Talk18 Is the Murray-Darling Basin Success Relevant and Beneficial to Indus Basin?

Thursday, 07 June, 2018


Murray-Darling Basin having two major river systems Murray and Darling constitutes an area of 1 million km. It covers four States and one capital Territory having 3 million people dependent on its water. This basin meets 75% of Australia's irrigation requirements. This contributes AUD 20 Billion in agriculture production to Australian economy. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a historic, bipartisan agreement about how to use the water that flows down the Australian longest river system. It was signed into law by then-prime minister Julia Gillard on November 22, 2012, after the Commonwealth reached an accord with each of the Basin states: Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.

LEAD Pakistan hosted an interactive session on 'Is the Murray-Darling Basin Success Relevant and Beneficial to Indus Basin?' as part of its LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins. The guest speaker for this session was Dr. Bashir Ahmad, who talked about the relevance of Murray Darling Basin with Indus Basin and what lessons we can learn from it. Dr. Bashir Ahmad is a professional hydrologist with a total of 22 years of professional experience and he holds a PhD (Civil Engineering) from Tokyo University, M.E. (Hydrology) from UET Lahore and B.E. (Agri.) from University of Agricultural Faisalabad. Currently, he is serving as National Climate Change Coordinator of Ministry of Food Security & Research and Program leader Climate Change in Pakistan Agriculture Research Council.

What is the Murray-Darling Basin Plan?

The Murray-Darling Basin Plan provides a coordinated approach to water use across the Murray-Darling Basin's four states and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It is a major step forward in Australian water reform, balancing environmental, social and economic considerations by setting water use to an environmentally sustainable level.

The Basin Plan provides a framework, and working with the Basin states, communities and key stakeholders is crucial in achieving a sustainable Basin system. At the heart of the Basin Plan is the need to increase the amount of water for the environment of the Murray-Darling Basin and ensuring sufficient water for all users. To achieve this balance, the Basin Plan reduces the amount of water that can be taken from the rivers by setting Sustainable Diversion Limits (SDLs) for both surface water and groundwater for each catchment area in the Basin. The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is a major success story to manage the sparse and highly variable water resource to meet the compelling demands of irrigation, water supply, industry and most importantly the environment. This has been achieved through long discussion and interaction with strong political will and commitment in an environment where various States and sectors had mistrust for each other. At the same time Murray-Darling Basin Plan is highly relevant to Indus basin where we can follow its footstep for planning our own water resources.

Similarities of Indus & Murray Darling

The highly variable flows of the Murray Darling are comparable with the Indus Basin. Climate change is expected to cause increased climate variability, but Australia is prepared face these impacts in a way that many other countries aren't. These flows are very relevant in developing basin plans, since there was a very stable period from the 1960s before the millennium drought.

The Indus Basin is 46 times bigger than the Murray Darling Basin. Snow and glacier melt is estimated to contribute more than 50% of the total flow to the Indus river system, whereas Australia does not have glaciers. Environmental water use has been a source of many conflicts and disputes not only in Murray Darling but also in other basins including Indus Basin. Murray darling basin is extremely low gradient in comparison to Indus, which is a high gradient. It passes through a lot of desert area and has severe salinity issues.

Indus is 8 times bigger in irrigated area than Murray Darling. Murray represents half of the agriculture production while Indus represents 20 percent of the country's agriculture produce. 180 million people live on the Indus basin, whereas in Murray darling Basin 2 million people live around it. The similarities in the two basins are much more than the differences.

How can Indus Benefit from Murray Darling Plan

Pakistan is already short of per capita limit and overall water availability, whereby it suffers huge water scarcity. We have massive season variabilities, which is why there is a huge difference in water usage during the Kharif and rabi season. At the same time climate change also plays a critical role. Low climate change adaptation, weak institutions and low awareness leads to poor governance and poor management of ground water. The mistrust among provinces mainly exists because of lack of transparent monitoring and management structures. The Government departments and ministries exist but have no clear role or responsibilities and lack proper monitoring systems. Pakistan has a reactive flood management approach, instead of proactive management of water and only 11 percent of annual river flows can be stored while the rest of the water is wasted. From 2010 to 2014 we have lost about 91 million acre of river flows which was worth more than 46 billion dollars if used effectively.

Murray and Indus have many similarities but each has its own complexities too. One example is the issue of urbanization which is compounded by population growth. Murray Basin is a great blue print to learn from, whereby consulting early evidence, information sharing and behavioral change are a great way of changing people's thinking and behavior. Australia used long term analysis, various hypothesis and cross sectional analysis in order to convince its policy makers for building sustainable cities with improved environmental conditions for all urban populations. A similar approach could work for Pakistan in the long run.

Water pricing is a necessity, not only for surface water but also for regulating ground water. The provincial governments need to come together for the water pricing approach. At the moment, there is no regulation for ground water management and the government must levy some tax on ground water mining because eventually water shortage will deviate to ground water shortage.

Unfortunately, the National Water Policy in Pakistan has gaps in terms of environmental flows and has very little focus on urban water, the demand for which is growing rapidly. Similarly, many government institutions exist but lack technical capacity and have limited knowledge. Pakistan needs something similar to the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), which has a strong presence with clear roles and responsibilities.

We need transformation from flood irrigation to high technology mechanisms so we can move from drip irrigation to surface irrigation systems. This mechanism can start from rain flood areas and move to main irrigated lands. Training and learning sights should be setup for engineers so they can spend a day or two with the farmers in order to learn from them. These are just some of the initiatives that can lead to improved water management in the Indus Basin.

Conclusion & Recommendations

Pakistan ranks third among countries facing water shortage. The increasing water scarcity has reached alarming stages and with each passing day and there is an urgent need to initiate water dialogue in Indus. Not only do we require an act similar to the Murray Basin Act but also the formation of an Indus Basin Authority for an informed mechanism for water management. Learning from the Murray Darling Plan, Pakistan could take some of the below steps:

o Engagement of various institutions including research and academia with clear role and responsibilities

o Efficient and judicious use of irrigation water (Drip, sprinkler, etc.) system

o Restoring trust through transparent water measuring and accounting system

o Modernization of infrastructure including water distribution, conveyance, irrigation and water supply

o Estimation, quantification and provision of environment flows through river length and below Kotri for maintaining biodiversity and other healthy ecosystem services

o Establishment of water rights/shares and virtual water trading

o Shift to low delta/water foot print

o Incentive for local manufacturing and production of High Efficient Irrigation Systems (HEIS) to reduce huge import bill

o High tech systems in place - which will in turn bring private sector service provider, more jobs for graduates and improve service delivery

o Give subsidy to farmers as an incentive. Similarly incentivize it for manufactures and service provider