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Pakistan: Islamabad Worried About Water Shortage

The Indus River system irrigates 80 percent of Pakistan's farmlands through a network of canals. Most of the water comes from glaciers in the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges bordering China and India, and the Hindu Kush bordering Afghanistan. The rest comes from rainfall, especially during the monsoon season from July to September. Now, two major water reservoirs have reached critically low levels, and Pakistan is expected to face a shortage of irrigation water used for agriculture.

Prague, 8 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Tarbela and Mangla reservoirs regulate the flow of Pakistan's main river, the Indus River, and provide extra water in lean times.

But the two giant dams currently contain only half the water they should for the winter sowing season.

Shaukat Awan is the chief meteorologist in Lahore for the Pakistan Meteorological Department. He told RFE/RL the water shortage will have a negative effect on the crops. "This year the rainfalls were well bellow average. So at present both reservoirs are [filled] to half of their capacity. The water from both these reservoirs is used for irrigation purposes. So it will affect agriculture," Awan said.

Sohail Ali Khan is the Islamabad-based secretary of the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), which allocates water to Pakistan's provinces. This month, he said, IRSA cut water releases by 43 percent from the two reservoirs. It is likely to cut the release by 55 percent beginning in October.

Khan said the situation is "alarming" but he stressed that authorities are prepared to handle it properly. "The provinces are prepared for this kind of shortage [and] have made plans accordingly. And we don't foresee that we will have a very huge shortage of wheat, the major crop for the next season. And we are going to give a lot of facilities to farmers, [like] subsidies [and] low electricity charges," he said.

The availability of water in the country has been adversely affected by below-normal precipitation since the late 1990s. In order to prevent shortages in the future, President General Pervez Musharraf has called for the construction of new reservoirs.

Javed Majeed, Punjab provincial irrigation secretary in Lahore, told RFE/RL new dams would be good news for the 60-70 percent of the country's 150 million-strong population directly or indirectly involved in agriculture. "We should construct more reservoirs so that we can hold on to this water and we can shift it from the summer season to the winter season and then from the dry seasons to the wet seasons," he said. "Pakistan's economy is very dependent on agriculture."

The other option the government is looking into is to make the irrigation system more effective. Zulfiqar Shah, from the Sindh provincial environment administration in Karachi, spoke to RFE/RL: "[For] the last 50 years, nobody paid attention to making the irrigation system effective and [to] minimizing the wastages in the system because they were not properly lined. The canals are made of only soil so they end up in evaporation and seepage into the land."

Shah says Pakistan wastes between 30 and 40 percent of the water in its canals.