Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
Pakistan: Caught Between Floods, Drought, and Politics

Via The Financial Times, a report on the challenges – short- and long-term – facing Pakistan over water.  As the article notes:

“…The Indus has not been kind to Mohammed Maitlo. His one-acre farm in Pakistan received so little water for irrigation this year that his wheat crop was stunted. Then the river burst its banks, destroyed his home and pushed his family into the ranks of the millions dispossessed by the recent tragic floods.

Mr Maitlo’s story is repeated by hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers across the southern Sindh province, where until a few weeks ago people were preoccupied with worsening water shortages, not an unwelcome surplus.

“The situation was getting worse every day,” said Mr Maitlo, speaking in a school in the town of Sukkur which serves as a refuge for people who fled the floods. “Our land is turning barren.”

In future years, Pakistan’s ability to manage its dwindling water resources may play a bigger role in deciding whether a nuclear-armed country beset by poverty and an Islamist insurgency starts to prosper or face worse instability.

“Water shortages are one of the biggest challenges Pakistan faces,” said F.M. Mughal, a specialist in water issues in Sindh. “Unless the government takes action we will see huge numbers of people sinking deeper into poverty.”

Before the flood, the Indus had shrunk to little more than a muddy puddle in parts of Sindh, forcing farmers to rely increasingly on wells drawing saline groundwater that saps the fertility from their soil, hitting yields of cotton, rice and wheat.

Farmers cite the diversion of upstream waters to feed farms in the populous Punjab province, Pakistan’s agricultural heartland, as the chief drain on their river’s vigour. Skewed patterns of ownership place most of Sindh’s land in the hands of an elite who win a disproportionate share of waters distributed through a rotational irrigation system.

Melting Himalayan glaciers because of rising temperatures, have exacerbated Pakistan’s shortages, according to a 2009 report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The World Bank says Pakistan could face a “terrifying” 30-40 per cent drop in river flows in 100 year’s time.

The result is that Pakistan may be more prone to both droughts and flood. As more water is diverted to feed agriculture, average flow speeds have fallen, dumping silt on river beds. Shallower channels are less able to cope with sudden rainfall, rendering Pakistan more vulnerable to extreme flooding.

In the weeks leading up to the recent floods, angry farmers marched through villages in Sindh demanding access to water. Those who can no longer turn a profit in the fields are increasingly resorting to banditry or migrating to urban shanties.

Rural Sindh has proved more resistant to the radical Islamist ideology that has fuelled the Taliban insurgency in northwest Pakistan. But in southern Punjab, the rural poor have formed a ready pool of recruits for an array of militant organisations including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

In Sukkur, as in many other parts of Pakistan, people have lost faith in the ability of President Asif Ali Zardari’s fragile coalition government to overhaul a water management system riddled with inefficiency and graft.

“We are highlighting every problem, but are getting no response,” said Moinuddin Shaikh of Civil Society Sukkur, a pressure group.

Whether Sindh can solve its dearth of water after the floods will depend on how far Pakistan’s layers of provincial and federal administration can embrace change. Much of the public discussion about the floods has lamented the state’s failure to build more dams, though experts debate how far they might have averted the crisis.

Some say the government should focus on reducing the huge wastage in inefficient irrigation systems where up to 70 per cent of water is lost through evaporation and seepage.

“It’s a critical issue, but it’s a solvable issue,” said Daanish Mustafa, a water specialist and a senior lecturer at King’s College London. “But it needs a kind of imagination and creativity that the Pakistani water bureaucracy does not have.”

Waiting for the floods to recede, Mr Maitlo draws some consolation from the belief that the bloated Indus has revitalised his exhausted soil with a dose of the minerals dissolved under its brownish surface.

Whether Pakistan can use the flood to renew its relationship with its shrinking water resources is less certain.”



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