Monday, May 15, 2006

Op-ed 'The Post' :May 15, 2006

Are we water-savvy?

Come summer and you can expect two things. One, the promise of a formidable looking Finance Minister on our TV screens with the annual budget, asking us to search deep within our pockets and cough up those spare pennies. And two, an equally stern Prime Minister (or the Chief Executive if it is one of the years when Pakistani children were not good enough to get a PM in their stockings) requesting the Pakistani population to buckle up and start praying for rain. Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has been true to form, and just last week launched the formal Namaz-e-Istasqa appeal. The media has cooperated on their part by broadcasting the Prime Minister’s appeal along with the by now ubiquitous images of children clenching their little hands, their foreheads furrowed in concentration as they pose to pray for an end to the drought that plagues their country. On Friday, hopefully, the rest of the community would also have complied with their religious — and by now patriotic — duty and prayed for the heavens to comply. Summoning divine intervention to resolve our earthly dilemmas has been popular for some time, with even the Church of England, as a newspaper recently informed me of ‘going into partnership with (UK) estate agents to offer blessing services to people moving home’ (they will be praying for good health, sanitation, a healthy sex life, peace, tranquillity and good service in the kitchen, they will pray over the garage and that the homeowners are blessed with the inspiration to tackle dry rot and that God keeps a watch over their house — but stipulating very firmly that ‘divine protection’ is no guarantee against burglary). However, what concerns me (as it worries others) in the case of Pakistan is that our growing reliance on ‘divine intervention’ as a quick fix to most of our predicaments relieves the Pakistani state machinery of any responsibility of creating or resolving the crisis that faces us. What Pakistanis were gradually coached to believe had caused the October 2005 disaster, how it could have been mitigated, and how those affected can recover from it, is a classic case study. “Well, now that you aren’t praying you little renegade,” as my good friends pose the question, “why doesn’t your bleeding little Pathan heart open up to the possibility of a Kalabagh dam?” Sadly, I continue to believe that this isn’t a viable choice either, and frankly more improbable than our bowing our heads and requesting the cosmos to deliver. This month’s criterion for failed states — ‘demographic pressures on urban centres and the massive movement of refugees and internally displaced people’, should be still fresh in our minds. The Pakistani government should shudder at the thought of their machinations displacing further villagers from their lands or stirring up any more inter-provincial tension and ‘group grievances’ in the country. Our track record of compensating for lands and livelihoods lost due to development projects is not brilliant as it is, so everyone has to think twice before revving up the engine of that earthmover.

While most residents of Rawalpindi and Islamabad are familiar with the statistics regarding their water sources – Simli Dam (where water levels have dropped down to 2,245 feet with 2,233 feet being the benchmark for ‘dead level’), the Khanpur Dam, and 4.5 million gallons water that residents in Islamabad get daily from the four headworks located in Korang, Saidpur, Nurpur Shahan and Shahdra (though I wonder how these headworks are keeping up with all the water boring being done in the past five years by new residents setting up houses in these areas). The Capital Development Authority (CDA) in Islamabad is said to be installing and repairing tube-wells in the city to meet the demands of an ever-thirsty population. We also know that Islamabad’s actual water need is of 110 million gallons per day, of which CDA is allegedly supplying only 59 million gallons.

It is very difficult for the average Islamabad household to translate the ‘actual water’ need of their city that is listed in gallons, into what should be their ‘rational’ water consumption per day. According to the SPHERE project illustrating minimum living standards that have to be maintained in the wake of any disaster, the amount of water an individual needs to fulfil essential requirements of his/her daily life is 15 litres — and this includes the two litres of water a day we should be drinking to lead a healthy life. So 15 litres is the amount any individual requires to do all the cooking, cleaning, washing, and sanitizing in a day when water is scarce. Anything over that is just wasting a precious resource in today’s precarious water situation. Now think it over, 60 glasses of water is all you should need to make it through your day. And I believe this is where the real crunch is, to instill good water saving habits in our nation. The task is daunting of course. Pakistanis are still recovering from when they were last asked to be austere and save rather than spend on wedding banquets.

What this plan needs to succeed is of course public trust, a feeling of community and what is more important, a change in perspective towards Pakistan’s shared natural resources and the country’s sustainable future. It is very difficult to do that when we still believe in the unit as in the char devari, and what lies beyond those four walls as definitely not our problem — let the family next door conserve their water for Pakistan if they want to, we have already paid our water taxes for this year. It is also very difficult to expect the larger public to save those three buckets of water every day when they see other sections of society maintaining their water ‘spendthrift’ lifestyles. So unless GHQ and the Prime Minister’s Secretariat decide to forgo washing their fleet of cars every day, be content with using a cloth to wipe off that dust accumulating on the staff car for now rather than hosing it down daily, one shouldn’t be expecting the average Malik sahib to keep a watchful eye over the water tap for now. Now that is really tricky, the military establishment loves their shiny cars and trucks, and no one messes with them. They didn’t like to trade them in for a Suzuki yesterday, they didn’t want their fuel tanks running low at times of oil tanker strikes, and they will definitely not like them getting dusty today.

So let’s talk gardens then, shall we? And the great Pakistani love of an ornamental garden, of recreating the Lake District in their own little piece of land. All middle class households in the former British colonies have aspirations of recreating some horticultural wonder from that island. Of introducing flora and fauna to the family plot that has some semblance of their summer vacation abroad. Well, in most cases these ‘foreign’ guests complicate the natural balance. In Australia where I currently reside, the individual state governments are guiding all households to grow native plants that do not tax the ecosystem and at best such that thrive best with little water. Water scarcity is a way of life in Australia now and all households have to watch how they consume their water, whether the water levels in the dams are high or low — there is no relaxing that discipline. We have to instill the same regime and water saving has to become a way of life. So recycle that kitchen water into the garden for now, think of ways you can start recycling. Perhaps from 2007 onwards any new kitchen or bathroom appliances installed have to be water efficient (as they are in new constructions in Australia). And well perhaps when you are preparing for that next Namaz-e-Istasqa, perhaps do a dry ablution instead of wudhu? I will leave that to our religious clergy to ponder over — let’s give them something really constructive to expend their energy on!