No end to water crisis in Quetta
By Muhammad Akbar Notezai
About half a dozen women and children gather in front of a house in Killi Ismail on a frosty December afternoon. They are there to collect water – pots and jerry cans in hands.
Noor Ali Longove, the owner of the house, has installed an electric tube well that fills a 500-gallon water tank every day. His poor neighbours, around 40 families, take turns to fill their small containers with water to take it home without having to pay. Without his help, they will have no water to drink – as well as for washing clothes and doing dishes. “For two consecutive years, we have received no water [from the government supply],” says Zaib-ul-Nisa Bibi, a local resident clad in embroidered Balochi clothes.
Killi Ismail, a village of approximately 40,000 residents in northern Quetta, mostly consists of mud houses. Most of its male residents either have menial jobs or they work as rickshaw and bus drivers.
Asif Baloch runs a corner shop in the village. He echoes Bibi’s complaints. “I buy water from a tanker operator,” he says. Each tanker contains 1,400 gallons of water, costs 1,300 rupees and lasts a month.
The quality of water he buys is suspect but his family uses it for drinking and cooking as well. Others in his street line up at a government tube well to collect water for those purposes but he cannot leave his shop “to fetch water every day.”
The government has installed five tube wells in the village, according to a local councillor, Farooq Langove. Water drawn from one of them, local residents complain, is being supplied to Jinnah Town, a relatively posh locality adjacent to Killi Ismail. Another, according to Langove, has been in the process of being installed for months.
Most poor, informal settlements in Quetta such as Killi Ismail have similar water woes. Except the military cantonment, Hazara-dominated localities of Mariabad and Hazara Town and some formal residential areas dominated by well-off Pakhtuns, water is scarce everywhere in Quetta.
Inayat Ullah, a Pakhtun daily wage worker, was forced to shift home in search of water (and gas). He was living in Pashtunabad, in the east of the city, where gas and water were in short supply. He shifted to Pashtun Bagh, in Quetta’s west, in 2005 but continues to “face similar problems.”
Inayat Ullah’s family gets water from the government supply only once in five days and that too after paying 1000 rupees each month in bribes. He and his three brothers pay 700 rupees each every month to buy from a private tanker operator the rest of the water they need.
Even in the heart of the city, people complain about water not being available. Fasial Shehzad, a Punjabi settler living on Mission Road – a pre-1947 avenue – says his household became dependent on private tanker operators long ago.
But tanker operators would sometimes tell him to wait because they had many other customers to cater to. This made Shehzad and his neighbours install a tube well of their own. “Now, we do not have any water supply problems,” he says.
Quetta was designed for about 200,000 people after an earthquake flattened it in 1935. Now, according to its mayor, Dr Kaleem Ullah, its population could be as much as three million.
The city had about 700,000 people in 1998 when the last census was held. Since then, it has seen two major population influxes – from Afghanistan after war between Taliban and America-led foreign forces started there in 2001; and from Baloch-dominated districts where an insurgency – and its attendant counter-insurgency security measures — have raged since 2006.
Barkat Ullah, project director for Mangi Dam, a water supply scheme being planned for Quetta, says the city needs 50 million gallons of water per day but gets only 28 million gallons. This gap is expected to get bigger before it can decrease.
Many reasons for water shortage are administrative: Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa), a government department set up in 1986, operates 460 tube wells across the city but residents often complain the agency operates as if it “does not exist”. Its pipes are leaky and its tube wells often break down – one in Killi Ismail has required an electric transformer for weeks.
On a mid-December day, no senior officials were present at Wasa’s headquarters on Quetta’s Double Road. Many days and phone calls later, Jahangir Khan Kakar, Wasa’s managing director, concedes “there is leakage in pipelines”. He also acknowledges flaws in Wasa’s working. “We lack human resources and funds.” Wasa did not have money recently to even pay salaries to its staff, he says.
Lack of planning is another of his department’s handicap. According to Dr Shahid Ahmad, an Islamabad-based expert who has studied water-related projects in Balochistan for more than eight years, Wasa replaced its leaky steel pipes with polyethylene lines many years ago. “But the [agency] could not link them with its existing lines.” Polyethylene lines are still not functional, he says.
Wasa has also failed to develop new water resources to overcome the depletion of water table, he says. By the current pace of depletion, Quetta will have no water left in its underground aquifers after ten years, Ahmed fears.
Aslam Ghani, revenue director at Wasa, confirms the high-speed depletion of water table. Tube wells in Quetta have to sink their pipes as low as 800 feet into the ground to fetch water, he says. “Every year water level is going down,” he says, in some places at an alarming rate of 60 feet a year.
Officials, experts and observers agree the depletion is mostly caused by private tube wells. More than 10,000 of them are installed in Quetta valley. The federal government provides free electricity for these tube wells to support agriculture in Balochistan but many of their owners sell water to tanker operators who, in turn, sell it to the residents of Quetta.
A prospective tube well owner needs a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the government. A district water board committee, with members derived from the district administration, Wasa, Public Health Engineering Department, Irrigation Department and Revenue Department, has the authority to issue the NOC. With only one vote in the process, Wasa has no power to block the issuing of an NOC. “[The] certificates are issued through other departments,” says Kakar.
Many thousand tube wells, in fact, have been installed without the NOC. A recent report in daily Dawn quoted an official of the Quetta Electric Supply Company as saying that “more than 15,000 illegal tube wells operate throughout Balochistan”. By 2015, according to Kakar, Wasa had sealed more than 300 tube wells working without the NOC in different parts of Quetta. In 2016 alone, the number of sealed illegal tube wells has been 92, he says.
Quetta valley is prone to droughts – if it rains one year, it does not rain next five years. That pattern does not allow aquifers to refill at the same rate that they are depleting at.
Dr Shahid Ahmad stresses the need for water conservation. “We have to [make] people [aware] that water is not an
infinite resource. It is a finite resource.” He also highlights the need for improving water management. “Water is being wasted through leaky pipelines.”
His third suggestion concerns the building of new water supply schemes. The government is planning three dams in the mountains to the northwest of Quatta – one in Mangi on the Khost river in Ziarat district, the second in Burj Aziz Khan in Pishin district and the third in Halaq, just outside Quetta.
An alternative proposal envisions bringing water from Kachhi and Pat Feeder canals through a pipeline more than 270 kilometres long. Its estimated cost – at 40 billion rupees – seems prohibitive. And it has to cross two major hurdles: Pumping canal water 6,000 feet above sea level that will require massive recurring expenses; and ensuring the security of the pipeline through the volatile districts of Lehri, Sibi, Kachhi, Bolan and Mastung.
“It is a difficult project to implement,” says Siddique Baloch, a senior journalist based in Quetta. Yet the provincial government has allocated 10 billion rupees in its current budget to prepare a report, among other things, on its feasibility.
The government has also allocated 2.83 billion rupees for Mangi Dam where, according to Barkat Ullah, construction work is scheduled to start in January 2017. The dam will provide 8.1 million gallons of water every day to Quetta for more than five decades, he says.
Ahmed agrees that Mangi Dam will alleviate Quetta’s water shortage – though only partially. Not all water that will come into the dam can be transferred to Quetta, he says, especially in winter when people living in its catchment areas will need water from its contributory streams to fulfill their own domestic and agricultural needs.
What can the city do to address such constraints? As Quetta’s population increases in the coming years, it “will definitely need [water from] Pat Feeder and Kachhi canals, Ahmed argues.