Pakistan’s National Water Policy: Triumphant or Tokenistic?

16 May 2018 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme

Background

On 24 April 2018, Pakistan’s Council of Common Interests unanimously approved the country’s first-ever National Water Policy (NWP). Following the meeting, the Prime Minister and four Chief Ministers signed the Pakistan Water Charter, pledging commitment to the NWP. The NWP, if it is enacted, will be implemented by the National Water Council and chaired by the Pakistani Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. The federal ministers for water resources, finance, power, and planning and development, as well as provincial chief ministers, will also sit on the council.

Comment

Pakistan is not water scarce per se, but its failure to use water sustainably has led to the dwindling supply of its reserves. Population growth, failure to limit wastage and cheap water-pricing policies that have encouraged the over-exploitation of water resources, have all contributed to Pakistan’s need to develop a national water strategy. As FDI has previously commented, agreeing to adopt the NWP has been a slow process. Discussions have been ongoing for the last decade and previous attempts to introduce the NWP have failed because of trust issues between provinces with shared water resources.

The NWP incorporates the concerns of stakeholders and experts and highlights the need to ensure that Pakistan addresses the current and future threats to its food, energy and water security. It covers many water-related issues affecting Pakistan, including: water use and the allocation of water according to economic priorities; the environmental integrity of water basins; agriculture; the impact of climate change; drinking water and sanitation; hydropower; groundwater; water rights and obligations; sustainable water infrastructure; conservation; water-related hazards; and legal frameworks, to list a few.

Despite the thorough and all-encompassing list of issues that the policy attempts to cover, one of the main problems with the NWP is the smorgasbord of recommendations that it outlines regarding the wide variety of water-related issues. These issues are undoubtedly pertinent to Pakistan’s current and future food, energy and water security, but the document has been criticised for trying to address too many issues. That attempt is likely to lead to ambiguities in the policy. Trying to ensure that every actor and stakeholder receives what it wants out of the NWP, has led to various measures being adopted that may actually operate at cross-purposes to each other.

For example, the NWP calls for renewable solar energy to be used for groundwater pumping to reduce national energy costs, but the policy also recognises that the country’s groundwater is currently being over-exploited. If solar-powered pumps are widely deployed, groundwater reserves are less likely to be sustainably managed. In another example, the NWP in one place calls for a ban on flood irrigation, but in other parts recommends investments in lining open channel water courses that are designed for flood irrigation. The inconsistencies throughout the document undermine the credibility that the NWP ought to have.

Given the significant effort that has gone into negotiations over the last decade and the disputes between Punjab and Sindh provinces that have largely blocked earlier attempts, approval of the NWP is a significant milestone for Pakistan. It offers a number of useful solutions to manage Pakistan’s dwindling water resources, including a framework to allow the federal and provincial governments to address various issues. The policy also addresses the need to counter the effects of climate change and extreme weather events. These aspects provide hope for the future of water security in Pakistan.

It was always going to be difficult to develop a national water policy that traverses the political, social and geographical boundaries of Pakistan. The current NWP offers a number of solutions to a host of issues that threaten water security. If the government cannot ensure that the policy has direction and pragmatic purpose, however, then the NWP will largely remain a symbol of collaboration and will not produce meaningful outcomes.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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