5th November, 2019

In holding with Habib University’s core value of interdisciplinary discourse, the Public Lecture Series presented a talk on a topic of monumental significance in environmental and ecological terms, while also tackling political and socio-economic aspects. Interestingly, the level of balance required between engineering sciences and skills of critical thinking for innovating solutions in the current complex era, was also a feature of the lecture.

Dr Hassaan Khan carried a discussion on the river system and water infrastructure of Pakistan, specifically addressing the issue of lack of agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan on shared water flows and its vast implications for both. Dr Khan is a faculty member of the School of Science and Engineering at Habib, where his research and teaching concerns environmental issues and water systems analysis. He attained his PhD from University of Massachusetts and has served as a postdoctoral scholar on the FUSE team at Stanford University, helping to develop integrated water systems models for sustainable water management in Amman, Jordan and Pune, India. His doctoral research was itself on the subject of climate change and its impacts on water management.

Dr Khan introduced his talk by narrating a tri-part story. He broke down the major historic developments of water systems and infrastructure in Pakistan into three sections, starting from the time of partition when discussion on Indus River Treaty was initiated, moving onto inter-provincial river accord between provinces of Pakistan and then finally, the looming case of Kabul River that is under threat of being disadvantageously influenced by lack of cooperation between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Pulling up a map of Pakistan, Dr Khan first described the spread of the Indus River Basin, pointing out that 70% of it lies within the country’s boundaries, while a considerable part of it is sourced from tributaries running through India, China and Afghanistan.  The shared system of the Indus basin with India holds much significance, as it makes up for 90% of Pakistan’s irrigation system while its source is situated across the border. Dr Khan referred to the colonial division of the country and the water system issues between them being a result of it. It took more than a decade for the two countries to come to agreement on how the river system was to be shared in the form of the 1960 Indus Water Treaty. Following the Indus Treaty, inter provincial distribution of water came under discussion and it wasn’t until 1991 that the Accord between Provinces of Pakistan was drawn. Dr. Khan went onto highlight the many water system issues faced by Pakistan, like India choosing to build dams on Indus tributaries that lie within its designated area and how it has impacted the Eastern river irrigation systems of Pakistan. Even within Pakistan tensions exist within provinces with some regions being deprived of their fair share of flows because of unregulated usage of water upstream.

In the third part of his story, Dr Khan shared the findings of his research on the implications that introduction of infrastructure on Kabul River in Afghanistan would have on the water system of both countries. Using two models, which accounted for prospective variations owing to climate change, economic differences and other variables he was able to identify that by cooperating and combining resources for shared water management of the river both countries will gain most. However, in the alternate case, Pakistan stands to lose 20% of its flow and face wider implications that cannot be predicted right now. It was apparent that Pakistan would suffer most in this case, which should incentivize it to initiate conversation with Afghanistan. Since the project is also backed by India, this makes it an urgent diplomatic matter for Pakistan. Recently, Dr Khan presented his research to stakeholders from Pakistan and Afghanistan, elaborating on the urgency and focus this issue requires.

Dr Hassaan Khan’s main argument was to emphasise that the primary issue is not a lack of resources or infrastructure, so more investment into the construction of more dams and infrastructure is not the solution. He connected Pakistan’s water problems to shortcomings present within existing agreements that were drawn, mismanagement of resources, lack of regulation, political tensions and misdirected priorities. The solution lies not in engineering interventions alone but first establishing a thorough process and system that successfully caters to management  of present resources and infrastructure, seeks to resolve matters of diplomacy and to address pressing matters like that of the Kabul River through proactive action.