Water crisis – impacts and management in Pakistan

Water is essential to sustain quality of life on earth. This limited commodity has a direct bearing on almost all sectors of economy. In Pakistan its significance is more than ordinary due to the farming nature of the economy. Water scarcity is the lack of enough available water resources to meet the demands of water usage within a region. Water scarcity involves water stress, water shortage or deficits, and water crisis.


Asia, situated primarily in the eastern and northern hemispheres, is the worlds largest and most populated continent and water is a serious constraint in Asia, China. An arid country, Pakistan has in most areas of agriculture a monsoon climate, depends profoundly on annual glacier melts and monsoon rains and there might be plentiful rainfall during the wet season and then a very extended dry season where crop production depends very heavily on irrigation water. Pakistan Water Partnership (PWP) states that in Pakistan the total available surface water is about 153 million acre feet (MAF) and the total ground water reserves are roughly 24 MAF, of which a substantial part has been excavated without allowing for natural restore. Over-pumping of groundwater for agriculture, industry or domestic use comes at a sharp ecological price. It disrupts the natural hydrologic cycle causes rivers and wetlands to dry up, the ground to flop and fish and wildlife and trees to die.

More than two billion people worldwide live in regions facing water scarcity and in Pakistan this is a principally acute crisis. Pakistan is now a water scarce country at 1200 m3 per capita per year. Based on current projections, water availability (per capita) will be 855m3 by the year 2020. The increasing pressures of population and industrialization have already placed greater demands on water, with an ever growing number and intensity of local and regional conflicts over its availability and use. Water and agricultural sectors are probably to be the most sensitive to climate change. Fresh water availability is likely to be highly susceptible to the expected climate change. While the frequency and severity of floods would ultimately increase in river deltas. The arid and semi-arid regions could experience severe water stress. According to an estimate today 1.2 billion people lack safe drinking water and 2.4 billion lack access to basic sanitation and the situation is simply getting worse.

Water resources of Pakistan:

The water resources of Pakistan include surface water, rainfall, and groundwater. The extent of availability of these resources is location specific.

1. Surface Water Resources

Surface water resources of Pakistan are chiefly based on the flows of the Indus River and its tributaries. Five major tributaries assembling its eastern side are Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. A number of small tributaries also link the Indus towards its western side. The Indus River alone delivers 65% of total river flows, while the part of Jhelum and Chenab is 17 and 19 % respectively. After the Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan (1960), the availability of water to Pakistan is restricted to the three western rivers, namely Indus, Jhelum and Chenab, while India is permitted to divert flows of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej. During the current century, the Indus Basin has developed the largest contiguous irrigation-system in the world. The system comprises of Indus River and its main tributaries, 3 major reservoirs (Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma), 19 barrages/headworks, 12 link canals, 45 canal commands and some 99,000 watercourses.

2. Rainfall:

About 70 per cent of the annual rainfall occurs in the months of June to September. The mean annual rainfall distribution in Pakistan has a broad regional variation. Rainfall is neither sufficient nor regular. The intensity of rainfall and the volume of down pour are much more than can be utilized readily. A large part of the rainfall, therefore, either floods the riverine areas cause far-reaching miseries and damages or flows into the sea without any economic benefit to the country. In the Sindh plains, high-intensity rainfall occurs, southern Punjab and northern Sindh are the areas of very low yearly rainfall less than 152 mm, districts of Jhelum, Rawalpindi, Attock and Mianwali, receive high rainfall, above the average of 635 mm per year. The winter rains are usually pervasive. Northern and northwestern area of NWFP and the northern areas of Baluchistan receive comparatively high order of rainfall during winter. The present contribution of rain to crops in the irrigated areas is assessed about 6 MAF.

3. Groundwater Resources:

Most of the groundwater resources of Pakistan exist in the Indus Plain, covering from Himalayan foothills to Arabian Sea, and are stored in alluvial deposits and is blessed with extensive unconfined aquifer, which is fast becoming the supplemental source of water for irrigation. The aquifer has been built due to direct recharge from natural precipitation, river flow, and the continued seepage from the conveyance-system of canals, distributaries, watercourses and application losses in the irrigated lands during the last 90 years.

Causes of water scarcity:

We live in an agricultural region and water is crucial for survival, Pakistan is fast moving from being a water stressed country to a water-scarce country mainly because of its high population growth, manipulation of ground water, pollution, poor repair in water infrastructure and financially no sustainability of water management system. Chashma, Mangla, and Tarbela are primarily use for irrigation purposes and also to provide electricity to a nation of nearly 199 million people. The gross capacity of these dams has reduced because of sedimentation, a continual process. The Himalayan glacier, whose ice melt refills the Indus Rivers annual freshwater, is receding by about one meter the approximate equivalent of 3.3 feet per year due to global warming.

The other vital concerns to water scarcity are annual and periodic variability in accessibility to surface water and influence of global warming, reduction in capacity of storage reservoirs due to sedimentation, increase in native and industrial demands and resultant reduction in provisions for irrigation, poor delivery-efficiency in irrigation and municipal water supply systems, and deterioration of water-quality due to dumping of crude urban sewage and agricultural drainage waste, reducing groundwater tables due to over exploitation, salt-water incursion due to up-welling from underlying saline aquifer and deteriorating performance of public tube wells, resulting in increased pumping costs.

Impacts of water shortage:

Water crisis in the country has spread deep concern. The alarming drop in water level has also led to a serious shortage in hydraulic power and these are genuine apprehensions if the condition lingers on for some time more, the energy crisis would excavate as soon as the water level goes further down in Mangla and Tarbela.

Water shortage has severely affected the agricultural sector of Pakistan which heavily depends on agro based economy. The farming lands of the Punjab and Sindh, mostly depend on canal water irrigation as in some areas underground water is salty. Present water crisis, if continued, would lessen the production of rice, wheat and sugarcane etc. The scarcity is threatening to create famine like situation across Pakistan. No doubt all the barrages, dams and canals played a crucial role in the agricultural sector, but at the same time it has showed itself a severe hazard for the soil, causing water logging and salinity due to natural percolation of water from the canal banks.

The direct bearings of water crises in Pakistan have decreased crops, range land, forest productivity and water level. Instead, it has augmented livestock, wildlife and human beings death rates and spoiled the wildlife and fish habitats.

There are also some social impacts of water crisis in Pakistan, which have primarily involved public safety, health problems, and clashes between the provinces over water usage. It has also reduced the quality of life. Unsafe drinking water is responsible for several diseases including cholera, malaria, dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid and gastroenteritis.

Environmental fatalities in Pakistan are the result of damages to plant and animal species, wildlife, degradation of landscape quality, the loss of biodiversity, air and water quality and the social destruction, caused by the drought. It may increase pressure on the societal structure of the country which may increase poverty, social conflict and culture.

Lastly, water scarcity has several political implications. Numerous disputes have break out between Punjab and Sindh over water use and distribution. As more and more water is conveyed to support Punjabs farming industry, there is less water in Sindh for use in consumption, sanitation, and environmental maintenance. By some accounts, the Sindhi portion of the Indus has shrunk to the size of a meager canal.

Management strategies:

Achieving the major challenge of boosting agricultural efficiency and firming food security needs to improve the management, storage, and pricing of irrigation water. Keeping in view the prevalent critical state regarding water crisis in the country, the current military regime has prospered in launching its “2025 Vision Program”. The program mainly comprises the projects of Greater Thal Canal, Gomal Zam Dam, , Quetta water Project, Chasma Right Bank Canal, Reini Canal, Katchi Canal and to raise the height of Mngla Dam, which are planned to build in various parts of the country. Increases in storing capacity to manage periods of low snowmelt and low rainfall are necessary, as well as the rehabilitation of the distribution system to decrease losses. Wastage of water from canal through percolation can be avoided by lining.

To overcome the prevailing water crises, proper use of water in agricultural sector is necessary by tapping the ground potential and better management, which aims at decreasing the conveyance losses and promoting improved agronomic practices on the farm.

The growing problem of availability of pure drinking water can be handled by drilling more and more tube wells in the rural areas particularly in Thar and Baluchistan. Moreover low-cost drinking water can be obtained in coastline by installing low cost water treatment plants that use solar energy for the purification of sea water. Regulating ground water pumpage by issuance of licenses to check overdraft of aquifer, improved water management for increasing cropping intensity with river line area, technical land leveling, high irrigation efficacy technology including drip and sprinkler, consolidation of institutional capacity building, improving economic sustainability, better and more effective use of funds, harness the uncultured lands for irrigation purpose, storage of flood water during Monsoon season are important management practices to lessen the water losses.


The general behavior of the masses towards water as to take it a free commodity is one of the main reason about its waste. They do not care for wasting billions of gallons of water, daily without using it.

A big investment in the repair of existing dams and the large scale construction of new water storage is simple solution of problem. As the former examples reveal, Pakistans water issues are multi-dimensional. There is no single, all-encompassing problem, but instead multiple, interconnected problems. Therefore, Pakistan needs to completely rethink its entire approach to its water resources. One suggested method is to introduce water usage fees, particularly for those who use water to irrigate their crops.

Another solution includes the introduction of better technologies to small farmers. Increasing the use of inputs such as hybrid seeds, fertilizers and new farming equipment can raise crop yields while making the most out of each drop of water used. Finally, Pakistan needs to change its mentality towards preservation. The approach for the coming epoch must focus on re-education and conservation instead of thinking about how and where to build new dams.

The debate on water distribution, therefore, should be in relation to uses and users, not among political or administrative units. A collective approach is needed individuals and corporate inhabitants must engage with decision-makers across the board concerning balanced and responsible use of water. Industries, agricultural industries and corporations must move to micro irrigation, pollution control, recycling and reuse of water on larger scales.


Pakistan is going through the worst water scarcity of history. No doubt Pakistans water crisis is principally a manmade problem so we have to change the way we think about water, the way we use water and the way we dispose-off waste water. Implementation of the recommendations will enable the country to meet the challenges, and attain the objectives of efficient, integrated, environmentally and economically sustainable development and management of limited water resources. Conservation of groundwater aquifers as well as more resourceful use of freshwater derived from rivers is the only way to guarantee that the terrible projection of disastrous regional water wars does not materialize. The solution of prevailing water shortage requires national consensus over proposed projects and their implementation in letter and spirit. At the same time it will allow us to utilize every drop of our water for our bright future.

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