Pakistan faces several challenges in trying to address its water crisis
In his recent speeches, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said that the country runs the risk of running dry within a decade. According to several reports by the United Nations and its various bodies, Pakistan ranks among the most water-stressed countries in the world. Several factors have contributed to this.
Firstly, the agricultural sector -- which consumes a large amount of the surface water -- doesn’t contribute to the replenishment of the resource. Moreover, it faces very little direct taxes. A major chunk of the land used for agricultural purposes is irrigated through canals. However, the canal water is not priced adequately enough to cover the cost of water provision.
Secondly, Pakistan remains the fastest urbanizing country in the world. This, coupled with a population growth, adds additional pressure on an already scarce water supply. Thirdly, climate change also contributes to rising temperatures, heat waves, and droughts in some regions. Factors such as the shortening of the winter season, an unpredictable monsoon season, and deforestation have taken their toll as well. A lack of storage facilities (such as reservoirs and dams) means that rainwater cannot be stored for future needs. According to some estimates, Pakistan receives nearly 145 million acre-feet of water annually but is only able to save approximately 14 million acre-feet.
Despite the aforementioned reasons, Pakistan still has the fourth highest rate of water usage. The amount of water used as a percentage of national income is one of the highest, too. Even if large reservoirs are built, it may do little to save water, especially if the country doesn’t consciously adopt policies which could help prevent the wastage of water as is seen in the usage for agricultural, industrial, commercial, and residential purposes.
Considering the ongoing water emergency, the Council of Common Interests (CCI) approved a national water policy with the objectives of development and to manage water resources in Pakistan. The policy recognizes that such objectives require efforts not only within the boundaries of the provinces but also for inter-provincial coordination. Similarly, there is also a need to pursue trans-boundary cooperation if disputes among riparian countries have to be avoided. Likewise, it is unlikely that a country such as Pakistan, which is already facing a large fiscal deficit, will be able to devote an increasing share of its resources to water development. Therefore, the policy also urges us to think towards adopting innovative financing techniques for water which could include partnerships with the private sector.
Due to weak local research capacities, Pakistan often resorts to seeking advice from foreign consultants. Perhaps capacity building could be an area where Pakistan should seek help from multilateral and bilateral development partners, including China.
Dr. Vaqar Ahmed
Recent reports by policy think tanks, including Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) and LEAD Pakistan, urge the government to streamline urgent actions to be pursued by the National Water Council and form provincial councils to oversee the implementation of the national water policy. The CCI should also meet every quarter to see that the implementation of this policy is on track.
This process can be guided by scientific inputs only if institutions responsible for addressing Pakistan’s water woes have adequate research capabilities. Currently, the capacity to provide evidence-based policy inputs is often seen lacking in institutions such as Ministry of Water Resources, Provincial Irrigation and Agriculture Departments, Water and Sewerage Authorities, Indus River System Authority, Pakistan Commission for Indus Water, Pakistan Metrological Department, Federal Flood Commission, and the Water and Power Development Authority. Due to weak local research capacities, Pakistan often resorts to seeking advice from foreign consultants. Perhaps capacity building could be an area where Pakistan should seek help from multilateral and bilateral development partners, including China.
Moreover, an element of mistrust which exists between India and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan has meant that there has been a lack of sustained engagement on the subject of water. This calls for promoting programs under the umbrella of hydro-diplomacy, which over a period of time can then strengthen other confidence-building measures as well.
Several of those international non-governmental organizations who were promoting the track-II dialogue on water have now been closed by Pakistan. Such conversations were previously used to help create a common ground once track-I meetings took place. We are not clear how such dialogue can now take place at the civil society level in Pakistan and the region unless the government is willing to invest public money so that the policy think tanks, private sector, and universities can continue with the dialogue across borders.
Finally, as the government is keen to invite financing from the private sector in water resource development, and is also looking into the possibility of public-private partnerships, it is immensely important to ensure fair returns from investment in water. A possible way forward could be to create market-based incentives for an investment in water, build the capacity of government and non-government institutions to access global climate financing instruments, and improve the water pricing framework. While these are being implemented, it is important to, of course, protect the poorest of the poor who consume the least amount of water resources.
– Dr. Vaqar Ahmed is joint executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan. His book ‘Pakistan’s Agenda for Economic Reforms’ was recently published by the Oxford University Press.