Pakistan without water

Ayaz Ahmed

According to the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, Pakistan is a highly water- stressed country and is highly likely to face an acute water shortage in the next five years.

Owing to global warming, Pakistan could easily be plagued by unbearable water shortages in the foreseeable future. The World Bank, the US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee and the International Monetary Fund have repeatedly warned the government of Pakistan of flash floods and drought in the next 10 to 40 years. They attribute the looming water problems to the fast shrinking Himalayan glaciers, low storage capacity and dearth of planning.

Pakistan relies on the Indus system and its tributaries for most of its water supply requirements. Amazingly, the glaciers of the Himalayas contribute more than 80 percent to the Indus system which, in turn, fulfil over 65 percent needs of the agriculture sector. Alarmingly, these glaciers are fast dwindling at a rate of 30 to 50 meters annually due to the increasing global warming.

As per some reports, Pakistan has the world’s fourth highest rate of water use. Per capita annual water availability is around 1,017 cubic meters compared to 1,500 after Independence; it is close to the threshold of 1000 cubic meters. Such reports clearly highlight the fast depletion of the country’s water resources.

 According to IMF reports, Pakistan’s water demand is on the rise. The requirement is projected to reach 274 million acre feet (MAF) by 2025, while the estimated supply remains stagnant at 191 MAF. Consequently, it will result in a demand and supply gap of about 83 MAF, thus depriving a large portion of the population of clean and potable water.

Moreover, more than two billion people worldwide bank on groundwater for daily use. Due to excessive use, our underground water is also fast depleting. According to the Punjab irrigation department, the province’s water table is going down by three feet every year. In this context, the NASA satellite data of the world underground aquifers further reveals that the Indus Basin – whose rivers and tributaries constitute our main water sources – is the second most water-stressed in the world.

Most water experts agree that the major factors responsible for the continuing and impending water issues in the country include the inadequate and decaying water infrastructure, lack of political consensus on the construction of major dams, financial constraint, global warming and indifference to water conservation throughout the country.

Since water is life and everything relies on it, the almost inevitable water crisis would bring about multifaceted socio-economic, political and security-related issues for the country. Any stoppage of adequate water supply to the agriculture sector would adversely impact crops, thus creating widespread unemployment, poverty, food insecurity, inflation, starvation and malnourishment. It would also increase the already imbalance of trade by decreasing exports and impeding foreign direct investment (FDI), hence drying up the declining foreign exchange reserves.

Owing to the ongoing water issues, more than 35 percent of the population lacks access to safe and drinking water in the country. This number may double in the next 10 to 15 years because feasible water development projects are thus far not on the incumbent federal government’s priority list for 2015-16.

 As seen in some parts of Karachi, the looming water crisis could also lead to further political issues in the country. When people do not get enough water, they will resort to disruptive strikes, vandalism and violence. Ominously, it could also spark off inter and intra-provincial issues which could not only negatively impact the struggling federation and democracy, but also create major security problems.

The water crisis in Pakistan has the potential to bring both South Asian nuclear powers to the brink of a catastrophic conflict. When Pakistan is in the throes of a severe water crisis, India would take the situation as an opportunity to pressurise it for multiple political gains. As a result, distrust and sabre-rattling would increase which could prompt a full-blown war.

It is not too late to ascertain the water problem and plan prudently to resolve the issue. The PML-N should take up our water issues on an urgent basis. All renowned water experts are of the view that a reasonable number of both large and small dams should be constructed throughout the country. Such water reservoirs will meet the water demand, hamper torrential floods and help exploit the 50,000MW hydropower potential of the country.

It is a pity that the total dam storage of the country can meet only 30 days of average demands compared to 1,000 for Egypt and 220 for emerging India. Moreover, we have built only three mega dams and scores of small barrages since 1947. China and India, on the other hand, have constructed 22,000 and 4,200 small and large dams respectively, thus leaving us far behind. Intriguingly, per capita water storage in the US stands at a staggering 6,150 cubic meters, in Australia at 5,000 cubic meters. We, in Pakistan stand at only 135 cubic meters.

Second, due to the inefficient water supply system, the country loses more than 33 maf of water every year. The government should replace the existing muddy and bush-infested water courses with plastic pipes.

Third, canal water and agriculture should be taxed. As per the IMF report, canal water is vastly under-priced. The agriculture sector, which consumes more than 90 percent of the existing water resources, is still largely untaxed.

The revenue received from water taxation can be spent on advanced hydro technology and to repair the existing dams, specifically Tarbela and Mangla. The Tarbela dam has reportedly lost nearly 30 percent of storage capacity since the 1970s. Proper repairs and maintenance of the country’s existing canal system would free up around 75 million cubic acre feet of water – close to the 83 maf water shortfalls that the IMF has estimated Pakistan could face in the foreseeable future.

Fourth, the government should take serious note of India building a string of water reservoirs on rivers that provide water to Pakistan as per the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960. It is estimated that the Indian Kashanganga Dam would result in a 14 percent drop in the flow of water for the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Project. Such mega schemes by India will embolden it to intimidate Pakistan for political gains in the future.

 The PML-N should demonstrate political judiciousness by prioritising the water issue. That would not only save the country from a terrible water crisis, but also help the government with socio-economic developments in the near future.

The writer is the editor of The Asia Watch.

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