Is Pakistan truly facing a spectre of water shortage? The answer to this question has as many perspectives as there are water sector experts in this country. While it is beyond the scope of a newspaper to conclude this complex debate, let's attempt to lay groundwork based on available information.

To begin with, should water scarcity at all be a contested subject? Afterall, adequate availability of water (or lack thereof) is quantifiable – based on absolute volume of freshwater in the system and population of users. All indicators of water scarcity are thus ratios based on these two numerical quantities, and in principle need not cause a controversy where ‘fair and balanced analyses should demand ‘respect for both sides'.

On one hand are experts who point to indices such as Falkenmark indicator that define scarcity as a point where freshwater availability drops below thousand cubic-meters per capita. Based on population of 220 million, this indicator puts Pakistan's freshwater requirement at an estimated 180 million-acre feet (MAF), compared to current official estimate of 125-135MAF average annual freshwater supply. The latter figure includes freshwater abstracted from both surface and underground sources.

While the suitability of Falkenmark indicator as a universal measure of scarcity is itself hotly debated in the academia, hydrologists such as Dr. Hassan Abbas of COMSATS even contest the accuracy of official supply estimates. According to Dr. Abbas, between 140-150MAF of freshwater flows annually from the rim stations on domestic rivers. In addition, he estimates that the Indus basin groundwater aquifer stores at least 1,400MAF of water tables!

If correct, the underground aquifer of Indus basin alone is enough to cater to domestic water demand for the next eight to ten years, discounting any recharge through precipitation, surface run-off, or withdrawals from rivers system.

Yet, he does not argue for profligate model of water consumption. On the contrary, he estimates that Pakistan's total water requirement given existing population and level of agricultural and industrial production should be no more than 40MAF, of which non-agricultural water use is based on per capita requirement of fifty gallons per day, which he believes, is quite generous.

What does this ‘alternate' set of facts mean for Pakistan's water sector paradigm? Contrary to the popular consensus that Pakistan should reduce cultivation of high-delta water thirsty crops such as rice, Dr Abbas is of the opinion that given the abundance of water resources, Pakistan's comparative trade advantage lies in ‘virtual water export', and the country should exploit it to the fullest.

These opinions are consistent with a growing set of voices who stress that Pakistan's water sector challenge is one of inequity and not of shortage. While abundant in absolute sense, water availability is dearer for tail-enders and lower-riparian. Should the solution then be to rationalize water pricing to penalise waste?

Here, he disagrees. Instead of arguing for a water-pricing based model that could render Pakistan's struggling crop sector even more uncompetitive in global commodity markets, he argues for a ‘pull-strategy'. Noting that even drip and sprinkle irrigation systems are a thing of the past, he argues that Pakistan's farming sector is ripe to adopt smart solutions such as soil-moisture management-based farming techniques, which could allow agri-exports to grow exponentially even given existing crop yields.

It is then no surprise that he argues against building of dams, and instead argues that proper management of riparian zone alone can yield 50MAF of water annually, equal to conceived storage capacity of country's river systems – that is, if all existing and planned dams were filled to full capacity.

While 2018 was the year when populist rhetoric looked set on turning Pakistan into a country of mega-dams, consensus finally seems to be developing on alternate and natural form of reservoirs.

The need of the hour is to evolve a similar consensus on water accounting, considering the extreme level of dissonance in academia and policy circles on accuracy of official estimates of country's freshwater supply.

While experts can continue to disagree on definitions of abundance and scarcity, any water policy will lack effectiveness if the quantity of resources is itself disputed. That task lies with Federal Flood Commission, which proud itself as the notified secretariat of National Water Council and custodian of National Water Policy.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2019