Tragedy of the commons: T-3 years to Pakistan’s water crisis

Tragedy of the commons: T-3 years to Pakistan’s water crisis

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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its recent report has declared Pakistan third among the countries facing severe water shortage.  Reports published by United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as well as Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) warn that the country will reach absolute water scarcity by 2025. PCRWR report 2016 claims that the country had touched the “water stress line” in 1990 and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005. These same reports are also predicting that Pakistan will become the most water stressed country in the region by 2040.

Let us now try to understand the scale of water scarcity in Pakistan by analyzing how we reached this point despite Hindukush-Karakoram-Himalaya (HKH) mountain ranges in Northern Pakistan being considered the water tower of the world. There are around 7000 glaciers in the northern regions of Pakistan along with over 3000 glacial lakes. Snow and glacier meltwater from this region contributes to river flow in the Gilgit River Basin, providing water to 268 million people in the Indus basin for drinking, household use, hydroelectricity generation, agriculture and industry. According to the World Bank, Pakistan is one of the world’s most arid countries with an average rainfall of under 240 mm a year. Water scarcity occurs when the demand for water is greater than the available supply.

Pakistan’s water woes are explained mainly by rapid population growth and urbanization followed by climate change (floods and droughts), poor agriculture sector water management, inefficient and outdated infrastructure resulting in water wastage. Another major problem is water pollution.

Pakistan has the world’s fourth highest rate of water usage. The amount of water used in cubic meters per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is the highest suggesting that no other country’s economy is as water intensive as that of Pakistan.  The IMF report 2021 quotes Pakistan’s annual water availability as 1,017 cubic meters, which is perilously close to scarcity levels of 1,000 cubic meters.

All political leaders must declare their unified intention to tackle this existential threat, above and beyond petty politics.

Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba

The state has yet to comprehend the magnitude of our environmental concerns, it is turning a blind eye to the stark reality that the country is set to run dry by 2025. With the warning signs glaringly visible in the form of glaciers receding at an alarming rate, less rainfall, higher temperatures, precipitation and over population, we are rapidly plunging beneath the water scarcity benchmark. Policymakers refuse to acknowledge the scale of the problem and challenges facing the country, too busy playing their game of thrones. If even a single person sitting at the helm of affairs had a morsel of integrity and concern for the national security of Pakistan, or any imagination, this would be an issue being highlighted on every forum. Our news anchors would have talk shows highlighting the dire plight of affairs and our politicians would be crying themselves hoarse regarding a future roadmap to save the 220 million inhabitants of this country.

What should be the roadmap for future?

First and foremost is the political ownership of the challenge. Enough time and effort have already been wasted blaming previous governments or blaming India for the water crisis in Pakistan. All political leaders must declare their unified intention to tackle this existential threat, above and beyond petty politics.

Secondly, the country needs a well defined and coherent National Action Plan to deal with this immense issue. Dr. Ishrat Hussain has attributed the current water crisis to a failure of governance. There exists a major vacuum between policies, reforms and their implementations.

Recycling of wastewater is another area where we are lagging behind other countries in the region. Currently, India has the capacity to recycle 40% of its wastewater, while in Pakistan less than 8% of wastewater is treated.  With the looming crisis on the horizon, conserving every drop of water is imperative and hence policy makers need to rethink water policy by urging recycling of wastewater based on public-private partnership as well as optimal pricing/ metering of water.

More than 80% of the country’s water resources are used for four major crops- rice, wheat, sugarcane and cotton, which contribute only 5% to the GDP. Rice and sugarcane are highly water intensive crops, with farmers still flooding their farms with water. Pakistan needs to stop clinging to archaic practice of flood irrigation and embrace technologically innovative agricultural methods for increased agricultural efficiency.  Precision watering, in the form of drip irrigation, could help conserve wastage of excessive amounts of water.

Water management facilities in Pakistan lack the capacity to store sufficient water during peak monsoon seasons for use during droughts and low rain/ flow seasons. Pakistan is an agrarian country and its irrigation system is heavily reliant on the water storage capacity within the Indus Basin. Increasing the storage capacity of the existing reservoirs (Tarbela, Mangla, Chashma) and investing in developing new ones should be a priority. Climate change is altering the seasonality of flows and existing infrastructures are not capable of coping with that for use during the low flow periods. Therefore, concrete decisions need to be made quickly, without further delay.

Water scarcity in Pakistan is a bigger threat than terrorism. The UNDP draft report on water crisis in Pakistan sheds light on a serious, albeit much neglected issue, both nationally and internationally.

Tackling water scarcity needs a proper understanding of the problem before it becomes impossible to solve and we reach the point of no return.

It is as President John F. Kennedy said: “Anyone who can solve the problems of water will be worthy of two nobel prizes; one for peace and one for science.” 

- Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the areas of environment and health.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view