Monday July 21, 2003-- Jamaadi-ul-Awwal 20, 1423 A.H.
Indus waters imbroglio
The issue of Greater Thal Canal has once again brought into focuses the perennial differences between provinces of Punjab and Sindh regarding the sharing of the waters of Indus River System (IRS) between these two principal beneficiaries situated alongside the system. The differences predate the partition of India in 1947 and are rooted in the original Sutlej Valley Project launched by the British Indian Government (Raj) towards the end of nineteenth Century that finally created the biggest, and finest, irrigation network in the world. Pakistan inherited more than three-quarters of this well made and run system in 1947 and as in other fields has allowed it to wear down to maximum for lack of due care and the perennial disputes between its principal beneficiaries. It is worthwhile to first have a brief look at what this system originally was before it was dissected in 1947.
The IRS is composed of river Indus itself and its five tributaries Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej---the famous rivers of Punjab. The system includes also the waters of river Kabul but it is not generally mentioned since it confluences with Indus before the classic Indus Plains which are deemed to begin at Attock where the mighty Indus enters the plains some distance upstream of the famous bridge on the river. The quantity of water in a river is expressed in terms of million acre feet (MAF). An acre foot means quantity of water required to flood a level ground to a depth of one foot and as such equals 43,560 cubic feet or about 0.274430 million gallons of water. One MAF thus equals 43.56 billion cubic feet or 277.43 trillion gallons of river water. The flow of water in rivers, and also canals, is measured in terms of Cusecs which means One cubic foot of water flowing in one second. One cusecs flowing continuously for twenty four hours as such equals 1.98 acre feet. The average flow in the IRS has been 175 MAF comprising of 93 for Indus including Kabul river, 23 for Jhelum, 26 for Chenab, 6 for Ravi, 13 for Beas and 14 for Sutlej. On the eve of partition 167 MAF entered then West Pakistan with only 8 MAF drawn from the system in then East Punjab including 4 MAF for then under construction Bhakra Dam on river Sutlej. Among other things the partition of Punjab also involved the allocation of the river waters between the two countries and as such the Independence Act of 1947 had set up an Arbitral Tribunal to decide upon the apportionment of the waters of rivers that flowed into then West Punjab from then East Punjab. The representatives of the two countries agreed before the Tribunal that all waters that flowed into the then West Punjab from the rivers and canals in then East Punjab on July 14, 1947, shall not be altered in accordance with the Internationally recognised and accepted rights of lower riparians. The representatives of West Punjab government failed to draw up an agreement on these lines and failed to register it with the Tribunal before it expired March 3, 1948. The then East Punjab Government refused to accept any agreement before the Tribunal and turned off the tap the next day on the waters flowing into then West Punjab. Late Chaudhry Muhammad Ali in his book Emergence of Pakistan aptly comments on the episode saying that "On the side of East Punjab there was Machiavellian duplicity. On the part of West Punjab there was neglect of duty and lack of common prudence which had disastrous consequences for Pakistan." This, however, was just the beginning of selling off the country.
The real sell-out of the country's economic future was done by a self-made pseudo Field Marshal through the Indus Waters Treaty signed with then Indian Prime Minster in Karachi in September 1960. Through this infamous Treaty, Pakistan sold its sovereign waters of rivers Ravi, Beas and Sutlej for 900 million dollars arranged by World Bank and other donor countries in order to finance Indus Basin Replacement Works constructed to divert waters from Indus, Jhelum and Chenab (the western rivers) to replace the waters of rivers Ravi, Beas and Sutlej (the eastern rivers) which were exclusively allocated to India. This meant 33 MAF or nearly one-fifth of 167 MAF of sovereign waters that was the legal share of Pakistan at the time of partition. Encouraged by the timidity and greedy attitudes of military rulers, India has since then diverted more waters of Chenab and is threatening further diversions from Chenab and even Jhelum. Zia's time saw completion of a Dam on Chenab and Ranjit Sagar (reservoir) on Ravi and Musharraf's regime is unable to do anything about another under construction dam on Chenab. The work on the Wullar barrage on Jhelum in Occupied Kashmir is also well on its way despite protests. The result is that Pakistan is now left with a maximum of 134 MAF which comes down to as low as 92 MAF in drought years with India fully chipping away at Pakistan's waters. Pakistan cannot do anything despite its nuclear arsenal and overgrown armed forces .
The scarcity of river waters has given rise to a perpetual dispute between Punjab and Sindh about the use of what remains and Greater Thal Canal is only one aspect. This is the extension of existing Thal Canal that takes off from Jinnah Barrage just upstream of the site of disputed Kalabagh Dam . The waters drawn for this extension will be upstream of the Chasma-Jhelum Link through which the transfer of Indus waters to river Jhelum takes place and will , therefore , further decrease Indus flows down the river to the lower riparian Sindh and hence the dispute. With the permanent loss of river waters as stated above because of the perfidious conduct of various governments, there is no alternative but to live with what is left and live with it peacefully amongst ourselves. One of the most workable and economical ways is to conserve the existing resources rather than store these in highly expensive dams and reservoirs to be made use of when required .
There is a general agreement that around 40 percent of all water drawn into the canal network through canal heads at the barrages, is lost in transit through the system before it actually reaches the fields. At the lowest flows in the IRS this will be equal to nearly 36 MAF that is about seven-times the storage capacity of proposed Kalabagh Dam. This loss in transit occurs due to evaporation from surface of water and Seepage through the un-lined, and thus porous, beds and banks of the canal system. Nothing is practicable about evaporation because the canals cannot be roofed-in, yet it is very easy to prevent the seepage to conserve around 25 MAF at the lowest flows in the IRS. The canal network comprises the main canals, the minors, the distributaries and the water courses which actually deliver the water onto the fields. According to various estimates the respective losses are stated to be 40, 25, 16 and 19 percent of the total losses. The 19 percent or about 5 MAF loss in water-courses (a little less than the capacity of proposed Kalabagh Dam) are the easiest, and the cheapest, to conserve since these small channels run along the irrigated fields in inhabited areas and are practically looked after by the farmers themselves who should be asked to provide voluntary labor to their own benefit. The concerned branches of the Irrigation and Works Departments shall provide the expert and supervision services under the overall control of the tehsil council of the concerned area who shall also arrange the finances for materials and other sundries. The whole process shall be as such locally worked and controlled and thus at the grass-roots. Actually it will rival the age-old panchayat system. This pyramid then will be built to account for the distributaries, minors and eventually the canals in order to line the whole system thus conserving 25 MAF at the lowest flows in IRS.
It has been estimated that with the same time span the total cost will be one-third of that of Kalabagh Dam (Dam portion only) and all in local currency without the involvement of foreign experts and currency. Indeed it will be a living example of self-reliance and above all will be a national service done to put to productive use a wastage that has in addition given rise to scourge of water-logging and salinity that had laid waste hundreds of thousands of acres of useful land and could not be countered by the fancied World Bank schemes of Scarps. Contentious projects like Greater Thal Canal and Kalabagh better be shelved for more workable, economical and non-divisive undertaking . Can national leadership rise to the occasion ?
The writer is a retired chief engineer