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The risk of running dry: constructing vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change

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Access to water is poised to be the issue future wars will be fought over, especially in the context of global climate change and its current and projected impacts. Daanish Mustafa, a Reader in Human Geography at King’s College, London, argues that the most pressing challenge facing us today is addressing water sufficiency while managing our increasing vulnerability to climate change. He deconstructs this crisis by examining what he terms the “hydro-hazardscapes of climate change”.

Under this ‘hydro-hazardscape’ discourse, the main argument Mustafa puts forth is that apart from looking at structural solutions such as building dams, canals, tube wells and flood banks, water managers must look at the social, economic, cultural and political pressures that impact societies. He defines the hydro-hazardscape is an “integrative concept to analyse the litany of material, discourses and policy factors that contribute to water resource geographies with their accompanying patterns of differential access to water and vulnerability to the hazards that emanate from it, in the context of climate change” (p. 21). By doing so he attempts to challenge the discursive hegemony of assessing water scarcity in economic terms without adequate acknowledgment of its social, cultural and experiential values.

In order to demonstrate the need for these multiple perspectives on water, Mustafa draws on an impressive expanse of case studies from engineering feats by the Government of Pakistan to manage its share of water of the Indus river basin, to the taming of the flood-prone Lai river in Islamabad and Rawalpindi; from the viability of the traditional karez wells in arid Balochistan, to the failed water privatisation experiment in Belize, and the dispute over water rights in the arid states of western USA. Using these case studies, he argues that equitable, ecologically sustainable and socially just geographies of access to water may be the best preparation for developing societies of the South to face the uncertainities of climate change. Therefore, water managers, be they of the Government machinery, or the NGO/donor agency must be sensitised to social and political perspectives aside from a purely engineering mindset, before they can make a meaningful and long term contribution to water management.

Touching on the hydro-politics of the Indus basin, in Chapter 2 Mustafa points out that the region would be a hostile desert if it were not for the large surface irrigation canal network emanating from the Indus river. The Indus river and its tributaries have been the bone of contention between India and Pakistan since partition. The Indus River Treaty (1960) between India, Pakistan and the World Bank awarded the entire flow of the 3 eastern tributaries to India and the 3 western tributaries to Pakistan. The World Bank, on its part, gave massive funding to build storage and conveyance facilities. Though the treaty has withstood the test of time, conflict arose over decisions to build dams upstream with Pakistan fearing flooding, salinity and water–logging downstream. Moreover, conflict over water sharing between provinces in both countries has simmered constantly. Detractors of mega dam projects argue that instead of going for environmentally damaging and economically dubious storage solutions, enhancement of existing irrigation infrastructure, coupled with appropriate farming techniques would be more effective.

In Chapter 4, Mustafa underlines the role of the Canal and Drainage Act (1873) in governing water use across Pakistan. In the postcolonial context, the system was skewered in favour of the powerful elite who appropriated water resources on the basis of being large landholders. The Act created a powerful state machinery manned by engineers who administered water rights, often in favour of influential irrigators such as large land holders, superseding the rights of private water users. The irrigation bureaucracy has unchallenged executive and judicial powers over canal water, and large landholders influence them to increase water flow to their canal section. Thus, despite massive investment in its water sector, the Pakistani rural hydro-hazardscape is beset with unequal access to irrigation and vulnerability to floods. Based on interviews, Mustafa found bureaucrats labouring under the assumption that technical scientific engineering solutions are more important than water access equity and livelihoods security. In contrast, engineers considered the social aspects of their job vexing distractions. Moreover, powerful politicians cripple the bureaucracy by interfering in water distribution decisions, thereby reproducing geographies of differential access and vulnerability.

In Chapter 5, Mustafa draws on vulnerability literature to explain how certain hazardscapes are “viewed, constructed and reproduced by expert/technocratic discourses around them” (p.103). Drawing on a case study from the Lai watershed, he discusses how bureaucratic short-sighted obsession with finding technological solutions has exacerbated existing vulnerabilities of the poorest in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi to floods. The biggest disaster, was in 2001 when the Lai flooded uprooting 40,000 residents and incurring damage officially estimated at $250 million and unofficially at $53 billion. While Islamabad is a pre-planned modern city, Rawalpindi is an organised cantonment but neither has any provision for housing the poorest of the poor, including garbage collectors, sweepers, housemaids and beggars, who have all settled in the unplanned shanty towns all along the banks of the Lai. As a result the Lai river serves as a waste dump of the city, spawning a host of diseases and noxious smells. Indeed, some of the respondents even welcomed the annual floods as they swept the piles of garbage from the river! Government sponsored flood control efforts like the ADB funded Lai Nullah Improvement Works focussed on removing human encroachments but failed due to insensitive relocation in which alternate housing sites were too far from the workplace of flood victims. Mustafa points to a nexus of the land mafia (who pocketed the compensation meant for flood victims), and corrupt officials and land grabbers (who colluded to launch fake housing schemes on Government land).

Mustafa notes that while the residents of the Lai hydro hazardscape see the problem and its solution in multiple lenses of social and economic justice, class differences, empowerment and environmental quality, bureaucratic solutions are confined to structural, often non-contextual socials. For instance, The Study on Comprehensive Flood Mitigation and Environmental Improvement Plan of Lai Nullah Basin, by the Japan International Cooperation Agency makes 21 proposals, almost all of them are engineering solutions, ranging from complete diversion to turning the Lai channel into a concrete tunnel. However, there is a dissonance between engineering solutions and inexorable hydrological dynamics: dredging cannot prevent further silt deposit, thereby nullifying a long-term solution. Therefore, Mustafa recommends a range of alternative choices, like removal of human habitation from the flood plain, replacing riverside slums with recreational parks, building alternative low-income housing to relocate slum dwellers, and solid and liquid waste management as an investment priority. He proposes that these measures should be implemented against the backdrop of public debate with citizen participation alongside training and sensitisation of government staff.

In Chapter 6, the author focusses on community resilience to environmental extremes in the arid zone of Balochistan and Azerbaijan where traditionally the tapping, sharing and preservation of precious groundwater has been done by a system of underground water channels known as karez. In a karez water flows underground from a mother well for a few kilometres before it emerges in a series of wells which can be used for irrigation and other purposes by the entire community. However, this system is eroding in the face of proliferation of tube wells in the wake of subsidised rural electrification. Tube wells serve a handful of private individuals whereas the karez served the entire community. While the karez made for sustainable exploitation of the water resource, tube wells are notorious for rapidly depleting the water table, thereby drying nearby karez. Additionally, by neglecting the karez system, local people have lost control over water resources.

In Azerbaijan, Mustafa found that the karez that were dry for decades were being resurrected with an almost phoenix-like effect on dormant social systems. In Balochistan too, well-established rules of collective water management, water distribution and conflict resolution have evolved around the karez phenomenon. Water is distributed under the supervision of a special water leader on a fixed time rotation system among shareholders and conflict is virtually unknown. This contrasts with tube wells, which usher wasteful water practices leading to groundwater depletion. Mustafa notes that while NGO/donor representatives advocate the adoption of drip and trickle irrigation, reduction of subsidies on electricity, changes in cropping pattern, and integrated watershed management, they are still reluctant to accept the need to re-energise traditional water sharing systems like the karez. Though government and NGO functionaries do not see the karez as a solution to the hydro- hazardscape of Balochistan, the local people are well aware of the social, cultural, economic and environmental roles of the karez in their landscapes. Mustafa makes a convincing case for the revival and restoration of the karez system to ensure the social cohesion and sustainable livelihoods of rural communities in the arid realm. He says that the karez is not a technological anachronism but a viable irrigation system which has lasted 2 millenia and can be crucial in a water scarce future in arid zones like Balochistan.

Mustafa concludes his arguments by justifying the hydro-hazardscape approach which enables a better understanding of the complexity and inter linkages that govern water use, access and vulnerability to its hazards. Water as a resource, essential for all life and ecological sustainability, resistant to tidy commodification and retaining multiple social values for societies, is an ideal medium through which hazardscapes can be understood. This book comes at a time when climate change is projected to remap water availability across the world, thus making an understanding of hydro-hazardscapes crucial for environmental scientists. On the flip side, in his fascination with the terms like hydro-hazardscapes and hydro hegemony, the author uses a language loaded with technical jargon which may interested the lay reader. However, the book serves as a critical launchpad for further research apart for being a useful reference and guide for government, donor organisation and NGO workers engaged in water security issues across the world.

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