabagh Dam on the Indus River. According to Engineer Barkat Ali, a former consultant of The World Bank, the dam – at an estimated cost of $6,000 million – would provide water storage volume of 6.1 MAF (million acre-feet), bring 0.85 million acres of additional land under irrigation, and install a power generation capacity of 3,500 MW (megawatt). Annual revenue from the dam is expected to be $1,400 million from the irrigation sector and $1,500 million from power generation. However, the recent boondoggle of the Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project has cost us $5,150 million just to install 969 MW, without any storage capacity. Extrapolating from the recent facts, a project the size of Kalabagh Dam would safely be in the range of $15,000 million to $20,000 million today.

Leaving aside the politics and controversies surrounding large dam projects, let’s first consider a DE on the Indus River which may mimic the purposes of a large dam, albeit maintaining socio-economic and environmental sustainability and improved peace dividends in the region.

An opportunity for DE lies in Rohri Canal, which withdraws 8.5 MAF from Indus to irrigate 2.6 million acres. However, according to a study by the International Water Management Institute, the farmers of Rohri Canal area can only irrigate an average of 1.1 million acres in any given season (Kharif or Rabi) due to the insufficient supply of water to match the guzzling demands of the flood-irrigation methods given to the farmers.

For the suggested DE in Rohri Canal area, three interventions are proposed as illustrated in Figure 3. First, if farmers are provided with modern irrigation methods, wastage will be curtailed and water will be spared. Second, some of this spared water can be diverted to meet the chronic water supply problems of Karachi. Third, a navigation channel could be created between Kotri and the open sea, invoking the economic engine of inland navigation in the region.

Figure 3

Let’s elaborate on these interventions one by one.

A modern irrigation system for Rohri Canal command area would require the development of riverine well-fields, piped water supply systems, and all the doohickeys of modern farms like those of the Hunter Valley in Australia. The estimated cost for modernizing 2.6 million acres could range from eight to 10 billion dollars. Not only would this intervention enable farmers to cultivate the full area with just three MAF—saving 5.5 MAF—it would also increase per acre yields by at least 25 per cent, enabling farmers to earn an excess of Rs300,000 per acre annually. The overall agriculture economy of the canal command could thus reach $6,000 million a year.

This intervention alone addresses the storage and irrigation purposes of Kalabagh Dam – for the dam’s 0.85 million acres of irrigated area, the intervention brings in 1.50 million acres; and, for 6.1 MAF of storage, it provides 5.5 MAF. Interestingly though, the storage in DE is not achieved by blocking the water from reaching the downstream communities, but by releasing additional water downstream. So, while the dam would have deprived the downstream communities of water, causing conflict and discord, the DE intervention adds to peace dividends with the release of additional water for downstream users.

What about Karachi?

The second intervention suggests diverting water from the Indus River to meet the needs of Karachi – a population of 16 million or so. If we plan to supply 35 gallons per person per day of fresh water (an international standard), all we need is 1.7 MAF per year. However, to cater for storage and future needs, we can plan to divert 2.5 MAF.

Before discussing the details of transferring additional water to Karachi, a short stroll along San Antonio River in Texas could be a learning experience. San Antonio River runs through the city for 15 miles (24 Km) along which the ‘San Antonio River Walk’ has been created. Fresh flowing waters have always had an appeal for the humans. Taking advantage of the intrinsic value of its clean flowing waters, the city generates around $3,500 million worth of businesses along the River Walk. The river, however, is an illusion – a ‘tourist mirage’ as put by Robert Glennon in his account on America’s groundwater resources. It is an artificial river which receives its waters by pumping 10 million gallons per day from Edwards Aquifer to the northwest of the city.

The San Antonio River Walk model can be replicated in Karachi. As we divert 2.5 MAF to Karachi, it can be made to run through the cityscape as a carefully crafted ‘artificial river’. The river’s route could take the form of an interconnected course of lakes, streams, and ponds etc., surrounded by beautifully landscaped businesses and recreation areas. On the surface, this ‘river’ will be providing space for multi-billion dollar businesses in a beautified cityscape, but beneath its surface, this river will continuously recharge the aquifer with freshwater. Once the system is in place, it will take between two to three years to enable the city to draw water from the aquifer for day to day usage. The aquifer storage will ultimately reach its full capacity at 20 MAF or so, a staggering 10-year reserve for the city! This system will ultimately provide reliable access to clean and affordable water to every citizen of Karachi and make the city virtually drought-proof. Its cost will be more than offset by the development of water-front real estates and businesses. San Antonio River Walk earns $145 million per kilometre. If Karachi earns even half of it, the annual revenue from the intrinsic value of the ‘river’ would be around $20,000 million. Besides generating businesses and securing water for the city, the system will help turn Karachi into a clean and green city, offsetting heat waves and accruing many socio-environmental benefits. Of course, such a plan has to be implemented with carefully integrated considerations of sewerage and solid waste disposal systems under a unified authority for the entire city. The estimated cost of this intervention is in the tune of $5,000 million.

After diverting 2.5 MAF for securing Karachi’s water supply needs, we still have three MAF of water left that was saved from Rohri Canal. We can let this water flow all the way to the sea through the Indus River, but not without invoking another economic engine that runs with the flowing waters. Here we can go for the third intervention by turning the flowing river into an ‘Inland Navigation Channel’ – connecting the Arabian Sea to an ‘Inland River Port’ established at Kotri. A carefully designed and administered inland navigation system between the open sea and Kotri will help bring cargo worth millions of dollars each day at the inland port. This will not only relieve huge stress from the overcrowded port of Karachi but also free up the congested highway spaces within the city. The port will serve the industry and business within Karachi more effectively, while the cargo destined for areas north of Karachi will be more effectively handled at Kotri’s inland port. Of course, this intervention has to be preceded by meticulous design and development of state-of-the-art inland navigation and port facilities, as well as rules, regulations and by-laws of river navigation. The estimated cost of this intervention is about $4,000 million, while its per annum revenues are expected to exceed $10,000 million within the first five years of its operation.

(Figure 4 illustrates how the proposed DE interventions can create engines of water economy. The economic values assigned to these engines are conservative ballpark figures, used here only to expound upon the concept. These ballpark figures have been compared with similar figures for a large dam in Table 1. This form of comparison can guide us in future decision making for investment priorities in developing dam equivalents for the future.)

Figure 4

Table 1 

* Non-consumptive use; projects can be built simultaneously

One of the biggest advantages of DEs is the ease of financing the interventions. Unlike large dams, which are unable to deliver any benefit until the whole project is complete from start to finish, any component of a DE intervention, as soon as it is complete, can start paying off its economic dividends. A DE, therefore, can start with a small seed funding and, with careful financial planning, its dividends can become the source-funds for the subsequent development phases.

We don’t need another mega project to solve our problems. What we need is a mega-vision to guide and coordinate smaller scale interventions into a grand vision—a “think global act local” approach.

Finally, it is worth noting that this DE illustration is applied to just one of the 42 canal commands in Pakistan, while the dividends already exceed 10 times the benefits compared to a large dam. We have at least another 41 similar opportunities to solve our own problems, and in Jinnah’s words, “let it not be said that we did not prove equal to the task”.

Abbas is an expert in hydrology and water resources.

Cover Photo: Rawal Dam