Water scarcity has become a major constraint to socio-economic development around the globe. It is predicted that future wars will be fought over water. Climate change has adversely impacted water resources of Pakistan. The country is facing an alarming situation where it is estimated that by the year 2025, Pakistan will reach absolute water scarcity. In light of the looming water crisis in the country, Iqbal Institute of Policy Studies (IIPS) organized a webinar to discuss the threat of water scarcity and its impact on Pakistan’s socio-economic growth. This blog highlights the main discussion points of the webinar. It explains the major causes and challenges of water scarcity alongside deliberating on long term solutions for sustainable water management in Pakistan.
- What are the major causes of water scarcity in Pakistan?
- What are the challenges of water management in Pakistan?
- What are the issues of poor water governance in the country?
- What are the long term solutions for sustainable water management in Pakistan?
Water scarcity is posing a grave threat to socio-economic growth in Pakistan. However, successive governments in Pakistan have failed to address the challenge of water scarcity despite warnings from water experts. In the light of the impending water crisis, IIPS invited speakers from all sectors including public, private and academia to analyze the challenges of water scarcity in Pakistan and measures to address these challenges from a balanced perspective. The webinar highlighted the causes and challenges of water management and governance in Pakistan.
Causes of Water Scarcity in Pakistan
According to water expert, Mr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the reasons for water scarcity in Pakistan include the rapid increase in population, decrease in surface water, exploitation of groundwater, loss of storage capacities owing to silt deposition, limited rainwater harvesting and wastage of water due to non-metering practices. Furthermore, he expounded that due to over-exploitation of groundwater, sweetwater zones are decreasing and brackish water zones are increasing in Pakistan. There are no groundwater laws and regulations in Pakistan. In Punjab, before 2019, there was no law to regulate the abstraction and pumping of groundwater. Everyone was allowed to install tube wells on their premises. Under Punjab water act 2019, Punjab water resources commission is being set up to regulate all water usage in Punjab.
Poor water quality is another reason for water shortages in Pakistan. Only 2% of wastewater is treated in Pakistan. The wastewater from industries, hospitals and construction sites carry in it harmful chemicals that are detrimental to the environment as well as to human health. When this wastewater gets mixed with clean water it undermines the integrity of freshwater bodies. Furthermore, Pakistan’s agriculture sector utilizes a major portion of water at a highly subsidized rate leading to water paucity for other sectors. Water thirsty crops must be replaced with less water-intensive crops.
Chief Engineer, Mr Moeen Ud Din Sheikh, highlighted that the lack of water storage facilities is causing water shortages in the country. Pakistan’s total water availability is 155 MAF. Out of this, the country is only able to store 16 MAF while 35 MAF flows into the Arabian sea directly. The country has three major water storage facilities. Tarbela dam had the original capacity to store 9.7 MAF which has now declined to 6.5 MAF due to presence of sediments. Chashma dam storage capacity stands at 0.3 MAF while Mangla dam can store up to 7.39 MAF of water. The wastage of 35 MAF of water due to lack of storage facilities is the most imminent issue at hand. It is causing water shortage which in turn gives rise to poverty, health issues and rural-urban migration.
Challenges of Water Management in Pakistan
Dr Fozia Parveen, who is an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Water Informatics & Technology, LUMS, explained that the biggest challenge in terms of water management is not the absence of policies rather it is the non-implementation of existing legislations. In the first decade of Pakistan’s being, the subject of the environment as a whole was completely ignored. It was not until 1972 when Pakistan participated in the United Nations conference on the human environment that environment was given importance. There are laws for preventing the contamination of water bodies in Pakistan. The country is a signatory to many international environmental laws in addition to having its national environmental quality standards. However, industries and municipalities do not comply with these standards.
According to water and agriculture expert, Dr Pervaiz Amir, water unavailability is not the biggest challenge rather it is the poor quality of water that poses a major threat. He suggested that it is not the question of per capita water availability it is the effective management of population growth. He delved into the lack of regulatory framework as a key problem in managing the water system which contributes to over-abstraction of groundwater and the depreciation of water quality. In Punjab, the quality of water is reasonably good, however, in southern Punjab and Sindh the water quality deteriorates exponentially. High-quality monitoring systems must be installed to measure the arsenic level in drinking water to maintain the quality of water.
Poor water Governance in Pakistan
Mr Moeen Ud Din Sheikh shed light on the problems of water governance in Pakistan and the measures which can be taken to improve water management. He discussed that in 1951, per capita water availability was 5650 cubic meters which have now reduced to about 1000 cubic meters. The first reason for this decline in water availability is the massive population growth that has raised the level of water demand. Agriculture is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy as it contributes 26% to the GDP of the country and employs 40% of the labour force. Agriculture consumes a major portion of clean water due to the production of water-thirsty crops.
Inadequate maintenance of infrastructure, the growing gap between revenues and expenditure, lack of farmer’s participation in decision making and environmental degradation are the major issues of water governance in Pakistan. The concept of equitable water distribution is not being implemented in reality by the irrigation and water departments. The government must be vigilant with regards to transboundary water resources and expand its technical capacity to ensure that water is not wasted. Another important policy measure that needs to be adopted by the government is to introduce water pricing. Any resource that can be used free of costs tends to be exploited by humans. The agriculture sector consumes a major portion of water at subsidized prices. The government must introduce rationalized water pricing to ensure water conservation and better water management.
Solutions for Sustainable Water Management in Pakistan
According to Dr Fozia Parveen, firstly, the government must focus on expanding capacity to treat wastewater for safeguarding freshwater resources. Secondly, the government must work on demand management. Water must be priced to lower the demand and prevent water shortages. Thirdly, water governance structure ought to be improved. Policies and regulatory mechanisms are already in place, however; the execution of the policies is non-existent. Fourthly, the government should focus on building small storage structures and encourage individuals to install rainwater harvesting systems in their houses. Lastly, the water distribution systems need to be upgraded and renovated to stop water loss. There is a need to change our attitudes as a nation towards the environment. The lack of empathy for the environment is the leading cause of environmental degradation in Pakistan.
Dr Pervaiz Amir also advocated for water pricing, suggesting that it is a good policy measure to conserve water. However, he stated that in Pakistan, water pricing has become more of a politicized issue rather than an economic one. He suggested that drinking water should be free but the rest of the water consumption must be priced to conserve water and prevent water wastage. Furthermore, the country needs to put a water structure south of Attock to capture the 17 to 20 MAF of water coming from the Kabul River. This is to counter the efforts made by India, already in the process of building 3 dams on the river Kabul, from turning the situation to its advantage. This is a serious concern for the militarists and security strategists of Pakistan as water security is vital from a defence point of view. Both countries should benefit from any structure that is established on the Kabul river to avoid any animosity with our neighbour.
Dr Naveed Alam, CEO WaterSprint Ltd, talked about sustainable irrigation in Punjab and whether or not skimming wells is a long term solution. He explained that the only way to use groundwater in Punjab sustainably is by using it conjunctively with canal water. Otherwise, the salt will accumulate due to irrigation recirculation and groundwater will become unsuitable for irrigation. Punjab faces various challenges when it comes to water management. It has small hydraulic gradients and natural subsurface drainage is not possible. Furthermore, the disposal of saltwater trapped in basins must be taken care of for sustainable groundwater use. Skimming wells are not a sustainable solution as they in no way prevent salinization in the long run. Recirculation wells can prevent salinization but are mid-term solutions. The only long term solution to solving the salinization problem is through balanced scavenging wells.
- The non-implementation of existing environmental legislation is the biggest challenge of water governance in the country
- The lack of farmer’s participation in the decision-making process is a major loophole in our water governance system
- There is a massive dearth of water storage facilities in the country. 35 MAF of water is wasted every year due to lack of water reservoirs.
- The government must enforce groundwater regulations to protect groundwater from over-abstraction.
- Due to excessive extraction of groundwater, sweetwater zones are decreasing and brackish water zones are increasing in Pakistan.
- Skimming wells are not a sustainable solution. The only long term solution to solving the salinization problem is through balanced scavenging wells.
- The concept of equitable water distribution is not being implemented in reality by the irrigation and water departments.
- Only 2% of wastewater is treated in Pakistan which is one the lowest in the world. We must focus on expanding technical capacity to treat wastewater to safeguard the freshwater resources.
- The government must work on demand management. Drinking water should be free but the rest of the water consumption must be priced to conserve water
- Small storage structures must be prioritized and rainwater harvesting systems should be installed for better water management.
- The water distribution system needs to be upgraded and renovated to thwart water loss.
- High-quality monitoring systems must be installed to maintain the quality of drinking water.
- We must focus on the water coming from the Kabul River. The government must initiate sustainable dialogue with the Afghan government and formulate long term measures that benefit both countries equitably.
Iqbal Institute of Policy Studies. (2020). Water Scarcity in Pakistan & Our Policy Measures. Islamabad: IIPS. Available at https://www.facebook.com/iipstudies/videos/1338637036338736