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Pakistan faces water shortage despite huge rainfall
KARACHI (AFP) Mar 20, 2005
"Rain is God's blessing. But it proved devastating for me," says Shafi, whose wife and three children died when the roof of their house collapsed during Pakistan's worst downpours for more than a decade.

Life is tough in this arid country where freak rain and snow storms this winter killed more than 550 people, including the family of the grieving 38-year-old from Peshawar, a city near the Afghan border.

Perhaps the only positive thing to come out of the deluge for Pakistan as a whole was some relief from the potentially crippling water shortage gripping the nation.

Or was it? Not in the long term, say analysts and officials.

Instead a combination of poor infrastructure and sheer mismanagement means farmers in the heavily agriculture-based economy must still look to the heavens, they add.

Worries over water are also poisoning Islamabad's international relations, pushing it into a damaging dispute with nuclear-armed rival New Delhi over a huge dam being built in the Indian zone of divided Kashmir.

Pakistan is planning a number of big dam projects of its own but these too are causing controversy because of local disputes.

"We are alarmed of the upcoming water shortage which calls for constructing some large dams in any case," Pakistan's State Minister for Water and Power Ameer Muqam told AFP.

The economy is moving towards new sectors but agriculture still makes up the largest share of Pakistan's 67-billion-dollar Gross Domestic Product, at 23 percent. The sector relies on irrigation water for 90 percent of its needs.

In the short term, officials say the recent heavy rain -- February's was 50 per cent higher than the monthly average of 137 millimeters and the biggest since 1992 according to the meteorological office -- will help Pakistan reap a bumper grain crop this year.

The country does not want a repeat of 2004, when it had to import about one million tonnes of wheat, worth 184 million dollars, mainly from Canada and Australia.

Officials said the country failed to achieve wheat self-sufficiency mainly due to the water shortage. This year the government has set a target of harvesting 20.2 million tonnes of wheat to avoid a shortfall.

"We are very much hopeful that we would surpass our targets for wheat and other crops this season due to the recent rainfall," State Minister for Food and Agriculture Mohammad Ali Malkani told AFP.

For the future, however, Pakistan's rivers look set to run dry again, and the reason is not drought -- like the seven-year one that has affected neighbouring Afghanistan -- but mismanagement of watercourses and inter-provincial rivalries.

The largely desert southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan blame populous, fertile Punjab further north for taking too much water from the three rivers feeding Pakistan, which includes the mighty Indus river.

"Water is abundantly available from the upper level of the rivers but mismanagement and ill-will on the part of regulators create acute scarcity to the lower levels," said civil engineer Idrees Rajput, who represented Sindh in talks on water accords between the provinces.

In particular they resent the proposed Kala Bagh Dam province in Punjab, a project which President Pervez Musharraf has pushed for after years on the backburner because of a lack of national consensus.

Pakistan's cities also suffer from poor sewerage and piping, hindering urban development, analysts say.

However there are wider fears over the water supply for Punjab and indeed the whole of Pakistan because of the Baglihar Dam under construction by India in Kashmir.

Pakistan has asked the World Bank to appoint a neutral expert to resolve the dispute, which threatens to reignite the simmering, decades-old rivalry over the Himalayan territory.

It says the dam violates a 1960 water-sharing treaty, which bars India from interfering with the flow of the three rivers feeding Pakistan -- the Indus, the Chenab and the Jhelum -- but which allows it to generate electricity from them.

India denies the charges and has continued work on Baglihar.

The treaty, brokered by the World Bank, is one of the South Asian foes' most enduring agreements and has survived two wars between them.

"The one reason why Pakistan is emphasising the Baghliar Dam is that any shortage or unreliability in the availability of water would create political problems for the government in addition to its adverse effects on the development of agriculture," said Lahore-based political analyst Hasan Askari.

In the meantime Shafi, who goes by one name, watches his neighbours' children play in the streets, a victim of the elements rather than man.

"The rain may have been good for agriculture, but why should I call it good since it has killed my family," he says with tears rolling down his cheeks.

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