Pakistan ranks third amongst countries facing water shortages and if no action is taken to address this vital issue the country will run out of the water by 2025.
There are millions of people all over the world who don’t have access to water, or, if they have access, that water is un-useable. About 70% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water and 3% of it is actually fresh water that is fit for human consumption. Around two-thirds of that is tucked in frozen glaciers and unavailable for our use. According to WWF, some 1.1 billion people worldwide lack access to water, and a total of 2.7 billion will find water scarce for at least one month of the year. Water scarcity involves water crisis, water shortage, water deficit or water stress. Water scarcity can be due to physical water scarcity and economic water scarcity. Physical water scarcity refers to a situation where natural water resources are unable to meet a region’s demand and economic water scarcity is a result of poor water management resources.
According to an International Monetary Fund (IMF) report, Pakistan ranks third amongst countries facing water shortages. Recently, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) delivered a grave warning: if the government does not take action, the country will run out of the water by 2025. Severe water scarcity is already having a negative impact on the country’s public health and the economy. Over 80 percent of water supplied is considered unsafe, and water scarcity and water-borne diseases are resulting in a loss of up to 1.44 percent of GDP. A number of standalone initiatives are underway to mitigate this impact; what else is needed now is a coordinated national policy on water. Goal six of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) calls for ensuring availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, water use efficiency, and integrated water resources management. In line with the SDGs, Pakistan’s vision 2025 addresses the issues of water security and aims for increasing water storage capacity, improving agricultural efficiency by 20 percent, and ensuring the availability of clean drinking water to all Pakistanis.
The bulk of Pakistan’s farmland is irrigated through a canal system, but the IMF says in a report that canal water is vastly underpriced, recovering only one-quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs. Meanwhile, agriculture, which consumes almost all annual available surface water, is largely untaxed. Experts say that population growth and urbanization are the main reasons behind the crisis. The issue has also been exacerbated by climate change, poor water management, and a lack of political will to deal with the crisis.
“Pakistan is approaching the scarcity threshold for water. What is even more disturbing is that groundwater supplies. The last resorts of water supply are being rapidly depleted and worst of all is that the authorities have given no indication that they plan to do anything about any of this,” Michael Kugelman, South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center said in an interview.
Greater investment in Pakistan’s water sector represents the best option for sustainable social and economic development and to ensure that no one is left behind in the process of development. Pakistan needs a sound national water policy which delineates the framework for balanced socio-economic development, management, and conservation of the country’s water resources in an environment challenged by climate change.
The majority of cropland area of the country is irrigated through canals and rightly called as “Irrigated Agriculture”. In fact, it is a reliable area which supports and fulfills the needs for food, fiber and raw materials in Pakistan. While other areas are at the mercy of rains and called as “Rain-fed Agriculture”. The contribution of this area is minor or negligible compared to the irrigated area. Our irrigated area is also facing the drought-like situation for the last 10 years due to less availability of water in canals and through precipitation. It is estimated that our farmers have to face up to 50 percent or even more shortage of water if there are no rains in the coming months. At present, as expected a good crop of cotton in South Punjab has already suffered from a shortage of canal water. This alarming situation compels us to think well before time about sowing of coming wheat crop. South of Punjab falls under arid climate where at least 2-acre inches of water per week during the growing season is required to produce maximum yield. To deal with the issue of declining water and greater demand, there is need to focus on conservation strategies which included the immediate erection of new dams, Adoption of water management strategies and above all implementation of all these strategies. Erection of new dams in need of the hour. Currently, the biggest dams, Mangla and Terbella cannot meet the demand for water. Dams have specific life and the addition of silt gradually decreases their water storage capacity. Therefore, immediate implementation of projects regarding construction of new dams would be helpful to meet the future demand for water.
The significance of small dams and reservoirs cannot be denied. In the coming future, farmers have to build their own reservoirs to store and properly manage water. Adoption of modern techniques for proper management of presently available water could help us to overcome the shortage of water. It could be used judicially and according to the crop and soil evapotranspiration requirements. In addition, scientifically approved agronomic practices of water savage like sowing of crops on ridges/ beds should be adopted by the farmers to best utilize the available water.
Owing to Pakistan’s worsening water availability for agriculture and other uses, the Indus River System Authority also recommended building at least two mega water reservoirs. Currently, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam is in pipeline with the consensus of all provinces. It would be built through local resources, international donors however China has shown cold shoulder and is reluctant to loan its funds.
Post-Indus Waters Treaty, river inflows have dwindled whereas population growth has continued unabated. In 2010, a water management expert associated with the Punjab Irrigation Department said that our annual water availability was 1,000 cubic meter per person and these figures were based on population projections. The 2017 census data changes the water availability equation altogether making our annual per capita fresh water around 850 cubic meters; it puts us in seriously water-scarce countries’ basket. Our diminishing river inflows can be attributed to the increasing number of dams our upstream neighbor continues to build on our rivers and lower-than-normal precipitation in the catchment areas because of climate change. The tale of our ineptitude continues. Lack of ample reservoirs to store monsoon inflows and dry winters put extra pressure on our aquifer. Our farmers and our urban water supply facilities pump huge amounts of precious groundwater. In Punjab alone, there are some 1.2m tube wells performing agricultural, urban and industrial duties. We are pumping far more than we are putting back into the aquifer. Experts say Pakistan has around 3 MAF to 4 MAF shortfall of groundwater discharge annually, and our aquifer is receding at an alarming rate. Rainwater harvesting and partially treated sewage lagoons for groundwater recharge are two available solutions but we are light years away from adopting these on a large scale.
Pakistan is already a water-scarce country and we are likely to be disproportionately ravaged by climate change in the near future. For its water needs, the country is dependent on India abiding by the Indus Waters Treaty; with the Modi government threatening to pull out of the agreement, there is an urgent need to better prepare for the future. The water policy of Pakistan includes plans to double Pakistan’s water storage capabilities, using water more efficiently in the agricultural sector, reducing water loss in transport and conveyance and modernizing the country’s irrigation system. A National Water Council will be established to oversee the implementation of this policy. All the goals mentioned in the water policy are laudable and once the CCI approves it, the government needs to immediately start enforcing it. The problem, as always, is that merely stating goals is not sufficient in itself. The success of the national water policy depends on whether we can turn aspiration into reality.
According to Global Water Intelligence, a leading consultancy and publication focusing on water issues, “around 1% of the world’s population is dependent on desalinated water to meet their daily needs, but by 2025, the UN expects 14% (meaning more than 1 billion) of the world’s population to be encountering water scarcity. Unless people get radically better at water conservation, the desalination industry is the only way forward.
We are lucky enough to have a coastline that can be dotted with desalination plants and allow for our cities’ populations to be sustainable, while the water coming through rivers and lakes can be utilized appropriately for agricultural needs, which are all the more necessary for our food security and feed our growing population. Pakistan aspires to become one of the 10 largest economies in the world by 2047. Given the importance of water to Pakistan’s economy, getting water resource management right will be essential to realizing this goal. Water issues need to be resolved expediently for the sake of peace and prosperity in the country. We owe this to our future generations.
Published in Melange Intl. Magazine in July 2018.