Impending Water Crisis in Pakistan

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All living organisms require large amounts of water to sustain life and grow. Nature has made life heavily dependent on water which is the major component of most body parts and 78% of a newborn’s body weight is nothing but water. This percentage reduces with age and a male adult has 60% while the female has 55% water. We can survive without food for a longer period than without water. The body starts getting dehydrated if water intake is less than what is lost as part of normal functioning. The loss upsets mineral balance thus affecting all body functions adversely and prolonged dehydration can cause serious health issues.  An adult male requires approximately three litres while female needs 2.2 litres per day for replenishing water secreted. Besides water replenishment, we need protein, carbohydrates, minerals and fibre to sustain vitality and growth. These essential nutrients come from a variety of foods like meat, vegetables and fruits which also need water to grow and contain approximately similar water content as that of the human body. Besides drinking, water is an essential item to maintain personal hygiene and sanitized living environments. So, water is the very source of life and adequate quantity per capita is essential for sustaining quality of life on earth. Basic Water Requirements (BWRs) include drinking water for survival, water for hygiene, water for sanitation services and water for modest household needs such as preparing food. Body water is lost through perspiration, excretion and imperceptible loss from the respiratory tract and we start feeling thirsty when 1% of bodily fluid is lost and nearly 10% loss puts humans in danger of death. Under average temperate climatic conditions, the approximately minimum water requirement for fluid replacement is three litres per day per capita. Different criteria offer varying BWRs per capita ranging from 27 litres to 250 litres but it is now a generally accepted fact that the minimum average BWR per capita in water-scarce areas should be at 100 litres per day for ensuring appropriate quality of life and health but 50 litres per day is considered as a fundamental human right. Besides personal consumption water is consumed for agriculture, livestock, industry and other essential commodities and its usage ranges from 14,726 litres to around 500 litres per capita in different parts of the globe depending on the level of affluence. More affluent areas consume relatively more water.

            World population growth is putting excessive strain on water recourses and water being a finite commodity, its consumption management is gaining supreme significance with increasing population. In Pakistan per capita, water availability in 1990 was 2,490 litres but population growth, rapid urbanization, and shifts in production and consumption patterns have placed unprecedented stress on water resources and the availability stands at just above 1000 litres per capita today. Considering a population growth rate of 2.5%, Pakistan is required to double annual food production every 15 years but water resources are depleting at an alarming rate. Besides drastic reduction in per capita water availability, the quality of available water is deteriorating with time due to indiscriminate discharge of industrial and domestic wastewater into open water bodies and groundwater. River Ravi pollution by Lahore city wastewater is resulting in the death of 5000 tons of fish per annum.

            Availability of water has a direct bearing on nearly all sectors of economic activity and in the words of vice-chair of World Economic Forum Margret Catley Carlson, “Water is an astonishingly complex and subtle force in an economy. It is the single constraint on the expansion of every city and bankers and corporate executives have cited it as the only natural limit on economic growth.” Water shortages may well pose the greatest future threat to the viability of Pakistan’s economy as water is essential, whether for livelihoods, health, food security, or general economic development.

            Surface water from rivers and streams, rainfall and subsoil constitute the water resource of a country. After the Indus Basin Treaty between India and Pakistan (1960) the availability of water to Pakistan is from River Indus and its tributaries, River Jhelum and River Chenab. River Indus and tributaries are the main sources of surface water which yields about 138.7 million acre-feet (MAF)  of water annually (77-year mean, the year 1923 – 2000) which accounts for 65% of total river flows. River Jhelum and Chenab contribute 17% and 19% respectively. River flow is not perennial and the peak flows are seen from June to August which corresponds with the monsoon period in the sub-continent. About 70% of rainfall in Pakistan occurs during July to September so, during this period called Kharif, an average of 115.9 MAF (84%) water is available and the remaining only 22.8 MAF (16%) is available during the Rabi period of winters. River water is harnessed and stored by major reservoirs of Tarbela, Mangla and Chashma for use during dry periods for agriculture which accounts for 24% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Pakistan. The water storage capacity of these reservoirs has already reduced by approximately 25% and is depleting further due to sedimentation. Water shortfall due to sedimentation can be offset by harnessing hill torrents which are identified at 14 distinguishable locations which have a total potential of 19 MAF. 60% of this water can be harnessed for agriculture which can irrigate six million acres of present wasteland. Besides flowing rivers, alluvial plains have aquifers with 50 MAF potential out of which 38 MAF is exploited by 562,000 private and 10,000 public tube wells. Baluchistan which is outside Indus Basin is most arid and has only 0.9 MAF potential and 0.5 MAF is already being utilized. Water use is growing at twice the rate of population growth and according to the United Nations two-thirds of the global population will face water “stress” by 2025. Pakistan does not have the capacity to find new sources of water or to inject more water into its national grid. Therefore, Indus basin water is precarious and current water withdrawals of 74 per cent of the total surface water available and 83 per cent of total renewable groundwater available is an unsustainable luxury. The Indus’ massive irrigation system has a storage capacity of only 121 MAF per year or only a thirty-day supply at present rates of consumption. This capacity is extremely low given that India can store for 120 to 220 days, Egypt up to 700 days, and the United States for 900 days. Because Pakistan’s transition to an urban and industrial economy is likely to continue, its competition with agriculture for water resources is likely to increase. Evidence points to a widening gap between water supply and demand. The UN estimates that water demand in Pakistan is growing at an annual rate of 10 per cent which means demand is projected to rise to 274 MAF by 2025. This situation makes Water Resource Management the greatest challenge of the 21st century for Pakistan.

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            Economic development, food security and water resource management are inseparably linked and nations not planning to meet the challenge aggressively will face economic decline and may lose viability. Pakistan, a semi-arid region and primarily an agricultural economy is facing declining water availability and quality, growing water pollution, and overall environmental insecurity. To make the situation worse, the frequency of occurrence of drought has increased from 30% to 40% in recent years and for every ten years, there are now four dry years instead of three. During the current century, the Indus Basin has developed the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world but due to lack of foresight, this canal network resulted in waterlogging and salinity. Water Distribution System is extremely inefficient resulting in 25 to 30% water lost due to seepage and evaporation. Irrigation efficiency on the other hand is equally pathetic and is resting at only 30% which means 70% of potential is lost. Even in Baluchistan which is not an Indus basin area, irrigation of apple orchards exceeds 100% waste of precious but extremely scarce resource there. This situation, coupled with institutional, operational, and governance failures, is fostering domestic discord which may result in political instability and economic decline. Pakistan is an agro-based economy and agriculture is a major water user. A timely and adequate water supply for irrigation is essential for food security. However, population increase and industrial progress have increased the demand for water-reducing share for agriculture. Pakistan figures prominently among high aridity index countries so the significance of Water Management Strategies (WMSs) cannot be overemphasized. Salient features of WMSs include taping existing sources, their management for maximum production per unit of water used by the high-efficiency irrigation system, distribution infrastructure enhancement and institutional set up for Integrated Management of storage-reservoirs.

  Solving the water scarcity problems should come from doing more with less. It will be a long incremental process, but one that needs to be initiated earnestly through appropriate institutional reforms in the water sector and adequate political representation from all federating units in water resource management and distribution decision-making structures. The demand and supply gap is already creating unrest among federating units on their share of water.   According to the United Nations estimate, Pakistan with water availability of about 1090 cubic meters (m3) per capita is standing on the threshold of becoming “Water Stressed” which means below 1000 cubic meters (m3) per capita. In 1955 we were a water surplus country with an availability of 2,490 m3 water per capita which dropped to 1, 672 m3 in 1990. At the present rate soon we will be facing a “Water Crisis Situation” and it is forecasted that only 837 m3 of water will be available per capita by the year 2025 unless integrated management of storage reservoirs is undertaken on an emergency basis. It is crucial that the government treats WMSs with utmost urgency and accords appropriate importance to regulate water competition and ensure the provision of quality water services to all communities. Conservation of resources through widespread awareness will prove the key. Short, medium and long term strategies need to be employed urgently to ameliorate the impending Water Crisis. Short term strategies, spreading over periods of three years, should encompass mass-awareness campaign, propagation of high-efficiency irrigation system, changing cropping patterns, identification of feasible surface water storage sites, and establishing regional Water Users’ Committees to monitor and regulate these objectives. Medium-term strategies spanning over three to seven years must include giving priority to the lining of distributaries to address losses due to seepage, Small dam construction for water storage, improving flood-drought forecast methods and further improvement of high-efficiency irrigation system like trickle irrigation. Long Term strategies, beyond seven years, will focus on developing National Water Policy through the legislative process, Regulatory Framework on groundwater abstraction, Construction of Large storage dams and resolving water distribution issues between federating units to avoid political unrest. As shortages become more widespread, the government must invest greater political capital to regulate water competition and provide quality water services to all communities. Water stress should not be the tipping point but rather a means to promote social harmony, environmental sustainability, and national unity. Effective management can only come from domestic reform, and dependence on foreign aid will not render lasting solutions.

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Masroor ul Hassan
About Masroor ul Hassan 2 Articles
Masroor ul Hassan is a retired fighter pilot of the Pakistan Air Force. He has Masters Degrees in Defence and Strategic Studies from Quaid e Azam University Islamabad (1985) and War Studies from Karachi University (1995). He is a defence analyst and also writes on Strategic national issues.

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