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Water in Pakistan: The World Bank View

Ramaswamy R. Iyer

By John Briscoe and Usman Qamar
Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2006, pp. xxx 126, Rs. 450.00

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

This book is a compendious account of the situation in respect of water resources in Pakistan. It packs an impressive amount of material into 126 pages, and both the presentation of information and the discussion of issues are lucid and highly readable. It is an extremely useful book.   Broadly speaking, the picture presented in the book is one of solid achievements in the past, marred by certain failures and weaknesses leading to some critical problems in the present, compounded by the increasing pressure cast on a finite resource by a growing population, the processes of urbanization and the pursuit of economic development, pointing to severe difficulties in the future unless certain remedial steps are taken. The book recommends the rehabilitation and better maintenance of existing structures, the building of new ‘water infrastructure’, major institutional reform, clear water entitlements as the basis of that reform, competition in the provision of services, public-private partnerships, a new kind of ‘water state’, firm state control over groundwater exploitation, state assistance to make water-users’ associations more effective, and so on. On p. 74, the figure of a three-legged stool is used, with participation, entitlements and accountable utilities as the three legs. On p. 84, certain practical steps required over the next five years are listed, and the authors go on to add that central to the three instruments already discussed—competition, regulation, and entitlements—is the issue of transparency.   One agrees with much of the above encapsulation, but does have reservations here and there. For instance, one has serious problems with the proposition that ‘clear entitlements’—the importance of which one is prepared to concede though it seems greatly exaggerated—should be converted into tradable property rights. (That brief statement cannot be elaborated here.) To mention another difference, one agrees that the extraction of groundwater needs to be brought under control, but not necessarily that the ownership of groundwater should be vested in the state: there is a case for treating groundwater as a Common Pool Resource to be held in ‘public trust’ by the state. Again, the prediction of ‘running dry’ seems unpersuasive. Pakistan is undoubtedly arid in terms of rainfall, but the major part of the country is abundantly watered by the Indus system, of the waters of which it enjoys a share of over 75% under the Indus Treaty 1960. With better water-management so as to get the maximum utility out of every drop, minimize waste, and ...

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