As Pakistan stumbles from one crises to another Pakistanis remain unmindful of a bigger crisis unfolding, which will have profound implications not only for the country’s stability but will have effects beyond its borders. The Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) warned some time back: “If the government does not take action, the country will run out of water by 2025.”
Pakistan’s water intensity rate — “the amount of water, in cubic metres, used per unit of GDP is the world’s highest.” Its per capita water availability has fallen from 5,600 cubic metres in 1960 to 1,017 cubic metres now, which is perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic metres. It is the third most water stressed country in the world, according to the IMF. Its water storage capacity has receded to less than 30 days against the minimum requirement of 120 days, which is a big national security risk. Hearing a suo moto (on its own accord) water related case of Sindh province the Chief Justice of Pakistan declared: “The water crisis issue in Pakistan is turning into a bomb.” Pakistan’s rapid population growth, urbanisation — the fastest in South Asia, water intensive farming practices and unregulated industries contribute to increasing demand but much of the problem lies with wastage, inefficient use, contamination, and absence of proper pricing structure for this valuable resource. More importantly absence of sense of direction, corruption and political instability play a key part in bringing the country to a state of water scarcity
Agriculture, producing 20 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP consumes 95 per cent of Pakistan’s fresh water and yet only 24 per cent of the operations and maintenance cost is recovered “leading to water use inefficiency and a financially unsustainable irrigation system.” Similarly, unrealistic urban water pricing — low flat rates, as few settlements have metered supplies, lead to wastage and near zero investment in clear, drinkable water supplies. An upward tariff revision will prevent wastage, generate revenue to upgrade the systems and will provide safe drinking water to the general public.
Pakistan, home to massive Himalayan glaciers, has built only three water reservoirs — the last one coming online during the 70s. Lack of storage capacity means that Pakistan oscillates between droughts and floods that cause destruction on land and the water that should be stored goes into the sea. Consequently, Pakistan extracts 74.3 per cent of its fresh water annually according to a 2016 UNDP report. This excessive pumping thus, raises serious concerns over sustainability of renewable water resources.
Pakistan’s inter-provincial discord is another reason for water scarcity. Kalabagh Dam, which all international experts agree is a necessity for Pakistan, cause of deep political divisions within, is dropped for now in the face of uncompromising positions taken against it by the smaller provinces. The consequent water scarcity worsens inter-provincial relations and could send the country into a political crisis. In the midst of this neglect ordinary Pakistanis blame India for its water crisis. Such impressions are fuelled by the country’s leadership that instead of owning up to its own failures accuse New Delhi’s construction of new dams as reason for water scarcity. Flow of river waters between India and Pakistan is governed under Indus Waters Treaty that has withstood wars and tensions between the two countries since its signing in 1960.
Unplanned urban sprawls
As the Cpec [China-Pakistan Economic Corridor] projects come on line, demand for water will grow which the existing structure is unable to provide. For Gwadar though — the hub of Cpec, the government has announced setting up of a desalination plant, which hopefully will cater for the growing needs of the fast-developing city.
Pakistan’s unplanned urban sprawls lack availability of normal civic provisions. In Karachi — Pakistan’s largest city, dearth of water compels the urban residents to buy water from the tanker truck syndicates. The truckers bring in water, of questionable quality, from distant places or steal from municipal sources and charge high prices. State functionaries collude or are powerless against these armed, criminal gangs. In Lahore, the second largest city, the increasingly shrinking River Ravi serves more as spillway to hundreds of factories instead of a source of clean water. In the absence of sewage treatment plants and no enforcement over polluting the river waters, this is the story of all major rivers in Pakistan.
But Pakistan’s problem is not only contaminated water — it is the scarcity itself. The recent census putting Pakistan beyond 207 million people and rising must cause further alarm in a country where 40,000 children under five die annually from water borne diseases and poor sanitation. With increasing burden on water resources threats to well-being of people will increase further.
Pakistan’s water crises, notwithstanding climate change is largely man made. Pakistan’s leadership need to face up to the challenge and seriously undertake construction of water reservoirs and prevent wastage which are the only longer-term solutions to the impending bomb. Blaming previous governments or India for abdication of its primary responsibility of providing essential utilities, will not solve the problem.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 2009-2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service 1973-2008 and served as Pakistan’s Consul General in Dubai during the mid 1990s.