View Full Version : Pakistan’s short-termism - Dr Sania Nishtar - 27th May 2015

27th May 2015, 09:13 AM
There is a striking similarity between a country and a child. In either case, someone has to keep an eye on their long-term interest. In the case of a child, it is typically the parents who make necessary investment in time and resources for their offspring’s future, looking at a horizon spanning many decades.

Who exactly does that for a country, especially ours? Is there someone investing in strategic thought and planning for the future decades ahead of us? I am not sure where that explicit mandate and capacity exists.

Governments turn over in five years – at best. With their eye on the next election, decisions inevitably veer towards short-termism – five years is definitely short term in the course of a nation’s life. A further and serious complicating factor is the lack of effective mechanisms to compel accountability within the state system, as a result of which decision-makers cannot be held responsible for their inattention to long-term threats and the imperative to act.

There are a number of orphan areas within this context, which need urgent attention. I am highlighting two of these in this comment just to bring to bear the scale of impending problems – Pakistan’s water scarcity and the country’s exploding population. The threats emanating from each compound the other.

Pakistan’s per-capita surface water availability, which was 5,260 cubic meters per person annually in 1951, is expected to decline to 1,100 by 2035 and less than 900 by 2050. On the other hand, the country’s population is exploding. From 34 million in 1950 to 190 million today, our population is expected to rise to 300 million by 2050. Three million people, a whole new city, are adding to the country’s population every year. The two trend lines drawn based on these figures are stark and ominous. Pakistan is already water stressed. By 2030, water will be scarce. If population projections are factored in, we could reach the scarcity mark sooner.

Water scarcity has serious implications for economic growth since agriculture contributes 23 percent of the total GDP. It has grave implications for food and energy security in an already constrained milieu. Supply-side water scarcity can be compounded manifold when complicated by demand-induced scarcity due to the country’s exploding population. With constrained economic opportunities and joblessness, it is a recipe for disaster. But the story doesn’t end here. Our existing pattern of inequitable distribution of resources is compounding water stresses – in particular rifts between the country’s agricultural and industrial elite over distribution of water for irrigation vis-à-vis water for hydroelectric power generation; rivalries between feudal strongholds over availability of water for irrigation and tenuous relationships between the provinces over the share of water and revenues tied to it.

The determinants of Pakistan’s impending water crisis are complex and interrelated. Amongst other factors, each can be traced back to the tendency towards short-termism. Our irrigation system, which consumes 97 percent of our water resources, just isn’t streamlined for efficiency. Its poor infrastructure, coupled with rampant corruption and inequity in the use of water, cause massive waste. Inattention to conservation has taken its toll.

A further complicating factor is the impact of climate change to which Pakistan’s agrarian society is particularly sensitive. Already, there is evidence of reduction in the flow of water down the Indus River due to changes in the mass balance of the Karakorum glaciers. As climate variations become more manifest, chances of scarcity-induced issues also increase.

For example, a new kind of tension was observed during the 2010 floods when abuse of political influence in the irrigation sector led land-owner politicians to redirect natural flow of rivers to protect their lands. In combination with pre-existing social and political problems, climate change could become a major destabilising factor in the country. I have listed two just areas to highlight the nature of long-term issues and their inter-connectedness. There are many other issues that are equally destabilising for the economy and society.

The phenomenon of short-termism in the state system is not unique to Pakistan. However, many countries are conscious of the problem and have put in place institutional mechanisms as safeguards. As a starting point, we need to learn from them.

Sustainable development commissions, strategy units that think beyond the next election, commissioner or ombudsman for future generations, environmental limits act that stipulates a limit on environmental impacts, specialist committees, an encompassing definition of treason, and relevant constitutional provisions are all institutional vehicles for ingraining a long-term view of government. But it is not just the state engine where fixes are needed; long-term approaches have to be built into the basics of a society, which means the society at large and importantly the media has to change its narrative and learn to hold governments accountable in relation to performance in areas which matter for our future.

Most countries that have made progress have woven long-term thinking into the strategic planning process. Nations cannot progress and prosper without that and we are no exception.