The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: Pakistan's infrastructure

This week's AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistan's natural disasters and infrastructure problems with Ahmad Rafay Alam.

1) Recent flooding across Pakistan has killed over 1,100 people and displaced hundreds of thousands. While seasonal flooding is standard in Pakistan, why is this particular flood season so bad? What infrastructure does Pakistan have in place to prevent or alleviate flooding?

Pakistan is already feeling the effects of climate change, and one of the effects climate change brings is unexpected precipitation events. Of course, it's not all climate change. Overdevelopment and the timber business, especially in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, have devastated watershed areas and make it much easier for water to flow down mountain and hillsides and create flash floods.

I don't know of Pakistan having any infrastructure to "prevent or alleviate" flooding. There are laws prohibiting the felling of trees for the timber industry, but they operate only within defined forest areas. We're not really doing anything about overdevelopment and the destruction of forest cover and watershed areas, so in the future we are going to see more of these tragic natural disasters.

2) Pakistan's ongoing water crisis seems to be getting worse, with the Washington Post reporting recently that "Water availability per person in Pakistan has fallen from about 5,000 cubic meters (175,000 cubic feet) in 1947, when the country was founded, to around 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 cubic feet) today." What are the major factors influencing the decrease in available water, and what actions has the state taken to confront the issue?

Someone once said that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Pakistan's water availability has been reduced, but not necessarily because our water resources have dwindled. Our water resources are the same, more or less, as they were ten years ago. What's changed is our population. As our population has increased, the per capita water availability has fallen. Also keep in mind that in places like Israel or Australia, where the per-capita water availability is far, far lower than in Pakistan, crop yields are higher, per acre, than in Pakistan.

This is not to say Pakistan isn't facing a water crisis. It is. But the crisis is one of water management. We have almost no water laws in Pakistan. Other than one ordinance passed in 1980 and pertaining to Baluchistan, we have no groundwater laws or regulations. We have no prohibitions on the consumption of water, either for domestic purposes or irrigation purposes. We also have no realistic system of pricing water. All this means that water is used wastefully and without regard to its growing scarcity.

Most of the rhetoric around water in Pakistan falls either into a discussion on the Indus Water Treaty (IWT) of 1960 or the inter-provincial Water Apportionment Accord of 1991. Both are largely related to water used for agricultural purposes (the IWT also talks about hydropower generation). As a result, most of the talk is about increasing water resources by investing in new infrastructure storage and run-of-the-river dams. There's almost no talk of water management and water conservation. It really is bizarre. For example, the city of Islamabad, because of overdevelopment, has more or less poisoned two of its main water resources. There's a real shortage of water, and plans are being drawn up to dig a canal from Ghazi Barotha, which is about 60 kilometers away.

Meanwhile, not a word about not watering your lawn with drinking water, or cleaning your car with drinking water. Irrigation practices in some areas are also very water intensive and need to be updated and made more water efficient.

3) There is still a long-term risk of the artificial lake created by a landslide in the Hunza valley breaking and flooding the area below it. What efforts is the Pakistani government making to deal with this possibility, and how well-equipped is the Pakistani government or Army for handling natural disasters of this sort?

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has a plan in the event that the Attabad dam bursts its banks. This is not to say it's fool-proof. We are a developing country with all the administrative and bureaucratic inefficiencies that come with that status. Of course, it's next to impossible to say what will happen if such an event occurred. Some people quote the example of a landslide dam bursting its banks in the 19th century and causing disaster downstream and as far as Attock. But who can say what a dam-burst event would do now. I do know the NDMA has evacuated some villages downstream and has advised villagers further downstream what to do in case of a flood emergency.

4) Electricity shortages are another endemic problem in Pakistan, especially in major cities like Karachi, where in April residents reported going hours each day without power and the local power company even shut off the lights at Karachi's main public hospital. Why does the country suffer such increasingly serious shortages? What role, if any, do you expect the recently-announced $7.5 billion in aid from the United States to play in upgrading Pakistan's infrastructure?

Pakistan suffers energy shortages because demand has outstripped supply, and our energy infrastructure (the grid system) is old and extremely inefficient. Also, I understand that the "circular debt" - which relates in some manner to how the industry is financed - is also the cause of some inefficiency. I'd say more about the circular debt, but I can't say I've figured out the problem yet. Also, we do nothing -- nothing at all -- about energy conservation.

I understand the Kerry Lugar money is going to 1) reconstruction and rehabilitation of some districts in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa; and 2) irrigation works in some districts in south Punjab. But I do know that the US has been discussing energy options with the Government and is working on projects related to energy conservation. There are some red-herrings here. Enhancing the energy capacity of Pakistan is all well and good, but what's the point of adding megawatts when the line losses in the transmission and distribution system (inefficiencies that lead to lost energy) are as high as 24 percent. Also, some proposals (like burning sugar cane byproducts for energy) only serve already well-entrenched interests (the sugar industry and its associated sugar barons).

Ahmad Rafay Alam is an environmental lawyer based in Lahore. He is on the faculty of the Lahore University of Management Sciences and Punjab University and is a columnist for the News and Express Tribune on environment and urban planning issues.

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