THE attention that Prime Minister Imran Khan is giving to water issues in the country is a refreshing break from the more brick-and-mortar priorities of the previous government. However, securing the water future of the country will take a lot more than meetings and directives. It is unfortunate to note this — increasingly, there is an impression that while the government’s priorities might appear sound, the new setup has little idea of what to do about pursuing them. The latest example of this was the meeting held by Mr Khan on Wednesday in which he directed key individuals on his leadership team along with senior members of the water bureaucracy to ensure better coordination with the provinces, apart from formulating a legislative framework to regulate surface water usage and groundwater extraction. These are all important issues and the prime minister’s personal attention to them is welcome. But water is an intricate and sprawling issue, and it is absolutely necessary for Mr Khan to meet and solicit advice from people beyond the water bureaucracy.
Once he ventures outside the limited confines of the water bureaucrats, he will experience the difficulty of even trying to take a comprehensive view of the water predicament in the country. Urban and rural water issues, for example, are very different from each other, and involve very different tiers of government. Urban water distribution presents challenges that are part technical, part financial — they are also challenges that are deeply embedded in urban rackets and municipal dysfunctions. In some places, the dysfunctions are political, in others they are economic. Trying to take a single, comprehensive approach to problems in the water sector is clearly the wrong starting point.
Compounding the issue is the blinkered view that the water bureaucracy has traditionally taken of Pakistan’s water sector. In their opinion, the problem is first and foremost one of quantity, and all other aspects of it, such as governance, reform of access regimes and pricing, are a distant second. The best illustration of this is the read-out that emerged from the meeting itself, in which water pricing was not even mentioned as a topic that was discussed. The scale of the water sector is so large, and the number of problems that need simultaneous attention so vast, that the prime minister would be well advised to adopt a more systematic approach to pursuing his priorities in this area. In doing this, it would be a sensible move to consult water sector experts outside the water bureaucracy, and even beyond the donor agencies. It will take a monumental effort to build the coalitions he needs to generate a positive outcome in the water sector, and one can only wish him all the best in this endeavour.
Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2018