Water and food security
There was a time in 1950s and 1960s when the population of Pakistan was virtually fed by the revenue from jute exports but Pakistan was slashed into half when East Pakistan separated, now Bangladesh. This adversely affected our revenue generation capacity as almost 53% of the exports revenue was generated by Jute exports. After this major setback, our economy moved towards another agricultural product, rice, which is claimed to be the best among its competitor varieties from all over the world.
But we are an unlucky nation with our policy makers almost always failing to capitalize on a national strength. Its reflection is seen from the fact that India was quick in acquiring the trade patents for Basmati rice, supposed to be the best tasting rice variety and a Pakistani National agricultural strength. Pakistan lost to India at the international trade front, not being able to market its Basmati rice internationally just because it lost the right to. Today the Basmati rice in International markets is “Indian”.
It was not like Pakistan just lost patent rights to India. To add to its woes, the water situation also started to deteriorate in the late 1980s while the policy makers were busy fighting to all their strength not to add water reservoirs because allegedly some town or the other was expected to drown if new reservoirs were made. This policy disagreement continued and in the meanwhile the population of Pakistan kept growing demanding more water. The canal water proved to be scarce to feed both the agricultural demand as well as the urban demand. The farmers in turn had to innovate by adding tube wells in order to satisfy the thirst of the crops, supposedly the backbone of Pakistan’s economy. The scarce water resources for agriculture and an added cost of electricity to run tube wells totally diminished the regional comparative advantage that Pakistan had particularly in terms of rice production. The drastic decline in rice exports dented Pakistan’s economy once again but the blessing in disguise was the increasing brain drain which started adding multiple folds to Pakistan’s foreign exchange (a topic for debate for another time) reserves via the monetary remittances they sent home to their families. Pakistan’s economy once again survived and the relaxed policy makers once again failed to foresee the future of Pakistan’s agricultural produce and the problems faced by the majority of small farmers which make up the huge majority of the country’s agricultural growers.
What our masses do not realize is the fact that tube wells are a temporary, expensive and unreliable solution to supplement the water requirement of crops in addition to the river water resources. This can be endorsed by the fact that Pakistan is already facing a huge power crisis with electricity prices on an all time high and will continue to increase in the near future because the cheap hydel power is scarce and the water resources are going down drastically every day. The policy makers historically have lacked in legislation capacity to move towards a long term food and water security.
Pakistan’s geographic location had historically been an advantage to us with Indus River flowing from extreme north till Karachi. It is a misperception that Pakistan does not have enough water. The fact is that Pakistan does not have enough reservoirs to store this water and thus majority of it flows down the Arabian Sea. The country, unlike the European and other western countries, is not a recipient of rain throughout the year.
The rain comes in heavy in the monsoon season, mostly floods more than quarter of the country and eventually gets sacrificed to the Arabian Sea after creating havoc in agricultural capitals. This would not have been the case have we had enough reservoirs. The reservoirs can be used to generate electricity and irrigate the arid areas of the country in turn strengthening the agricultural backbone of the country. The ground water level will also rise, thus increasing the efficiency of the tube wells and they will be used as and when required.
Today our newly elected PML (N) government needs to realize the severity of the issue and move towards a long term policy to curb these issues. On the other hand the public also needs to understand that these kinds of policies take time to formulate but once devised, they are sure to be extremely fruitful in the long run for a self sustaining economy. A start can be taken by voting on possible and non controversial dam sites on throughout the county. The consensus should also translate into practicality within the tenure of this PML (N) government. This is the only policy initiative that, if taken, will improve the life of generations to come since Pakistan is blessed with largest number of glaciers which happen to be the major source of water in our country. With the changing environment we need these reservoirs desperately otherwise there will be periods of heavy flooding followed by extreme droughts in the years to come. The government needs to foresee the next 50 years. A solid water policy will translate into a farmer friendly agricultural policy and will thus restore our food security for the coming future.
The importance of water and food cannot be undermined in any way. Although this policy measure is conventional and not something out of the box, but history tells us that simple policy measures are always efficient.
The PML (N) is known to accomplish what they aim for and this time having such a heavy mandate, they should translate it into something good. They should remember that change comes from the top but starts from the grass root level.
The writer holds a masters degree in International Security from the University of Sussex. Courtesy Frontier Post.