REPORTS of severe water shortages afflicting large areas of Sindh and southern Punjab are on the increase, and large-scale damage to key crops, particularly cotton, paint a troubling picture. From Badin to Mirpurkhas to Nawabshah and all the way to Rahim Yar Khan, farmers are reporting that the sowing season for cotton has been badly disrupted because the water that is so essential at the time of sowing did not arrive at the scheduled time. Large sugarcane fields stand burnt, and vegetable output has suffered hugely. Demands from farmers and residents of agrarian towns have shifted away from water for irrigation. Now they are reduced to demanding drinking water since the shortages have parched more than just arable land.
Some lawmakers from Sindh have asked that the Indus River System Authority cut flows into two key link canals, arguing that these are to be used only in times of flood and not to make up for water shortages upstream. Irsa has responded that the situation in Punjab is just as bad, even though the sowing season for cotton has not begun there, while the wheat crop is ready for harvest. Thus far, the dispute at the national level has not gone beyond the confines of some testy exchanges between a few senators and key people in the water bureaucracy. Those exchanges demonstrate that the matter is unlikely to find resolution at that level. It is difficult to see what the government can actually do about the problem, given that it has been created by low inflows into the dams. But if it is true that there are significant withdrawals being made through the link canals for lands in Punjab, then the question of fairness in allocations must take centre stage. In Sindh too, the shortages have driven a politicised allocation, particularly from the Kotri Barrage, as well as illegal pumping of water by those closer to the canal head, leading to bitter complaints from the tail enders. The episode cries out for high-level attention. The Sindh government needs to wake up to its responsibility to ensure equitable sharing of the scarce quantities of water in its own areas, while the federal government must wake up to its obligations to ensure that interprovincial allocations are being done as per the spirit of the 1991 water-sharing accord. The shortages are a fact, but the acrimony they are giving rise to can be better handled.
Published in Dawn, May 5th, 2018