Water ,Electricity, Pakistan and Sustainability: The Challenge
Military men and the foreign office types will expound on the geographic pivotal position of Pakistan. They will make you believe that Pakistan is the centre of the world in geopolitics and the world can not ignore its role in shaping events that will define the 21st Century. Like the Americans, Pakistanis hold a somewhat illusionary view of their exceptionalism. The citadel of Islam that punches above its weight is often a commentary by Pakistan’s detractor. But ask an Afghan or a Turk and he will say the same thing about his country. Patriotism can sometimes blind men of good faith and intention. Love for patrimony, childhood memories, the narratives held close to one’s heart however false clouds thinking and judgement. This article, however, is not about historical and perceptual distortions but about the real issues that the Pakistanis face today in their daily lives.
Lack of clean water supply for residential, agricultural and industrial use, a highly irregular and inadequate electricity supply and the ever growing urban pollution is something that I doubt can be tackled by religious jingoism or wishful thinking. Pakistan will remain short of electricity for at least a decade with adverse consequences on its larger economy. This article does not address the demand side of water and electricity. Suffice to say that we are criminally negligent and wasteful in the use of these two precious resources. A gain of a few percent in efficiency in water and electricity use can make a huge difference. Our irrigation efficiency hovers around 10-15 %. This article addresses the issue of supply side for both of these commodities. Water that can be stored and electricity that can not be stored once produced.
Most of the Punjab, Sind, Baluchistan and the southern parts of KPK are climatically arid zones. Take the extensive canal system out and they will become deserts in no time. Despite this apparent disadvantage, Pakistan produces vast quantities of food and fibre. It is a different story as to why a lot of Pakistanis can not afford to feed themselves properly. After Egypt, Pakistan’s agriculture benefits the most from its extensive canal system. Surprisingly Pakistan does have a template for success yet they chose to ignore it at the peril of their existence as a stable state in the 21st century. Terrorism might impede progress for a while but extreme food insecurity will surely kill Pakistan as a stable state. Instead of praying and dreaming for oil and gas gushers and becoming rich like the Sheikhs of the Gulf, they need to plan and focus on their natural advantages. Pakistan’s geography may not be as unique in the geopolitical or geostrategic sense as some vehemently believe in but it is exceptional by all accounts in its naturally endowed topographical features.
To the North and the North West lies the great Himalayan and Karakorum wall that protects Pakistan from the bitter arctic winds in the winters and directs the Monsoons winds and rains towards Pakistan’s northern areas from the East. To the south, Pakistan has deserts and gentle sloping plains almost perfect for three crops an year – sunshine hours per year. The average flow of water in our riverine system is estimated to be around 143 MAF. The contribution of monsoons to this flow is around 113 MAF. The rest are local rains and snow melt. Now how can we somehow increase the local contribution of water into this cycle?
Before we tackle this issue, let us take the example of a swimming pool. If you want it to dry out, probably it will take weeks but if you pump that water out and spread it around the lawn and other open areas it will evaporate in hours with some of it percolating down into the soil. Now think of very big swimming pool, say the size of Tabela, take its water out and take it Cholistan and spread it around. What will happen is that most of it will evaporate and cause additional local rains. The question is how much?
Currently we are trapping only 13 MAF of water and even that is diminishing at a fast rate due to silting of the two major dams Tarbela and Mangla. Now imagine trapping all the 143 MAF, in the northern valleys and spreading it through a more efficient system to the vast deserts and plains of Pakistan, the water resources can be increased from 195 MAF to 250 MAF due to the feed back mechanism of locally induced rains.-Hydrological Cycle lesson No 101. OK, this is an exaggeration because technically or politically it is not feasible. How about trapping 50 % of all that water? Is it Possible? The answer is an emphatic” Yes”.
Now that could be a real advantage of geography. The hydrological cycle can be altered and very few geographical areas in the world as vast as Pakistan lends its self to this type of modification. Pakistan can alter the climate to its advantage. Off course half measures would not do. Storage and drainage systems will have to be designed at the same time. The altered climate will have to be adapted to. Cropping patterns will have to change. The Indus civilization of Mohenjodaro and Harappa could not adjust to Sarasvati river drying up and hence died.
All water storages have a useful life and we should be ready not only to build but also break dams if required. If we do not adapt and adopt new technologies, in fifty years from now 200 hundred million of our hungry children will condemn this generation as people who lived selfishly and foolishly.
Dam building, creates tensions between the upper and lower riparians, nationally and internationally therefore legal and constitutional agreements should ideally precede all technical and financial matters relating to the projects envisioned. Sweeping the environmental issues under the carpet or fudging the figures for short term gains will only cloud the feasibility of the projects. Are we ready to face the reality of altered hydrology and climate change? Can we evolve political acceptance by all stakeholders if risk and opportunity are defined scientifically?
Everyone knows that the life of a storage dam is limited and therefore over the years it becomes a barrage like the Warsak dam in Pakistan. KBD is currently a big issue between the provinces. Three provinces are opposed to it and the largest province Punjab is its major proponent. Each province has its own reasons for its stance, some are purely rhetorical and parochial and others meriting thorough investigations.
One of the reasons, the opponents of KBD, state is “what happens to the Peshawar valley in 50-100 years from now?” Or why should KPK sacrifice this valley to irrigate lands in Cholistan, Thal or Thar. To put it more crudely, why should they sacrifice their lands to make the Sindhis or Punjabis richer? Or what’s in it for us? These questions need to be answered unequivocally to convert sceptics into supporters if the answer to the rising Kabul river bed can be found that is technically and or economically feasible and sustainable. The fear of floods is real in the dwellers of Peshawar valley if one is not convinced they just need to take a trip to Nowshera and ask the residents about the last deluge. Proponents of KBD need to answer a simple question like “What happens to the river bed of Kabul River in 50 -100 years if KBD is built?” What steps need to be taken before embarking on laying the first brick of KBD? How much will the check dams like Munda, Akhori help in delaying the silt formation in KBD? What can be done to keep the river flow at fast speed going through the Attock gorge during peak flood season? These are the questions that can not be brushed under the carpet for near term political expediency. They have to be addressed squarely. You increase storage capacity to 40 – 50 MAF ,you solve two problems: Reduce extreme food insecurity and balance the energy mix. GOP has correctly identified and prioritized Basha dam, Kudos to them but…
Next, without a regular 24/7electricity how can we even think of feeding our burgeoning population let alone join the ranks of developed information age economies. Now consider this for a while If even half of the Pakistan hydro power potential (42000 MWs) is exploited we should be able to use these Hydro plants for base or intermediary loads against the thermal plants. Water storage means life for Pakistan without it we are dead. We have no other choice but to develop storage dams.
The organisations responsible for the development of Water and Power know this and have even planned for it yet there seems to be no traction towards the resolution. Check out their websites and you would think electricity would be flowing out of our ears by 2016. It would not happen. We have even co-opted the private sector but were and are in a hurry without considering the long term implications. A cursory glance at the Power policy excites the investors from abroad and yet only measly mega wattage has been added since the inception of PPIB. Why?
First the GOP does what it should not be doing. I.e. sponsoring and giving life line to businesses which should be left best to the private sector. This has sapped and squeezed its budgets over the years. The subsidies given to PIA, Steel mills are prime examples of politically motivated actions. If water and power is so critical to our survival as a nation than this sector should be the top priority. The business of Government of Pakistan should be the business of water and Power, the rest they should leave to the private sector.
One hears of talk of putting competent people on top of these loss making enterprises and that step alone would stop the bleeding. One has heard this music before and it will not work simply because it is a failed paradigm and one would advise the GOP to sell these enterprises for RS 1 and get on with by building life saving projects like storage dams even if the construction time goes beyond their current mandate of 5 years. The support for these projects must come from all parties.
Getting back to the electricity 24/7 and generally energy issues, there is world wide debate on sustainability of the current consumption patterns. Al Gore would have you believe that humanity has gone beyond the power curve with his peak oil pitch. There are two reasons why we should move away from fossil fuels no matter how attractive they may sound in near term. One, these are diminishing resources and will eventually diminish to a level where it becomes uneconomical to continue with them. The other is the external cost that is not accounted for during most calculations. The cost of cleaning up the environment far outweighs any short time benefits. Sustainability is a big issue that needs a sharp focus not only nationally but also internationally. The whole of humanity’s future is at risk and Pakistanis can not abdicate from it role in ensuring a sustainable future of the planet. This is one issue missing from the current debate in the Pakistan. We have so far give only lip service to generating energy from renewable resources and even have formulated decent policies yet not a single MW is produced though Photovoltaic. The Wind corridor of Southern Sind has just begun to be exploited. Hopefully the current GOP will extend full support to this vital renewable resource.
Besides the Indus river system, there is another advantage of the geography of Pakistan i.e its annual sunshine hours (Solar Irradiation). It is very good in Sindh and the Punjab and exceptional in Baluchistan. If only 2 % of the land is converted into Solar farms that should take care of all the demands in peak summer periods.
Hydroelectric generation is a special case. Hydro generation is very low cost and is firm, dispatchable capacity to the degree there is water in the dam’s reservoir. However, operators have to consider not only how much water is currently available, but how much may be available in upcoming months, and competing demands for the water, such as drinking water supply and irrigation. These factors make hydro dispatch decisions very complex. In general hydro is used to meet load during high demand hours, when it can displace expensive peaking and cycling units, but if hydro is abundant it can also displace baseload coal plants. Coal plants are being retired anyways by sensible nations.
Sustainability and not quick fixes should be the core and spirit of new policies. We have gone down that road before and are suffering the consequences. Ideally speaking, as Pakistan plans an expansion they should be heading towards distributed power generation and dispatch. As it is, the national Grid is in a mess because of various governance and technical issues. New policies should motivate and incentivize home owners and industrial units to become net producers of electricity rather than consumers. County’s like Canada, despite sitting on vast reserves of hydrocarbons has given incentives through Feed -in -Tariffs (FIT) to home owners to install Photovoltaic systems and wind generators. The best and most efficient use of solar energy is for heating water (Killing germs at the same time to make it drinkable) and pumping water for residential and agriculture use. GOP should not try to play god and promise something which they have consistently failed to deliver so far. At the same time Pakistanis should not treat Bijli and Pani as Sadqa -e –Jaria ,it is not. They have to pay their bills.