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Finally, a water policy

May 23 2018 | 02:04:40
What is remarkable is that all four provincial governments have signed on the water policy, in spite of political differencesDaanish Mustafa
Pakistan’s much awaited ‘National Water Policy’ was finally approved by the cabinet on April 24th, 2018. The Policy is remarkable in that all the four provincial governments, run by different political parties, also signed on it. Such consensus on a national policy document is unusual, and the present federal government should be congratulated for it.Substantively, the Policy could be lauded on a few counts and critiqued on many more. But, it now has the approval of the Cabinet, and will provide the framework for future water related legislation in the country, at both provincial and federal levels. The critics, including your scribe, will fret about its shortcomings. There may however, be solace in that the structure it could provide to legislation, may not be too different from the structure of water itself.The policy document has 29 chapters/sections over 41 pages. There is everything in it, if you are a water engineer. And there are deafening silences if you are water user. Even in terms of what is in it, there is little sense of a bounded ambition within its structure. Hence the policy, from an engineer’s perspective, is proposing to do everything, which invariably translates to doing nothing. In this context, that is not such a bad thing.The problem of ambitious ambiguity that I point to, might be in the genus of the Policy formation process. The document itself cites a few reports that presumably fed into the process, written by, well — experts. It does not even lie about the need or reality of a public consultation process. Might the millions of water users: domestic, agricultural and industrial have a view on the basis of their lives and livelihoods?Clearly not, because the only voices that come through in the Policy document are experts, and that too of a certain technocratic variety. The Policy is seemingly a reflection of the government water bureaucracies’ constituencies. It is small wonder then, that it mostly diagnoses problems and proposes solutions in a mid-20th century register for 21st century problems.The policy has gaping holes when it comes to redressing inequitable water distribution, indigenous water management tech and the role of women in managing water in the agricultural and domestic fieldsI could offer a detailed textual and policy analysis here, and a section by section critique, but that will be useless. The Water Policy is going to be the (non?) guidance document for the Pakistani water sector for at least a generation. But few features under the hood, should be noted. The policy notes 15 water related concerns. Almost all of them are related to technology, natural scarcity, climate change, lack of infrastructure and most notably, lack of awareness among water users.The poor Pakistani urban populations are the most water aware in the world, because they don’t get any. The tail end small farmers of Pakistan are not aware, when they can’t get enough water for their livelihoods? I will leave the others alone for now, but many of them do mischaracterise the problem. The biggest problem to my mind in the Pakistani water sector is the inequity of access to water and, vulnerability to water related hazards between the strong and the weak.The Policy almost completely side steps the issue, and focuses on macro level supply and demand management issue, without noting something that even children in Pakistan know. There is sufficient water for golf courses, lawns, ornamental plants, and sugarcane fields, but not for poor people’s domestic needs, or poor and women farmers’ kitchen gardens and food crops.The Policy proceeds to propose 33 objectives, which span the range from better productivity, to vulnerability reduction, to wetland protection to demand management, among others. Each of those objectives are laudable in themselves. I just wish there were fewer of them and more specific, eg, how is the objective, 2.3 ‘Improving availability, reliability and quality of fresh water resources to meet critical municipal, agricultural, energy security and environmental needs’ a useful guide to action or legislation?The Policy defines 9 priorities for water use, where quite rightly drinking water and sanitation is the top priority, with irrigation as the runner up. It pleases me immensely to note that water for livestock, fisheries and wildlife is the third priority ahead of hydropower. This is about the only pro-poor feature in an otherwise technocratic document.In the policy there are deafening silences on redressing inequitable water distribution, indigenous technologies of water management, eg, the Karez system in Balochistan, or the role of women in water management in agriculture and domestic use. Nevertheless, if one were to cherry pick the areas outlined in the Water Policy, I would recommend focusing on the Information Management. There are remarkably sensible and progressive, about the only 21st century, steps outlined in that section. They could be the basis for more inclusive and sensible water management. If just that were to be addressed, the Water Policy would be worth the consensus it has garnered.The writer is a reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. His research includes water resources, hazards and development geography. He also publishes and teaches on critical geographies of violence and terror