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Water woes compounded by internal disputes

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(Kamila Hyatt/IRIN)

The dead fish recently washed up on the shores of Lake Keenjhar, the largest fresh water lake in Pakistan, shocked nearby villagers in Thatta District in the southern province of Sindh.

“We saw the dead water life after a recent storm. It seems contaminated water came into the lake from a drain,” Zahir Ahmed, a villager said. “We have been trying to get water from other places, but it is hard work."

“The water flowing in from one drain is now dark and impure. It used to be crystal clear,” Jehangir Durrani, natural resources manager for the Worldwide Fund for Nature at Keenjhar, told IRIN.

An inquiry by Sindh Environment Protection Agency is under way, but has not yet produced definitive results. Concern is high since the Lake Keenjhar is the main source of water for Karachi, but is some 70km away.

“We are awaiting a detailed report so we know exactly what happened,” said Mir Hussain Ali, the Sindh environment secretary.

The Keenjhar episode is not the only case of water contamination in the country. Concern has in the past arisen over the pollution of other water bodies in Sindh, including the Lake Manchar.

The Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific 2011 published by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in October 2011 says Pakistan is one of the nations of the world “facing major threats” of increasing water scarcity, high water utilization, deteriorating water quality and climate change risks. It was ranked among the “water hotspots” of the region.

For ordinary Pakistanis the situation is dire. "There used to be a water-well near our village," said Manni Bibi, who lives in Khuzdar District in Balochistan. "But it has dried up and now the other women and I have to walk nearly 6km to fetch water from a pond. Animals also drink from here and cleanliness is a concern, though we do boil the water,” she told IRIN.

Internal disputes

Internal disputes within the country add to the problems. The Water Apportionment Accord between the four provinces of Pakistan was signed in 1991, but politicians, notably from Sindh which lies downstream of the Indus, say it has not been adhered to. Veteran Sindhi politician and activist Rasul Bux Palijo, who has also written extensively on the water distribution issue, said “enormous injustice” had been done to Sindh, with waterflow along the Indus dwindling. Canals and barrages built upstream on the river are a key factor in this, say Palijo and other Sindhi people.

“We live in perpetual crisis because not enough water flows down the Indus to water our crops. We barely have clean water to drink,” said Ghulam Bux, a farmer in Thatta District. He also complained that the dwindling Indus delta was leading to “land loss due to sea erosion”.

Indian connection

Problems linked to the division of water with India have also aggravated Pakistan's water shortage problem. On the acrimonious partition of the two nations in 1947, there was concern in Pakistan over the fact that almost all the key rivers providing water for agricultural and other purposes had sources in India or Indian-administered Kashmir.

The 1960 Indus Water Basin Treaty signed between the two countries attempted to arrive at a water-sharing formula by allocating water from various rivers to each country. But as growing populations and dwindling water resources put pressure on both countries, more and more problems have arisen.

Environmental experts, such as Lahore-based lawyer and activist Rafay Alam told a seminar last year on India-Pakistan water issues: “International concerns about the environment were in their infancy when the Indus waters treaty was negotiated. Now we need to engage communities living in the basin. The water resources of both countries were abundant at the time, now they are scare.”

Alam also called for the issue to be looked at scientifically, rather than politically, but this is easier said than done. In the National Assembly, a fierce debate is currently raging about five dams India reportedly plans to construct on three western rivers. Pakistan’s minister for water and power believes this would violate the Indus Water Basin Treaty and further reduce water supplies to Pakistan. International arbitration is being sought.

“A lack of trust between the two countries holds up agreements on water discharge from rivers," Syed Jamaat Ali Shah, the Pakistan commissioner for the Indus Water Basin Treaty, told IRIN. Pakistan, he added, “needed at the least drinking water” from more rivers.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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