Water rights and wrongs

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The United Nations may have lost its relevance in the twenty first century but it is certainly adept at hitting the headlines from time to time. This year we saw the UN General Assembly pass a resolution recognizing water and sanitation as a human right. Perhaps next year, the UN can also confirm that the Sun rises in the East. It is after all a master of the obvious but one cannot help but wonder why the UN would go through the trouble of a resolution when such a right was already intrinsically connected, through judicial decisions or legislation, to other fundamental human rights in most of its member states? Even in Pakistan, the fundamental right to life as contained in Article 9 of the Constitution has been widely interpreted to include the right to a clean environment and water. So, why the fanfare at the UN?

Perhaps the resolution is a timely call to action that would compel our governments to atone for past sins. Or perhaps it is a media blip showing us how an irrelevant organization is trying hard to justify its existence. Either ways, little does the UN know that the good citizens of Pakistan have been having their way with water for quite some timeand it would be just great if we had an explicit right to it written into international law. Indeed, few member states can boast of the reckless abandon with which citizens indulge in the extraction, wastage and deterioration of water resources. In a land where a rich mans garden is more important than the poor mans thirst, that sinking feeling is nothing more than social justice, and our future, going down the drain.

Unfortunately, societys attitude towards water is simply a reflection of the regional policy environment where we find our government failing to discharge its constitutional duties as guardian of the public trust. A pitiable track record of poorly negotiated treaties, decades of mismanagement at WAPDA, or frequent outbreaks of water borne diseases evidences the governments inability to come to terms with its responsibility for protecting our natural resources and the very lives of our people. There is either too much water for some of us or too little water for most of us. And as the devastation left by the recent floods revealed, our lack of planning creates a water imbalance perpetually leaving us with the wrong amount, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. With ninety per cent of our water budget already dedicated to irrigation, a paltry ten per cent is left for uses such as drinking and industrial processes. If our government is remotely concerned about how that critical ten per cent is really (ab)used, it would do well to first ask how the precious water is distributed.

As usage of a given resource is normally preceded by its allocation, it is a shame our governments have still not been able to set up a regime for distributing water rights amongst users, especially the industrial units, civic agencies, private landowners and housing societies proliferating everywhere. So far we have been looking to Islamabad to come up with some sort of mechanism but the truth is that provincial governments are fully capable of setting up a framework for allocation of water resources. Agricultural use received attention in the Punjab and Sindh where predominantly surface water resources are regulated through Irrigation and Drainage Authorities. Groundwater tragically remains neglected in a policy environment that has produced nothing more than corruption riddled initiatives for drinking water and sanitation.

Despite a plethora of laws crafted for the agricultural sector, our governments are found wanting for not providing a legal framework that comprehensively regulates how groundwater is used for non-agricultural purposes. Even in large cities of what was once considered to be a well administered province, Punjabs Water and Sanitation Agencies are asleep as urban areas and industries continue to abuse their unbridled access to underground aquifers while discharging untreated wastewater into wells, public drains and canals. The situation is no better down south where the sordid state of Karachis Water Board and its infrastructure has left its citizens at the mercy of the water tanker mafia.

If it seems that our government is at sea with the public interest, self-help initiatives such as the Orangi Pilot Project and Changa Pani Program have sprung up to usher in a participatory mode of water management that involves grassroots stakeholders. It could well be that these initiatives improve the lives of the beneficiaries or perhaps they only look good when presented to audiences at international conferences. Without a clear and statutory definition of rights and responsibilities, these special projects remain unsustainable and are incapable of being replicated until the public sector shows the willingness to stop splashing around in the kiddy pool and gets down to improving water governance in Pakistan.

The writer is a consultant on public policy.