Water Scarcity: A grave threat to Pakistan



Water is the most valuable gift given by nature and it is essential to sustain quality of life on earth. This limited commodity has a direct bearing on almost all sectors of economy. Fortunately, Pakistan is blessed with a number of water resources, with water flowing down the Karakorum and Himalayas, the worlds highest glaciers, a unique and free bounty of nature. Total earth surface area is 29.9% and the rest of area of this planet is filled with water. Unfortunately, water scarcity is still a constraint. Only one percent of total earth water is available for consumption. About 5 billion people on earth are experiencing water scarcity of various extents. In Pakistan, its significance is more than ordinary due to farming nature of economy. Pakistan has in most areas of agriculture, a monsoon climate and there might be abundant rainfall during wet season and then a very long dry period.


According to reports of World Bank (WB) and Asian Development Bank (ADB), Pakistan is one of the most water stressed countries in the world; it is likely to face an acute shortage of water in coming five years due to lack of availability of irrigation water, human and human consumption. A World Bank (WB) states that water supply has fallen from 5000 cubic meter per capita in 1950 to 1000 cubic meter per capita in 2010, and is likely to further decrease to 800 cubic meter per capita by 2020. Factors contributing in reduction of per capita available water are Skyrocket increase in population, climate change, and lack of solid vision to construct water reservoirs and misplaced use of Chenab and Jhelum by India under the Indus Water Treaty (IWT). One figure states that about 40-55 million Pakistanis have no access to regular drinking water and around 630 Pakistani children die each day due to waterborne illness of diarrhea. According to a report in 2014, 43% of Pakistans employment is in agricultural sector. This prosperous field relies on the single largest contiguous irrigation system in the world. NASA satellite date of worlds underground aquifers divulge rapidly depleting water tables. The aquifer in Indus Basin whose tributaries constitute Pakistans chief water source is the second most water stressed in the world due to rapid depletion or no recharging. Its not surprising because seven years ago, groundwater tables in different parts of Lahore had fallen up to 65 feet over a five year period. Unlike other developing countries of world, where 70 to 80 percent of fresh water resources are utilized for agricultural purposes. Pakistan consumes up to 98 percent of its water resources for agriculture. But this an appalling feat that Pakistan fosters one of the lowest crop yield per unit of water in world.


The alarming threat of water scarcity is an ignored issue in Pakistan that is rarely talked about in Pakistans politics and yet it comprises one of the biggest challenges to Pakistans survival with projected population of 263 million in the year 2050 (UNO 2012), Pakistan needs to put some serious thought into how it will meet adequate water needs required for agriculture, industry and human consumption in the face of rapidly dwindling reservoirs. The Himalayan glaciers, whose ice melt replenishes the Indus basin annual freshwater, is receding by one meter per year due to global warming. This phenomenon has had an incredible impact on Pakistans water availability. According to World Bank (WB) report of 2006, Pakistan was fast moving from being water-stressed to water-scarce country, primarily because of over-exploitation of ground water resources, deprived condition of water infrastructures and un sustainability of water management system. It is interesting that our countrys large parts have good soil, sunshine and farmers and these can get much more value from existing flows.


Pakistan always practices a cycle of Build-Neglect-Rebuild when it comes to its infrastructure. Currently, about one third of water from irrigation system is lost in delivery due to seepage and malfunctioning watercourses. Still these numbers does not faze government officials in Islamabad, as Pakistan continuous to push for the construction of new dams instead of renovating its decaying system. Another water wastage source comes from farms themselves. About one quarter of total water delivered for irrigation is wasted from poor management in rural areas; it is due to warabandi system of water management. According to this each farmer has a specific day and time to irrigate his field. The quantity of water use is irrelevant as each farmer pays a flat fee. Although this system was intended to be equitable in the face of water shortages, in reality farmer who have first access can take a lions share. Since water is not priced on usage basis, there is no rule to discourage wastage or overuse. Feudalism is also a major source, as large influential famers use major portion of water due to their power and it forces poor farmers to rely on tube wells to extract ground water.


The current status quo is characterized by provincial disputes, poor infrastructure, waste and corruption. The situation in Pakistan seems grim, but there are some steps that can be taken to ensure water security. One proposed solution is repairing and maintaining the existing canal system. This would free about 75 million acre feet of water, close to 83 million acre feet water shortfall that the IMF projects Pakistan will face in coming years. There should work on serious note on repairing of Pakistans dilapidated large dams. Tarbela has lost its 30 percent storage capacity due to siltation since 1970s. Pakistans total dam storage constitutes only 30 days of average demand. Government should introduce water usage fees, especially for those who use water for their crops. As World Bank estimated in 2005, that the water usage fee for Punjabs farmers should be around 1,800 Rs. per hectare, the real rate was around 150 Rs. per hectare. Implementation of proper pricing system will not only raise revenue for repair and maintenance of irrigation infrastructure, but it will also make large users think twice before they waste water. Another solution to overcome this situation is the introduction of better technologies for farmers. Increasing the use of hybrid seeds, fertilizers and modern innovative farming equipment can raise crop productivity while making the most out of each water drop used. A crop per drop structure is especially useful in Pakistan. According to the Virtual Water Theory, water-stressed nations should switch to high-yield, less water-intensive crops. There should use of drip irrigation technology to increase the water use efficiency. Instead of soaking an entire field with flood irrigation, put slowly water directly to plant roots through a system of pipes and valves. Presently, our irrigation department is failed to stop illegal water theft and extraction; thus irrigation distribution system needs improvement on emergency basis.


The most reasonable recommendation is to use existing resources judiciously. People wont be willing to conserve water unless they have a strong incentive to do so. Luckily, there is an obvious way; there should a proper price of water for consumers. IMF report wisely calls for pricing of water reforms. This might be a possible way to ease the water scarcity before it spiral completely out of control. According to IMFs new calculations, the situation in Pakistan is alarming, and in the absence of immediate action, Pakistan could become water-starved country from water scarce. There are significant ruptures within our management system that need to addressed, that require political and inter-provincial unity and harmony and an equitable sharing of resources. Without remedying the internal rifts, our country will not be able to take substantial measures.

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