Policy Brief

A Constitutional History of Water in Pakistan

by: Ahmad Rafay Alam

What exactly is water law? The answer is elusive. Water itself is fascinating. It adopts the shape of the vessel it occupies. Different vessels, different shapes. And for each shape, new characteristics, different properties. And different types of laws.

To understand water, one must be aware of the scale in which water is operating. For example, we may hear of dams, of water scarcity, of MAF (Million-acre-feet), and cusecs. This is water operating on the hydrological, security, agricultural and irrigation scales. Our cities dump their sewage, untreated, into rivers and water bodies, causing ecological ruin. We speak of the need of flushing the Indus Delta to maintain its ecosystem and the mangrove forests. This is water operating on an environmental scale.

But it doesn’t have to all be science or climate change. Just as water cannot be confined to a single shape, nor can one limit the scale on which it operates. So much Punjabi poetry, for instance, is set, at some point, on the banks of a river. This is water operating on a cultural scale. It takes water to produce the cotton we wear. That is virtual water at work translating everyday things to the amount of water it takes to produce them.

There are innumerable scales to water. This is why water law is complex.

There are a number of laws on water. Provincial canal and drainage legislation is the first to come to mind. We have the Indus River System Authority and a Water Apportionment Accord. Balochistan has an ordinance that regulates groundwater. There are laws for fisheries. The KPK’s forest legislation has specific provisions relating to water. Pakistan is signatory to the Convention on the Law of the Sea. Environment Quality Standards determine what industry can discharge into water bodies. A National Water Policy was announced earlier this year. There is a bit of water law everywhere, frankly.