Floods, droughts, politics, money: Pakistan struggles with its water woes

SHIKARPUR, Pakistan (AP) — Thousands of farmers have crowded this once-quiet Pakistani town. They live on the hospital's lawn, they camp on overpasses. Their fields are destroyed, covered by billions of gallons of brown soupy floodwater.

But ask those farmers about their water troubles and they'll tell you flooding is just the most recent chapter.

"There is not enough water. We don't have enough for the crops," said Zubair Ahmed, a tenant farmer who came here after floods swept through his village and destroyed his fields. "Except for this year," he added, without any irony. "This year it is different."

This country, with its network of rivers that flow into the mighty Indus, struggles daily with water issues — too little, too much, in the wrong place — and rain is important to more than just farmers.

Around here, rainfall has long been reflected in economics, politics, diplomacy and social stability — and even Pakistan admits it wasn't as prepared as it could have been for the flooding.

"We are the victims of both extremes," said Shams ul Mulk, the former head of Pakistan's Ministry of Water and Power. "We are the victims of scarcity and we are the victims of surpluses."

A month into the worst floods in the country's history, there was no respite Saturday.

The swollen Indus River smashed another break early Saturday in the levees that protect the southern city of Thatta and numerous nearby villages. That sent thousands more people fleeing for high ground, crowding the roads and leaving the city of 175,000 nearly empty.

Thousands of flood victims sought shelter on the high ground of a sprawling centuries-old cemetery outside Thatta. Many were furious at the shortage of help, and how aid came in the form of bags of food being tossed from trucks.

"The people who come here to give us food treat us like beggars. They just throw the food. It is humiliating," said 80-year-old Karima, who uses only one name, and who was living in the graveyard with more than two dozen relatives.

Almost 17.2 million people have been significantly affected by the floods and about 1.2 million homes have been destroyed or badly damaged, the U.N. has said. About 1,500 people have died. At one point, an area the size of Italy was believed to be underwater, much of it farmland.

The scale of the crisis quickly overwhelmed authorities, with the government's painfully slow response leading to fears of unrest. While there has been no widespread violence, flood victims have repeatedly blocked roads through the flooded regions demanding more help.

The country's finances, though, will take a major blow: Farming is a pillar of the Pakistani economy, making up some 23 percent of the gross domestic product and supporting millions of families. Officials expect the agricultural costs from the floods to reach into the billions of dollars.

The floods' effects also will go far beyond the time when the waters recede.

Even Islamabad acknowledges it needs massive repairs to its enormous water irrigation network, which stretches across thousands of miles (kilometers). About 80 percent of the country's farmers are dependent on irrigation to nourish their crops.

Experts say only about one-third of the water that flows through the country's irrigation system actually reaches the crops.

"It's just dirt ditches most of the time," said Dr. Daanish Mustafa, a geographer at King's College, London who has studied Pakistan's water use and said simply lining the irrigation channels to decrease leakage could result in enormous water savings.

"It doesn't need billions of dollars, it doesn't need armies of laborers," said Mustafa.

He noted Pakistan also faces a special challenge with the Indus River, the heart of its water network. With 80 percent of precipitation coming in just two months during the annual monsoons, and a heavy silt content, the river can quickly overrun its banks.

"Pakistan's misfortune is they are dealing with a freak of a river," he said.

For years, foreign donors have been trying to help Pakistan tame that freak.

The United States has said improving the country's water management will be a key plank of its $7.5 billion assistance package to the country over the next five years. Before the floods, it was planning a raft of projects to improve irrigation.

Those plans are even more relevant now, said Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development. "They need a system that can manage" both flooding and low rainfall, he said.

The floods also raised worries in Pakistan that India — this country's chief rival — could worsen the problem by draining its rain-swollen rivers into Pakistan.

Normally, the situation is reversed, with Pakistan complaining that India is withholding water.

Under a 1960 agreement, the two countries are supposed to share the use of the six rivers that irrigate the Pakistani agricultural heartland. India, though, controls the source of those rivers, leading to regular cross-border accusations, as Islamabad charges that New Delhi is taking more than its share, and New Delhi alleging Pakistan's poor infrastructure leads to massive water waste.


Associated Press writer Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed to this report.