Water Stressed

Spearhead Analysis – 18.11.2016

By Farrukh Karamat
Senior Research Coordinator, Spearhead Research

water-stressIn his 1995 movie Waterworld, Kevin Kostner presented a post-apocalyptic view of a World starved for usable water. It seemed a bit far-fetched at the time, but could actually be a stark reality for some countries in the not too distant future. Anatol Lieven issued a dire warning, “Water shortages present the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan as a state and a society.” While the warning might be a bit overstated it nevertheless merits serious attention and efforts on the part of policy makers. Pakistan’s water situation is in dire straits with water availability having fallen from a level of 5,000 cubic meters per capita in the early 1950’s to less about 1,200 cubic meters per capita today. The classification for a water scarce country is 1,000 cubic meters per capita. It would seem that Pakistan is fast approaching the water-scarce designation deadline of 2035 as portrayed by some experts, while others feel it may reach that milestone earlier in 2020. Such an eventuality would create serious social, economic, and political implications for Pakistan continuing as a viable state.

The impending water crisis as an issue is rarely discussed within the sphere of Pakistani politics, or debated on a policy level, or highlighted by the media. Yet, this might be the single most critical issue that could actually jeopardize the existence of Pakistan. With the United Nations having projected a population of 263 Million by 2050, the country needs to assess its options for providing adequate usable water for agriculture, industry, and human consumption in the face of rapidly dwindling reserves. The Himalayan glacier ice melt that feeds the River Indus with freshwater is estimated to be receding by approximately one meter – the equivalent of  3.3 feet – per year due to global warming. This has had a significant impact on the water availability in Pakistan.

Alongside the rapidly rising population there has been an increasing urbanization trend in Pakistan, which is placing tremendous pressure on the already fragile and insufficient utility services within major cities. Displacement of families as a result of the War on Terror has added to this dimension. Pakistan has to increase the usable water availability and sanitation facilities in urban hubs to be able to accommodate the growing population influx, in addition to tackling the looming issue of water scarcity. Some estimates put around 40-55 Million people in Pakistan without regular access to drinking water, and around 600+ children dying each day as a result of waterborne illnesses.

The water scarcity is expected to negatively impact the already declining agricultural sector. The sector remains the major employer in the country, while achieving one of the lowest crop yields per unit of water in the world. It is estimated that Pakistan uses a massive 90% of its water resources within its agriculture sector. With increasing scarcity agricultural yields will continue to decline and the sector will continue to place unemployment pressure on the broader economy. Parts of Sindh are drying up and the recent successive droughts in the Thar region are manifestation of this alarming situation. With a surging population water from the Indus River continues to be diverted upstream to the Punjab to meet the growing demand for agricultural and urban consumption. As a result, in Sindh, the Indus continues to shrink. This has impacted the livelihoods around the river basin and led to the destruction of mangroves and the ecosystem in the region. To compound the problem in 2009 the Federal Government agreed to lease out six million acres of farmland to foreign investors for crop cultivation, one year after allegedly signing away more than 320,000 hectares of land to the United Arab Emirates. In a country already starved for water it is pertinent to note where the water will come from to support these agriculture-intensive, large-scale farming schemes.

Kaiser Bengali, a Pakistan-based economist, has warned that Pakistan would not be able to address the water crisis without a “paradigm shift” in the way Pakistanis think about water management. According to him the traditional paradigm is overwhelmingly “technocentric” and emphasizes engineering solutions and water storage, where water is treated as “a mere raw material,” and “technical and scientific knowledge” is deployed “to harness it to its fullest capacity.” He feels that this approach is increasingly unsustainable as a result of shortfalls both in water supply and in the funding required for operating, maintaining, and investing in the sector. According to him there is a need for a new “socio-centric” strategy that relies more on indigenous physical and human resource management and is more “resource-efficient and ecologically conducive.” This means, that Pakistan must move from “a fetish” with the expansion of water supplies through water storage (such as dams) to a new emphasis on the conservation of limited water resources. It must shift away from large-scale capital- and technology-intensive, environmentally degrading solutions to a management-intensive, ecologically balanced approach that relies on indigenous technology.

Primitive farming practices contribute around 25% of water losses from the water delivered to the farms. With farmers paying a flat amount per day instead of by the quantity of water used for irrigation, there is a lot of wastage. A number of farmers and households have also resorted to extracting ground water through tube wells, which has led to decline in the level of the water table while negatively impacting the salt content in the soil, and being a contributor to the deteriorating environment.

Within the major cities there is a severe shortage of proper water treatment plants. With industrial and household waste water being dumped into the waterways, the element of pollution is rapidly rising within the rivers and groundwater systems. This water is then being used for irrigation purposes and also for providing drinking water to farm animals. As a result the entire food chain has been contaminated and has become a public health issue.

As a result of low tariffs, inadequate cost recoveries and administrative inefficiencies, the financial position of urban water supply and sewerage sector agencies is very poor. Public sector investments in the water supply and sanitation sector remain inadequate. Pakistan spends around one quarter of a percentage point of its GDP on water supply and sanitation. Sanitary conditions are appalling. Water is a key factor of production in manufacturing industry, power generation, mining and agriculture. It sustains the natural environment which is why it is not only the quantity of water which is critical but its quality also. For this reason, both sanitation services and economic activities which can pollute water and render it unfit for use must be controlled.

Pakistan has to reassess the water issue and come up with viable alternatives to avoid any catastrophic event. It would take a lot of time to evaluate, formulate policy and implement viable solutions and the sooner that this process is initiated the better. With wastage of water, inter-provincial disputes, heightened corruption, and a crumbling infrastructure the problems are many, in addition to the dwindling water reserves. Pakistan seems to be following a culture of building sub-standard facilities, which are then subject to neglect, till a rebuild is necessitated due to the facilities not being in usable condition. As a result of water-line losses within cities and the seepage from the irrigation system it is estimated that almost one-third of the water is lost in transit prior to reaching its final destination. While there is a need to build dams for establishing water reservoirs, it is equally important to rebuild and repair the water transportation system to stem the losses.

Various methods have been proposed for water conservation:

  • The introduction of water usage fees, within cities and particularly in the agricultural sector could be a source of considerable revenue and would act as a deterrent to wastage of this precious resource. The revenue from this could then be used to rebuild the crumbling delivery system and stem the water line losses.

  • The use of drip irrigation technology could significantly enhance water efficiency, by slowly introducing water directly to the roots of plant through a system of pipes and valves for maximum efficiency. While expensive to initially install, the government could provide subsidies or incentives to initiate this project across Pakistan, given its long term benefits.

  • An approach to re-educate and conserve has to be instilled amongst the people of Pakistan. There needs to be a focus on recycling water and stretching the use of existing reserves. For a country with the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world, the problem is not the size of the system, but the efficiency of the system.

  • There is a need to improve efficiency and competence within Pakistan’s bloated water bureaucracy and for providing central oversight over provincial irrigation programs. Additionally, in Pakistan’s cities, one centrally located public water utility may be more cost-effective and beneficial than several different facilities dispersed throughout the city.

If Pakistan fails to act now, by 2025 total water availability will have barely changed from the current availability of 236 billion cubic meters, while total water demand is projected to be about 338 billion cubic meters – a gap of 100 billion cubic meters. This suggests that by 2025, Pakistan’s water shortfall could be five times the amount of water that can presently be stored throughout the vast system of reservoirs. This underscores the need for immediate action by the concerned authorities.