Quetta becomes a desert


By Malik Siraj Akbar

They once called it Little London; no one makes that claim now.

Spread over an area of 2653 km and situated at 5,500 feet (1,675 m) above sea level, Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, was widely recognised as one of the prime tourist destinations due to its unique climate and geographical attractiveness. A 7-year-long drought and depletion of ground-water reservoirs however have nearly turned the city and its surrounding areas into a desert.

Experts had warned a few years ago that drought, and with it the intensive exploitation of ground-water reservoirs, could mean a severe water crisis in the near future. That has happened.

In the months of June to August this year, the water problem entered its worst phase ever, forcing citizens to take to the streets. A few weeks ago, outraged residents burnt down the effigy of the Water and Sanitation Authority (WASA) Managing Director, Hamid Latif Rana. They accused the MD of links with the tanker mafia due to which he had blocked off water supply to certain parts of Quetta.

There are also increasing complaints about water shortage in the western parts of the city. From areas near the foothills of Chiltan to the localities surrounding Quetta’s airport, people have been facing severe water shortages which have grown worse this year. “WASA, with its dried, defective or ill-commissioned tube-wells, has done little to help,” a local journalist told TFT.

Sources of subsoil water have dried up in Quetta due to prolonged drought and the constant withdrawal of water from them for decades. For years, the Quetta valley and its surrounding settlements have been getting water from subsoil sources only. Withdrawal of water from these sources has remained normal or sub-normal for a century so that people could still get water for domestic usage and also for their limited orchards. In the last three decades or so, however, the withdrawal of water from the subsoil has been abnormal and outmatched the natural recharge.

“Many factors are responsible for this: population growth is unprecedented, exacerbated by the massive inflow of Afghans, mainly economic refugees. Push and pull factors have disturbed the demography and brought in people from the lower crust. The situation is worsened by irresponsible farmers,” says one analyst.

An environmentalist working with IUCN, the World Conservation Union, believes the current situation in Quetta has been created due to heavy influx of rural population to urban Quetta. “Quetta is too small a city to meet the needs of the large population which is rapidly migrating from the rural areas to urban Quetta,” she says.

Since the government of Balochistan provides a subsidy of Rs2 billion to the farmers of Quetta and five other districts located in its surrounding areas, farmers in these districts use their tube-wells for 20 to 22 hours a day. “They do not contribute significantly to the provincial economy because their chief productions are fruit. Still, they go on using water with criminal negligence,” says an expert on Balochistan’s political economy.

Experts urge the government to withdraw this special subsidy, which has not been given to farmers of the other 22 districts of Balochistan. An independent source told TFT there are 11000 tube-wells currently operating in Quetta Valley alone; all are engaged in excessive, irresponsible consumption of water.

Balochistan Governor Owais Ahmed Ghani concedes that some farmers are indeed misusing the official subsidy. “They [farmers] are putting unbearable pressure on the meagre subsoil water resources and using excessive electricity to drain out water by operating their tube-wells 20 hours a day,” Ghani told TFT. Ghani believes the farmers should stop using tube-wells through the flat-rate system and switch to the bubbler irrigation system instead. “For their part, local farmers have rejected such proposals and the government clearly has not been able to dissuade them from lavishly squandering water,” said a government source.

Two years ago, President Pervez Musharraf announced a special grant of Rs8 billion for the Quetta Water Supply and Environmental Improvement Project (QWSEIP) which was approved by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC). The project is aimed at increasing the water supply from 10 million gallons per day to 36 million gallons per day. Under QWSEIP, WASA would lay polyphone pipes in different parts of the city and drill 21 more tube-wells.

“Priority will be given to areas where water shortage is more acute,” Hamid Latif Rana, Managing Director of WASA Balochistan told TFT, adding that WASA would lay more than 200 kilometre-long pipelines across the city. These pipelines, he says, will be replaced with a more reliable system in the future; leakages will also be plugged and all pipes will be connected to water reservoirs. Talking about reasons for the ever-growing water problem, Rana says prolonged drought in Balochistan during the 90s had massively contributed to the agonising crisis of water in the city. “ The ground level water depleted tremendously during the 7-year-long drought and today we have too little underground water,” he says.

Sources say President Musharraf, after being apprised of the severity of the problem in Quetta, had asked engineers in the Pakistan Army and geologists of the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) to help find a solution. They finally found water reserves under the hard rock; also, experts suggested that surface-water reservoirs be built at two different places using dams to supplement the water supply system. Another suggestion was that the hard rock water reserves be preserved for emergency use only and that special measures be taken to make sure the subsoil water resources were not strained any further.

The people of Quetta feel that nothing is being done to alleviate the water crisis; they say the fault lies entirely with the inefficient and indifferent WASA. There is also the perception that those responsible for bringing water to the people are taking it to the water mafia. Ali Gul, a resident of Sariab Road, says when water does not reach people through regular channels, WASA authorities ask people to order water from the tanker mafia, which recently increased rates from Rs200-400 per tank.

Nothing seems to be working so far. Musharraf’s mega project, too, has failed to provide any relief. “Though government authorities claim to be constantly drilling out more tube-wells, there is little money to run and sustain them,” says one WASA insider.

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