Pakistan’s Water Crisis: Challenges & Response
For centuries, Pakistan’s agriculture which is the backbone of the economy is heavily dependent on the availability of irrigation water, estimated to be responsible for 25 % of the productivity of any crop. However, over six decades, Pakistan has become a water-abundant to water-scarce country.
More than water availability, it is the mismanagement of water resources, compounded by a growing population, rapid urbanisation, storage deficit, and climate change which is responsible for this crisis. Bad agriculture choices, flood irrigation, a lack of hybrid seeding, and poor water management are putting a heavy burden on water resources. There are several issues with water management, including a lack of basin-wise water resource management and no proper system to stop evaporation and pilferage.
This article analyses Pakistan’s water crisis from different perspectives and suggests that we must frame a comprehensive water policy that reflects its priorities of growth and development.
Water is the lifeline of the political economy of Pakistan, an agricultural economy with 70% population depending on agriculture, directly or indirectly. According to a recent IMF report, Pakistan has the world’s fourth-highest rate of water use while in terms of water intensity rate — the cubic meters amount of water used per unit of GDP, the country ranks first in the world, showing the extent of its economy’s dependence on water.
However, over six decades Pakistan has not only become a water-scarce country but also facing some daunting challenges resulting from this water scarcity. More than water availability, it is the mismanagement of water resources, compounded by a growing population, rapid urbanisation, storage deficit, and climate change which is responsible for this crisis. Bad agriculture choices, flood irrigation, a lack of hybrid seeding, and poor water management including a lack of an adequate mechanism to harvest rain-water/flash floods and a proper system to stop evaporation and pilferage, are putting a heavy burden on water resources.
There are five major dimensions of Pakistan’s water crisis relating to its industrial, agricultural, and domestic use namely
A. Water Scarcity
The first dimension of Pakistan’s water crisis is water scarcity; slowly but surely Pakistan has been inching towards a scarcity threshold of 1000 cubic meters per person per year for the last six decades of her existence as an independent nation-state. During the 1950s, the per capita availability of water in Pakistan was 5,600 cubic meters. However, as per the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Pakistan reached the “water stress line” in 1990 and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005.
Pakistan’s journey from water abundance to water scarcity didn’t happen overnight. Some of the reasons for this water scarcity are as follows
1. Reduced Supply
One of the root causes of this water scarcity is the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan, whereby Pakistan abdicated its rights over three eastern tributaries of the Indus River. Out of the total inflow of water in the Indus River System of 117 MAF, Pakistan now receives around 80 MAF.
Pakistan is located in a semi-arid area where annual rainfall is less than 240 mm which is currently inadequate in terms of meeting the requirements. According to the IMF, Pakistan is already the third most water-stressed country in the world as the historic average surface water availability of 104 MAF per annum, is reducing due to the dearth of water reservoirs, siltation in dams, and the looming threat of climate change.
Changing rain patterns and resulting droughts due to climate change are exacerbating the water crisis. Moreover, the rising sea levels due to melting glaciers and floods are causing freshwater to become salty. Glaciers are the main source of water for rivers. They supply 303.6 million cubic feet every year to Asian rivers, including the Indus in Pakistan. But, due to global warming, glaciers are fast melting, which is either resulting in floods or a decline in water availability in the rivers.
The additional supply of groundwater through tube wells is also under threat because of fast-depleting aquifers and soaring prices of diesel and electricity. It is estimated that the shortfall in 2025 would comprise almost two-thirds of the entire Indus River system’s current annual average flow. In effect, in the absence of immediate action, Pakistan could face the not-too-distant prospect of becoming a water-starved wasteland.
2. Increased Consumption
Although Pakistan has been able to reduce its population growth rates, its population is still increasing at increasingly unsustainable rates. When Pakistan came into being, the total population was less than 40 million. The per capita availability of water was 5,600 cubic meters. Today, the population has increased to 220 million and the per capita availability has decreased to 1000 cubic meters. Consequently, all the resources, including water are under pressure.
Increasing prosperity with its attendant increased consumption requires more water for the production of goods as well as meeting other needs It becomes all the more serious when we realise that her underground aquifers are rapidly depleting while their recharge rate is abysmally low. For example, the aquifer in the Indus Basin, the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy, is the second most stressed in the world. In most areas groundwater tables have fallen by up to 100 feet within the last decade or so.
3. Less than Optimal Water Use Efficiency
Another major reason for water scarcity in Pakistan is outdated irrigation methods. Currently, 97 percent of the fresh water in Pakistan is used in the agriculture sector. Due to a lack of research and development, Pakistan is still using outmoded methods of irrigation like flood irrigation which results in the wastage of about 50 to 60 percent of applied irrigation water.
Similarly, a lot of water is lost from water heads to farms, because of technical deficiencies and human failure. Water evaporation aside, a lot of it is lost in seepage during conveyance because the beds and sides of our canals are not lined. The same is the case with the distributaries and water channels.
Some crop choices are outright ill-informed. Sugarcane, for example, is twice as water-intensive as rice and four times as intensive as wheat.
B. Water Disputes with India/Afghanistan
The second dimension of Pakistan’s water crisis is its water disputes with its two neighbours namely India, and Afghanistan. For almost sixty years the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has survived diplomatic tensions between the two countries but it has come under stress due to India’s upstream water infrastructure projects. Food security issues in South Asia are becoming acute, leading to desperate attempts by India to ensure an adequate water supply by building dams upstream. Pakistan genuinely fears that India will use these dams to control how much water flows down into Pakistan via the Indus.
Similarly, Pakistan fears that India has been trying its best to deprive Pakistan of the water inflow coming through the Kabul river by building upstream dams inside Afghanistan. The Kabul River is fundamental to meeting the demands for irrigation, potable water, and power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). It not only irrigates three districts of this fertile region –Charsada, Peshawar, and Nowshera — but is also the sole source of drinking water for millions living around the basin. The Afghan government recently announced that they will soon commence work on the construction of the $236 million Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River, a component of Afghanistan’s India-backed ambitious plans of building 12 dams on this river.
C. Inter-provincial/intra-provincial Water Disputes
The third dimension of Pakistan’s water crisis is the inter-provincial & intra-provincial water distribution issues. The Water Apportionment Accord signed into effect on 21 March 1991 is the most significant piece of water legislation in Pakistan after the Indus Waters Treaty. Based largely upon the historical use of waters of the Indus Basin rivers by the provinces, it allocated Punjab 47%, Sindh 42% Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 8%, and Baluchistan 3% of the water.
Although IRSA & CCI are the two best forums to resolve any water issue, the Accord failed to end long-simmering tensions between Sindh and Pakistan over water sharing. Sindh worries extraction of water for dam building and irrigation in upstream provinces will not only deprive the region of the water it needs but the accord does not guarantee a minimum “environmental flow” of river water through the province and into the Arabian Sea. In 2005, a team of international consultants assessed water demands for the Indus Delta suggesting 10 MAF be given to Sindh for this purpose
Even in provinces, there are complaints of unjust distribution of canal water, and big landlords depriving poor farmers of their just share. Since the 1980s, domestic water supply and irrigation management have become more participatory and privatised. This has benefited the economic and political elite and has deprived poor farmers of their due access to irrigated water.
D. Water logging, Salinity, Sodicity
The fourth dimension of Pakistan’s water crisis is unfortunately the unintended consequences of the very irrigation system sustaining its agriculture for the last 6 decades. Currently, around 25% percent of the cultivable land is waterlogged, a side effect of canal irrigation, rendering vast tracts of our arable land unfit for cultivation due to the presence of excess water just beneath the surface. Salinity invariably follows waterlogging; once evaporated, this water leaves traces of salt which over some time have reached such high levels that growth of vegetation is impossible. Presently, more than 10% of the land is saline. Thirdly, sodicity. We have been irrigating our lands with canal water which though very good for the lands, contains salt. For 6/7 decades of canal irrigation that residue of salt has now started adversely impacting the fertility level of the irrigated lands.
E. Declining Water Quality
The fifth dimension of Pakistan’s water crisis relates to the deteriorating quality of water used in our homes or to irrigate our agricultural lands is a serious issue that unfortunately has never got the attention it deserves. There are three dimensions of this problem.
1. Firstly, Pakistan is located in an area that was once the basin of the Tethys Ocean. With water receding, this piece of land emerged but there are still pockets where the seawater is present. Over-pumping of groundwater in certain areas has depleted the aquifers so fast that we are now pumping out that seawater, adversely affecting the fertility of the lands.
2. Secondly, the non-scientific use of pesticides and fertilizers by farmers is also one of the major causes of water pollution. Excessive use of these chemical inputs seeping into the groundwater or underground aquifers has now resulted in their leaching into the land so deep and so extensively that they have not only adversely affected the quality of land but also the nutritious quality of the agricultural produce.
3. Thirdly, the indiscriminate discharge of municipal waste and industrial effluents into canals/rivers has also resulted in aggravating the above-mentioned problem.
Keeping in view the importance of water for the economic security of Pakistan in the backdrop of its gradual shortfall in its availability and requirements in the years to come, particularly when climate change is compounding the already situation, there is an urgent need to formulate a long term strategy for increasing the water availability, reducing its losses and using it more efficiently. Salient features of this strategy could be
1. Formulation of a Vision
Any transformation starts with a vision backed by total commitment at the political and executive levels. The same is the case with tackling the impending water crisis. After a long delay, Pakistan formulated its first National Water Policy in 2018. It is a good working document that needs a strong political commitment for its implementation. After all, it is the strong political commitment at the highest level in terms of resource allocation and providing guidance that is the most critical but also the most difficult element for the successful and sustainable implementation of any plan of action. If it is there, even a rudimentary legal framework and institutional structure can work wonders; if not, even the best of the above would not deliver.
It is incumbent upon civil servants to help the political elite realise how crucial water security is for the realization of their goal to make the country a just, prosperous, and modern nation. Try to convince them that water security is more important for the economic growth of a country than motorways and other infrastructural projects.
2. Framing of Legal/Regulatory Framework
After the formulation of a long-term vision where the country would be in the medium to long term in terms of water security, the bureaucracy needs to assist the elected representatives in framing a comprehensive legal regulatory framework that is in sync with the globally accepted best practices. Some of the fields requiring clear-cut policy formulation and legislative enactment are private-public partnerships in water storage projects, waste-water treatment, the introduction of high-efficiency irrigation technology, etc.
For this we do not need to reinvent the wheel; any good legislation already in force anywhere in the world can be adapted and enforced with suitable amendments. This framework must be approved by the competent forums for its institutional legitimacy and to provide confidence to the stakeholders in its long-term continuity irrespective of periodic regime changes.
Similarly, Provinces should rationalize their respective water-related legislation including local water usage rules and implementation of integrated water resource management. Water tariffs should reflect the scarcity value of water to encourage the farmers to use it more efficiently.
3. Creation of Institutional Arrangements
To implement the legislation approved you need a robust but flexible institutional framework that must meet two crucial tests-Vertical Alignment from the central to provincial and local tiers of the state. At the same time, it needs to be linked horizontally with the public-sector institutions as well as the private-sector entities at various levels of the vertical chain above. Again, you do not have to be entirely innovative. You can find extremely useful and effective models from across the globe. Encourage public-private partnerships on water-saving techniques in the cultivation of different water terrains, and other innovative designs of groundwater recharge dams and rainwater harvesting. Generous subsidies on this account are justified.
4. Building Water Reservoirs
Pakistan receives around 145 million acre-feet of water every year but it can only save around 13.7 million acre-feet which is merely 10 percent of the average annual flow of its rivers, far below the world’s average storage capacity of 40 percent. Pakistan has only built 150 dams so far for water storage. Among them, most of the dams were built from 1960 to 1975.
On the other hand, India, which is thrice bigger than Pakistan, has built more than 5000 dams. Pakistan has only two big reservoirs, Mangla and Tarbela Dam, and it can save water only for 30 days. On the contrary, India can store water for 190 days whereas the US can do it for 900 days. Moreover, Pakistan is wasting 29 million acre-feet of its floodwater due to the lack of storage capacities. In 2010 alone, Pakistan lost 25 million acres of water in floods.
Pakistan, therefore, direly needs to build dams and reservoirs to prevent water wastage and meet the burgeoning water demands. While the construction of big dams has become a political issue, we should construct more small and mini dams to prevent water losses in floods and meet the demands of water.
5. Lining Sides of Canals/Water channels
Although 100% lining of beds and sides of canals and water channels is neither economical nor desirable as their seepage recharges the aquifers which is crucial for tube well irrigation, sides of the canals/ water distributaries must be lined for at least 50 to 60 % of their total length. However, the water channels which reach the farms should be lined at the basin and sides for at least half of their total length. Another option worth exploring is the Indian model of installing solar panels on the canals. Besides saving vast tracts of land for establishing solar power parks, it would also help in reducing the evaporation of water.
6. Research & Development
No one can deny the importance of R&D in devising ways and means to save water. One of the areas needing particular attention in this respect is developing drought-resistant varieties of crops, vegetables, and fruits. Growing water-intensive crops is already exacerbating the water crisis in Pakistan. There is a dire need to shift from more to less water-intensive crops. While the rest of the world has expanded its export base and imported water-intensive crops, Pakistan has stuck at traditional modes. There is a dire need for Pakistan must grow less water-intensive crops and expand its export base to industrial products.
7. Smart Technology for Saving Water
In a rapidly globalising world, there is no hindrance to accessing smart technologies being developed and used to save water all over the world. Latest irrigation methods like drip irrigation, sprinklers, hydroponic/aeroponic cultivation, vertical farming, etc are now household names. While there is virtually no wastage of water through evaporation by drip irrigation, a sprinkler washes the leaves of plants and increases photosynthesis.
There is a need for the economical management of groundwater pumping; no subsidy should be given for tube wells or electricity as it encourages indiscriminate use of water. Similarly, reusing urban wastewater for watering lawns, and parks and for use in urban and peri-urban gardening are not only technically feasible but financially viable propositions. It should be the responsibility of the municipal/local government to enter into joint venture partnerships with the private sector to establish such plants. Water thus treated should be purchased by the municipal governments on a long-term basis.
8. Awareness Campaign
Last but not least, the masses must be made aware of the severity of the issue; everyone should play one’s part in saving water in every conceivable way. In this regard, the media, and civil society organisations can play an extremely important role. Similarly, there is an urgent need to apprise the farmers about the looming threat of climate change which will play havoc with our irrigation water. They should be taught to store and capture water, use water-saving technology and adopt water-saving practices such as drip irrigation, capturing and storing water, Irrigation, scheduling, planting of drought-tolerant crops
Keeping in view the critical importance of water for an agricultural country like Pakistan, water security is as important for its security as securing its borders from external aggression. However, declining water availability, poor water management, and its inefficient use in the face of increasing needs for water due to rapid population growth and increasing living standards are posing formidable challenges for Pakistan’s water sector. It is, therefore, the right time to formulate a long-term policy to ensure that Pakistan becomes a water-safe country as soon as possible by adopting appropriate adaptive and mitigating measures
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