Lessons from Pakistan floods
By Seema Sengupta
KOLKATA ― Our neighbor Pakistan is encountering an enormous human tragedy, probably the worst since the partitioning of the Indian subcontinent in 1947.
Flood waters have submerged one-fifth of the country leaving over 1,600 dead and an estimated 20 million people displaced from their homes. The fury unleashed by the heavens has affected both urban and rural areas. Crops, livestock, properties and infrastructure were destroyed by the devastating natural calamity in one go.
The catastrophic sequel to the floods continues in the form of waterborne diseases and hunger as authorities struggle to reach the vast geographical extent of affected areas with relief material.
On the economic front these floods have aggravated Pakistan’s already fragile financial condition. The country being dependent on special economic packages from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will inevitably struggle to sustain sound fiscal discipline.
The IMF target of capping the budgetary deficit at 5.1 percent of GDP remains a Utopian dream under the present circumstances. Above all the rate of growth will significantly drop from the projected 4.5 percent, and a ballooning external debt will add to the economic distress.
A burgeoning trade deficit remains a natural corollary to the disaster given the possibility of a massive drop in exports and simultaneous growth in food imports. Amid this gloomy environment the floods in Pakistan are being attributed to India’s desire to control the water assets of South Asia.
Anti-India nationalist and militant networks in Pakistan are already working overtime to whip up passion and manipulate the resulting sentiment to further their own goals.
Though officially Islamabad has so far refrained from holding New Delhi responsible for the water woes, this author encountered a stoic silence from the Pakistani establishment when asked to clarify their official position.
Perhaps this strategic silence stems from the understanding that water is a highly emotive issue over which passions are easily roused in this part of the globe and even the moderate section of civil society will tend to align with a razing anti-India blaze as and when it erupts.
Moreover, the water issue is attracting mass sentiment in a more fundamental way than the demand for Kashmiri self-determination these days throughout the length and breadth of Pakistan.
As per capita water availability is expected to fall drastically below 700 cubic meters by 2025 thanks to an inept water management policy, there will be a gradual elevation of acrimony between the two neighbors in the days ahead.
Furthermore, the anti-India bogey over water-sharing will be used to douse the resentments of Sindhis and Balochs who blame the Punjabis for drawing more than their share of water from the Indus basin as an upper riparian province.
Notwithstanding the ever changing internal political dynamics in Pakistan that influences policy planning and adds to the volatility in the Indo-Pakistan bilateral relationship, both sides should adopt a cooperative approach in dealing with sensitive water management issues.
While Islamabad should acknowledge the fact that flooding has been exacerbated due to inadequacies in its integrated flood management projects, New Delhi on the other hand must play a lead role in getting rid of aquatic insecurity in the subcontinent.
Since the issue of cross-border distribution of water and its utilization goes beyond the jurisdiction of a single state, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) can provide an ideal platform for tackling this complex problem effectively.
As the Indian subcontinent witnesses a massive population explosion and simultaneous environmental degradation, there is an urgent necessity of setting up new parameters within the SAARC framework to resolve water disputes amicably.
Respecting both upstream and downstream rights should be the contour of any new statue. Establishing a common center for water management in South Asia for optimum development of river basins has to be an urgent priority for the political leadership.
Experts from all member states can be attached to this organization for joint research on adopting a holistic approach toward water conservation and distribution.
Surmounting years of mistrust and antagonism, such a collaborative project will certainly pave the way for a meaningful exchange of data on flood management and the rise and fall in river water levels.
An institutional framework will also encourage cooperation on preserving South Asian water sources from pollution, denudation and degradation.
Since the disputes over water are often driven by fear of scarcity, setting up of joint hydroelectric power projects and initiating the process of energy swaps between nations can bridge the trust deficit.
It will also eliminate the possibility of water restriction resulting from duplicate power projects on the same rivers or their tributaries. Placing the issue of water at a multilateral level will therefore enforce peace and stability in a predominately hostile region.
Seema Sengupta is a journalist based in Kolkata, India. Her articles have been published by The Tribune, The Telegraph, The Pioneer, The Asian Age and other newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.