Pakistani farmers harvest wheat in a field in the suburbs of Charsadda, northwest Pakistan. Pakistan, researchers predict, could be the most water stressed country by 2040. Image Credit: Agencies

While Pakistan has done very well for its military security, the country has not lived up to threat its faces from the shortage of water. Though the water problem has been mitigated to an extend by the signing of Indus Water Treaty in 1961, the country has not demonstrated the need to conserve and then use water wisely.

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) report a couple of years back ranks Pakistan third in the world among countries facing the highest threat of water shortage. The Fund warned that Pakistan is dangerously close to insufficiency per capita threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. In addition, reports by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) warn that Pakistan could reach absolute water scarcity by 2025.

Pakistan, researchers predict, could be the most water stressed country by 2040. According to a FAO criterion Pakistan is likely to become water scant i.e. less than five hundred cubic meters per capita annually by 2035. Pakistan’s amount of water used per unit of GDP is world’s highest, suggesting that no country’s economy is more water intensive than Pakistan’s.

Surrounded by 7,259 glaciers with 2,066 cubic kilometres of ice, the country is endowed with more glaciers than any other country in the world and yet the country is at the risk of water scarcity.

Nearly three-quarter of a century after independence 30 million Pakistanis have no access to clean water. This comprises an overwhelming number of people living in 24 major cities. Lacking civic supplies people are compelled to extract groundwater. There were 20,000 such wells in Pakistan in 1960 and now, in the absence of adequate regulation and enforcement, there are over one million. As a consequence, not only has the groundwater quantity depleted, it is contaminated with industrial waste and municipal effluent.

Facing opposition from Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, two of Pakistan’s military rulers, General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf-each ruling nearly a decade, balked at the chances of building the World Bank and ADB approved Kalabagh Dam on River Indus.

Pakistan’s two main dams are old — the last one Tarbela commissioned in 1976 — are running on reduced capacity due to silting. Twice during the last two years they have reached the dead storage levels. This limits the water supply during the dry season and contributes to flooding during the rainy season.

With political expediency overtaking national interests, Pakistan wastes nearly 29 million-acre feet of water during the flooding season due to inadequate reservoirs. Pakistan therefore, has only a limited 30-day storage capacity. This is measly compared to 900 days for the US. Even India has done better with four times higher capacity at 120 days.

Causes of Water Crises

At the time of independence in 1947 Pakistan was a water abundant country with 5,000 cubic meter water availability per person. With population ballooning from 60 million to over 220 million now, the average availability of water has fallen to below 1,000 cubic meter person.

Pakistan’s agrarian economy dominated by water intensive crops rice, wheat, cotton and sugar cane consumes 93 per cent of water compared to the global average of 70 per cent.

Bulk of Pakistan’s farmland is irrigated through antiquated canal system, which in addition to being inefficient, is vastly underpriced recovering only a quarter of annual operating and maintenance costs. Israel produces 70 per cent more, California 50 per cent more, and even the Indian Punjab 30 per cent more from the same amount of water.

The lack of reliable surface water has made farmers shift towards the groundwater usage, availability of which is not dependent upon seasonal flows and by its very nature easy to control. Nearly half of water for agriculture now comes from aquifers. Again, absence of regulatory framework has caused unbridled pumping leading to significant fall of water tables especially in Punjab and Sindh, becoming the second most stressed in the world.

Climate change has made monsoons in Pakistan erratic, leading to shortened season and higher intensity leading to less percolation, which does not raise groundwater level and causes heavier floods.

Corruption and mismanagement are rife within the water sector. The rural sector suffers from head and tail disparities along irrigation canals where theft and manipulation of water by the powerful is common. In the urban areas theft and selling of public water supply through tankers is a routine. Poor planning, leakage, and pathetic maintenance of water supply systems in the cities deprive the citizens from getting water even when it is available.

Pakistanis waste water habitually. Charging water through metered supply into the households is mostly nonexistent. When a fixed charge is levied people tend to waste. There is no consciousness that water is a diminishing resource and costs money to clean and distribute.

Successive governments have chosen short term, high visibility projects and have neglected long term, more sustainable hydel dams for the future of the country. Thankfully, the current PTI government under Prime Minister Imran Khan has earnestly started building Diamer Bhasha, which will be the third biggest dam of the country and Mohmand dams. Other smaller dams are planned too.

Pakistan should seriously launch a crash program to prevent water waste and conserve. Since agriculture consumes the bulk of water, Pakistan should make an immediate beginning to shift to using smart irrigation methods like sprinkler and trickling. Canal water theft should be prevented. The country should start projects to trap rain water and use it to recharge aquifers. We must also line-up all canals to prevent seepage and thus water logging.

Start a mass campaign to educate people on water conservation and simultaneously promulgate conservation laws. Strictly regulate groundwater usage and prevent its illegal extraction. In this case the state should provide clean drinking water, supply of which should be metered and charged to consumers.

Neglect of water resource management will have drastic ecological and financial consequences affecting peace and security in the region, which can be mitigated through international support.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as Pakistan’s consul general to Dubai during the mid 1990s