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Thirsty Days Ahead: Pakistan’s Looming Water Crisis

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The Pulse

Thirsty Days Ahead: Pakistan’s Looming Water Crisis

Pakistan is running out of fresh water at an alarming rate.

Thirsty Days Ahead: Pakistan’s Looming Water Crisis
Credit: Flickr / shabbir

Pakistan is currently facing an acute water shortage that is likely to wreck havoc in the country in the coming years. Recently, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA) highlighted a grave water shortage in the Indus Basin irrigation system (IBIS), the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system, for the summer cropping season. The timing of the crisis is critical and had delayed the sowing of the country’s main cash crops, including cotton. Experts believe the authorities were aware of the approaching acute water shortage because of shortages during the winter cropping season.

In Pakistan, the signs of water stress are ubiquitous in the form of water scarcity, resource depletion, and contamination. The catastrophe implicates the country’s incompetent leadership, and its inept administration and poor management of available natural water resources. This has made Pakistan vulnerable to long drought spells and extreme floods. The climate change-led water crisis not only poses a threat to the summer cropping season but has also adversely affected the generation of hydroelectricity.

Such a crisis is inevitable in a country where political leaders are busy slinging mud at each other in a lust for power while lacking vision. These leaders also oppose the construction of new infrastructure for storing water. The fact that the word “dam” has been made highly controversial and that its use often spurs heated discussions between the constituent provinces aptly highlights Pakistan’s predicament.

Pakistan is running out of fresh water at an alarming rate, and authorities anticipate that it is likely to suffer a shortage of 31 million acre-feet (MAF) of water by 2025. The shortfall will be devastating for a country with an agriculture-based economy. Nearly 70 percent of the Pakistan’s population is directly or indirectly associated with agriculture, which accounts for 26 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

Farmers are likely to feel the pinch in the form of in-season water shortages, which in turn, will affect their crop growth and delay harvesting, resulting in reduced production.

In Pakistan, the majority of agricultural land is irrigated, after accounting for ground and rainwater, with fresh water from the IBIS. The IBIS is fed through two major dams including Tarbela and Mangla, which since construction, have lost storage capacity due to enormous silt deposition. Both reservoirs are already hitting a dead level and are unlikely to carry forward the required flow for the summer crops.

The anticipated water flow in the IBIS for this summer season is 95 MAF against a 112 MAF average of past 10 years. Moreover, both reservoirs can only store up to 14 MAF of the 145 MAF that annually flows through the country.

Pakistan is storing less water among the available surface flows due to lack of significant storage. And given the severely irregular water availability in rivers, the lack of adequate storage at all levels makes it practically impossible to stock the priceless resource reasonably. However, the country receives a significant amount of water from the monsoon spells that, if stored properly, could provide with a sustainable irrigation system.

River flow did not improve during a brief rain spell in the early summer, and the temperature also did not rise enough in the northern areas of the country to enable the melting of snow. The country received 50 percent less snow this year than its long-term average in the catchment areas, which further adds to the catastrophe.

Due to fewer water releases from the dams, farmers largely depend on groundwater. This puts extra pressure on the aquifers. The majority of agricultural production depends on underground water, which is not efficiently utilized causing the water table to plummet at an alarming rate.

Farming and urban communities pump far more amounts of groundwater than is replenished naturally into the aquifers. With nearly 3 to 4 MAF shortfall of groundwater discharge annually, the aquifers are receding at an alarming rate. Moreover, a 2015 NASA-led study confirmed that the Indus Basin aquifer is among the most overstressed and rapidly depleting systems in the world. Rainwater harvesting and partially treated sewage creeks for groundwater recharge are two available solutions, but the country is far from adopting these on a large scale.

Furthermore, the farming community is wasting a tremendous amount of fresh water by using outdated flood irrigation methods. About 95 percent of fresh water is utilized for irrigation, and yet the country is achieving a lower per acre crop production when compared to India and China in the region.

Exponential population growth in Pakistan has also dramatically changed the calculus of water demand, resulting in a reduced water availability per capita. Populated cities like Karachi lack sound water management and are already facing a Cape Town-like “day zero situation.”

Amid election season in Pakistan, the water crisis has already contributed to the politically charged atmosphere, attracting massive public attention. The issue will undoubtedly influence the rural electorate.

The water crisis is the writing on the wall and not hogwash. The snowcapped mountain ranges of the country, the primary freshwater source, are not infinite. The political leadership still has time to give attention to this pending catastrophe and include it in their mandates for the upcoming polls.

Recently, a large social media campaign was launched with the objective of pushing the incoming government into building the Kalabagh dam, a politically disputed project. Undoubtedly, infrastructure is often popular and likely necessary, but such uncertain mega projects are a waste of time and resources and cannot instantly address the present-day water issue.

The most crucial next step should be to build new reservoirs at all scales to store the monsoon surplus and reduce downstream flood peaks. The principle that every drop stored is a drop saved can help to keep the river delta alive and can also solve many problems stemming from water scarcity. Given the country’s impending water shortage, new reservoirs are equally vital to meet the requirement of agriculture, rapid urbanization, population growth, food insecurity and growing water demand of the industry.

The recently approved national water policy must be implemented both in letter and in spirit for efficient water resource management. Furthermore, commissions must be set up to monitor the efficient water resource management at all levels frequently and to offer timely recommendations.

Given the limited capacity of state institutions to manage the water sector and because repeated attempts and investments to fix existing infrastructure have failed, the country must think outside the box. Innovation, particularly the participation of the private sector, could be key in managing water resources efficiently. De-bundling services and encouraging the private sector to manage water resources can be an excellent initiative to address current issues. The Agriculture department ought to keep urging and facilitating farmers in shifting their focus to modern and efficient irrigation technologies in lieu of outdated flooding methods.

Pakistan needs to learn from countries with even less water but higher domestic product (GDP) and better quality of life indicators such as Israel, a country right in the middle of a desert that has been able to reuse effluent to irrigate about 40 percent of its agricultural land with sound political will, economic resources and by employing the right technology.

It’s a challenge for the state to save water not only for agriculture but also for human consumption and to meet the rising water demand in other social and economic sectors. This demands improved water governance, management and investment in scientific knowledge, all of which entail commitment and resources. It’s time for decisive action.

Muhammad Mohsin Raza is a Fulbright scholar and a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University.