Posts Tagged ‘Water’

On Sustainability

January 31, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

The more I read about sustainability the more I am puzzled by what it reveals and what it hides.

At one level, this is a new buzzword in the global discourse that all sorts of shysters are milking for what it is worth while distracting the gullible into futile avenues and dubious career paths.

Take the endless refrain about sustainable cities. Every day one reads a scare-laden screed about how our major cities are unsustainable. But what exactly does that mean? Lahore has been around for many centuries — Al-Biruni referred to it in the 11th Century and Xuangzang identified it in 630 CE. Delhi is even older — its history goes back to 50 BCE. Despite their survival through all sorts of calamities and troubled times, we are being told that they are not sustainable anymore. What exactly has changed?

Many of the writers refer to a falling water table and extrapolate it to imply that cities would die for lack of water. Add to this the inane statement that very soon water would start selling at the price of gold.

Why should we place any credence in such claims? There are cities in the desert like Phoenix and Riyadh that continue to source water. It also stands to reason that as water becomes scarce its price would rise forcing both a curtailing of demand and innovations in supply. In all probability, almost all used water would be recycled and made fit for drinking when conditions warrant. This is already happening in many cities including Singapore, a small island serving a sizeable population.

As for those hyperventilating about water at the price of gold, they are of the same ilk as those crying hoarse about Pakistan’s overpopulation being the cause of its poverty. These wiseacres are quite oblivious to their next-door neighbour with six times the population yet growing at twice Pakistan’s rate for the last quarter of a century and now spoken of as an emerging global power. Nor have they ever reflected on the fact that Pakistan’s population was halved when it ‘lost’ Bangladesh but its economic growth failed to take off like a rocket from the unintended ‘benefit’. The population babble serves only as a convenient smokescreen to camouflage a history of atrocious self-serving governance.

Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered with water and so its price can never rise above that of desalinated water plus the cost of transporting it to wherever it is needed. And there is no reason that water cannot be transported over long distances. If an oil pipeline can run from Tajikistan all the way to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, surely so can a water pipeline from Gwadar to Lahore. Of course, the water would be more expensive than it is now but it would be nowhere near the price of gold. The price would even decline over time with the increasing use of solar energy. Once again, many cities already use desalinated water. In fact there was once a plan for DHA Karachi to set up its own plant but like most schemes in Pakistan that too was most likely the victim of a scam.        

The bottom line is that we would be much better off focusing on concrete issues — like ensuring that the water presently supplied is clean — instead of hand-waving about vague and poorly thought through spectres of sustainability. It is undoubtedly true that cities in South Asia are poorly managed and can do with a great deal of improvement but poor management is nowhere the same thing as unsustainability.

But what intrigues me much more is our amazingly selective use of the concept of sustainability. While everyone and their aunts are free to pontificate about the sustainability of cities, and of the world for that matter, we are in a very different ballgame if we shift the discussion to the level of countries when there is no conceptual difference except that of scale. If we can talk of the sustainability of Lahore and be considered enlightened citizens, why do we suddenly become anti-national traitors if we talk of the sustainability of Pakistan?

Consider that there are many more credible reasons to talk of the latter. The Pakistan that was created in 1947 did not prove sustainable and collapsed within 25 years. Perhaps this might have been avoided had we been allowed to freely discuss the issues of its sustainability. Are we continuing the folly by stifling discussion given all the issues in Balochistan along with those of rising fundamentalism, intolerance and populism?

What this suggests is that the concept of sustainability is a highly politicised one. We are free to shout it ad nauseum where it makes no difference but whisper it at our own risk when it threatens the interests of the powers that be.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 30, 2019 and is being reproduced here with the author’s permission.


Pro-People Policies are Possible in Poor Polities

May 16, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

How much of a useful story can be told with very few numbers?

Look at just one indicator of public welfare, the Under-5 Mortality Rate, in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh: 86, 56, and 41, respectively in 2012.

The U5MR, which gives the number of children dying between birth and five years of age per 1,000 live births, is a very useful indicator because it captures the effect of many risks to life that occur during the crucial first five years of life – disease, poverty, malnutrition, etc.

What should jump out at the reader is that the 2012 U5MR in Bangladesh is less than half that in Pakistan? Asides from asking how that is possible, this striking statistic should trigger a whole host of related questions.

Let us examine a few obvious ones by way of example. Is it the case that this difference is related to geography, i.e., that the U5MR in Bangladesh was always less than that of Pakistan for climatic reasons. Here are the values in 1990 for the three countries in the same order: 138, 126, and 144. They are roughly in the same range with Bangladesh actually being worse than Pakistan.

Is it the case that Bangladesh is a much richer country compared to Pakistan and has been able to allocate its greater wealth to the improvement of the life chances of the majority? Here are the figures for the Gross National Income per capita in 2012 (in US $) for the three counties in the same order: 1260, 1530, 840. Bangladesh is roughly two-thirds as affluent as Pakistan and yet has a U5MR of less than half.

So what is the explanation for the rapid improvement in the survival rate of children in Bangladesh between 1990 and 2012? A scientifically acceptable answer to this question requires a statistical analysis that controls for all the possible factors that might be relevant. Notwithstanding that, it seems reasonable to assert that the difference does not stem from locational advantage or greater affluence. In all likelihood it is related to some variations of policy. That is the rationale for the claim that pro-people policies that make a difference to the lives of the impoverished majority are possible at low levels of income.

Let us look at one such policy without definitively claiming that it is the causative factor in the observed difference. By way of a speculative hypothesis I have selected the percentage of households forced to resort to open-air defecation, i.e., without access to any form of latrine: In 2015, the percentages for Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh were 21, 50, and 1, respectively. Even accounting for the imprecision of such numbers that is a stunning difference. And to ascribe it very clearly to policy it helps to refer to the fact that the corresponding percentage for Bangladesh in 2003 was 42, i.e., in the same league as the other two countries.

I have selected open-air defecation for a reason. It is well known that it leads to fecal transmission of preventable diseases like diarrhea. But diarrhea has other negative health impacts even when it does not kill directly. For example, chronic diarrhea undermines almost entirely the utility of nutrition programs like school meals. Addressing malnourishment requires meeting physiological needs with sufficient calories and nutritional needs with a balanced diet but it is usually forgotten that these work only when the diet is retained. Persistent diarrhea weakens the retention of food leading to death by other causes.

This observation alone should highlight the importance of a sound public health system. It is only when most people are healthy that a curative care system can function. If most people are exposed to systemic causes of disease the curative system would be overwhelmed as it is in Pakistan.

An analogy should make this clear. In a polluted river one would expect unhealthy fish. Taking all the fish out, nourishing them back to good health, and releasing them back in the same river would be an exercise in futility. Yet, that is the very thing we are doing with human beings.

The fact that public health does not seem to be in the news in developed countries is because they have long ago ensured a healthy base by eliminating systemic preventable diseases. What we see now are the incredible advances in curative care. But, as should be obvious, one cannot put the cart before the horse. The explosion in the number of hospitals and hospital-based physicians in Pakistan is yet another example of misplaced priorities.

The essential pillars of sound public health are safe drinking water and sanitation. If we really care for our people that is where we should be directing our attention and resources. Bangladesh has shown that it is possible to do so in a poor country.


This opinion was published in Dawn on 15 May, 2016 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

For a remarkable piece written almost exclusively in words beginning with the letter ‘p’, see: PPP Prattle

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War or Peace on the Indus?

April 3, 2010

By John Briscoe

Anyone foolish enough to write on war or peace in the Indus needs to first banish a set of immediate suspicions. I am neither Indian nor Pakistani. I am a South African who has worked on water issues in the subcontinent for 35 years and who has lived in Bangladesh (in the 1970s) and Delhi (in the 2000s). In 2006 I published, with fine Indian colleagues, an Oxford University Press book titled India’s Water Economy: Facing a Turbulent Future and, with fine Pakistani colleagues, one titled Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry.

I was the Senior Water Advisor for the World Bank who dealt with the appointment of the Neutral Expert on the Baglihar case. My last assignment at the World Bank (relevant, as described later) was as Country Director for Brazil. I am now a mere university professor, and speak in the name of no one but myself. (more…)