Water is an essential element for the survival of any individual or a state. For agrarian states like Pakistan, it also serves as the backbone of the economy. Pakistan is an agricultural economy with its 70% population depending on agriculture, directly or indirectly. But, the water crisis in Pakistan has become a grave threat to its socio-economic fabric today.
Quite insidiously, Pakistan gradually transformed from a water-rich state to a water-scarce country. During the 1950s, the per capita availability of water in Pakistan was 5,600 cubic meters. But today, owing to grave negligence of the issue, the per capita availability of water has decreased to mere 1,000 cubic meters. Further, a report, that ‘Pakistan could “run dry” by 2025’, also highlights the severity of the issue.
According to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Pakistan reached the “water stress line” in 1990 and crossed the “water scarcity line” in 2005. Today, circa 40 percent of Pakistanis don’t have access to clean drinking water.
Pakistan’s journey from water abundance to water scarcity didn’t happen overnight. Indeed, multiple factors are responsible for the sad state of affairs. Today, the water scarcity in Pakistan has reached such a level that it is calling for immediate steps to prevent the imminent disaster. However, for effective policy formulation, the issue first warrants an in-depth study and analysis of the factors behind it.
Reasons for the Water Crisis in Pakistan
There are multiple factors and reasons behind the water crisis in Pakistan. Examples, mismanagement of the water system, mismanagement in the agriculture sector, old irrigation methods, climate change, population increase, wastage of water due to lack of awareness, water pollution, etc.
Mismanagement of Water System
Since the inception of Pakistan, no government has ever made water management a priority. The same country that was rich in water resources at the time of independence has become water-scarce today.
Pakistan has only built 150 dams so far for water storage. Among them, most of the dams were built from 1960 to 1975. On the other hand, India, which is thrice bigger than Pakistan, has built more than 5000 dams.
Pakistan has only two big reservoirs, Mangla and Tarbela Dam, and it can save water only for 30 days. On the contrary, India can store water for 190 days whereas the US can do it for 900 days.
Moreover, as per reports, Pakistan receives around 145 million acre-feet of water every year but it can only save around 13.7 million acre-feet. Moreover, Pakistan needs 40 million acre-feet of water but it is wasting 29 million acre-feet of its floodwater due to the lack of storage capacities. In 2010 alone, Pakistan lost 25 million acres of water in floods.
Thus, one of the major factors behind the water crisis is the dearth of water reservoirs and dams. Pakistan receives much water in the form of rain, floods, and melting glaciers. However, due to a lack of storage capacity, almost all the water gets wasted.
Production of Water Intensive Crops
Another major factor behind the water crisis is the production of crops like cotton, wheat, sugarcane, and rice. These crops are water-intensive crops.
It is estimated that one kilogram of rice production requires 4,000 liters of water. Moreover, sugarcane requires 1,500-2,500mm of rainfall (or water from other sources) to complete the growth cycle. In other words, the production of a kilo of sugarcane requires between 1,500 and 3,000 liters of water. Similarly, cotton and wheat are also water-intensive crops.
According to the World Bank report; irrigation consumes the lion’s share of total water resources, but it only contributes $22bn to the annual GDP. The four major crops that Pakistan grows— cotton, wheat, sugarcane, and rice — consume 80pc of the water in the system. These crops generate less than 5pc of the total GDP.
Outmoded techniques and methods of Irrigation
Another major reason for water scarcity in Pakistan is outdated irrigation methods. Due to a lack of research and development, Pakistan is still using outmoded methods of irrigation. These methods of irrigation of agricultural lands in Pakistan result in a great loss of water.
As per reports, irrigated agriculture consumes 93 percent of the available water resources whereas more than 60 percent of irrigation water is lost during the conveyance and application in the field.
Moreover, the techniques of irrigation like flood irrigation result in the wastage of about 50 to 60 percent of applied irrigation water.
A report shows that in Pakistan about 80 percent of the crop area is irrigated by wells and canals. Around 35-40pc of the water for irrigation gets wasted from the canal head to the farm and flooding of fields.
Climate Change is Impacting Water Availability
Climate change is also adding to the water scarcity in Pakistan. Changing rain patterns and resulting droughts due to climate change are exacerbating the water crisis. Moreover, the rising sea levels due to melting glaciers and floods are causing freshwater to become salty. Ultimately, it is compromising the water resources millions of people rely on.
Glaciers are the main source of water for rivers. They supply 303.6 million cubic feet every year to Asian rivers, including the Indus in Pakistan. But, due to global warming, glaciers are fast melting, which is either resulting in floods or a decline in water availability in the rivers.
Population Increase directly results in Water Shortage
When Pakistan came into being, the total population was less than 40 million. The per capita availability of water was 5,600 cubic meters. Today, the population has increased to 220 million and the per capita availability has decreased to 1000 cubic meters.
Thus, the demand for water is increasing with the increase in population. It is estimated that by 2025, Pakistan’s water demand would reach 274 million acre-feet while the supply would remain at a mere 191 million acre-feet.
An increase in population is akin to more exhaustion of water resources.
Wastage of Water due to Lack of Awareness
At the lower level, owing to a lack of awareness, undue wastage of water is very common. During daily-based common use like washing hands, dishes, making ablution, etc. people usually keep the water running, when even it is not in use.
Similarly, pouring more than the required water into the glass to drink and then throwing the remaining water on the ground is indeed a sad spectacle to see.
We can only deal with the water crisis by saving water drop by drop. Its undue wastage will definitely exacerbate the water crisis.
Water Pollution is rendering Water Useless
Another major reason for water scarcity is pollution. Water pollution always makes water unfit for human consumption.
A chemical or oil spill can permanently spoil the water. Any industrial waste or fecal matter that is dumped into rivers or oceans without proper treatment pollutes the water.
Moreover, pesticides and other fertilizers can also lead to water pollution if the chemicals seep into the groundwater or underground aquifers.
Thus, the pollution contaminates the available water resources and makes them unfit for use. This ultimately leads to water scarcity.
Steps to Overcome Water Crisis
As the poor policies and irresponsible attitude have given way to the water crisis, this can be overcome by taking certain pragmatic measures. Steps like building dams and reservoirs, production of less water-intensive crops, latest irrigation methods, controlling water pollution, creating awareness, etc. can go a long way in controlling the water crisis.
Save Water by Building Dams and Reservoirs
Pakistan direly needs to build dams and reservoirs to prevent water wastage and meet the burgeoning water demands.
In this regard, in 2018, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had also declared that the construction of water reservoirs is essential for survival. In this connection, the court has commenced the nationwide drive for the collection of Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand Dams funds.
Currently, the project of the Diamer-Bhasha dam is ongoing in Pakistan. Pakistan direly needs to construct more small and large dams to prevent water losses in floods and meet the demands of water.
Producing Less Water-intensive Crops
As already discussed, growing water-intensive crops is already exacerbating the water crisis in Pakistan. There is a dire need to shift from more to less water-intensive crops.
It is a fact that the contribution of water-intensive crops consumes a large portion of water resources but its contribution to GDP is a mere $22 bn.
According to a report, Pakistan is exporting rice worth Rs2 billion at the cost of water worth Rs10 billion which is insane.
While the rest of the world has expanded its export base and imported water-intensive crops, Pakistan has stuck at traditional modes.
There is a dire need for Pakistan must grow less water-intensive crops and expand its export base to industrial products.
Using Latest Methods of Irrigation
Latest irrigation methods like drip irrigation and sprinklers can help to minimize water wastage. There will be no wastage of water through evaporation by drip irrigation. Moreover, a sprinkler washes the leaves of plants and increases photosynthesis.
Controlling Water Pollution
Similarly, another way to tackle the water crisis is by controlling both surface water pollution and groundwater pollution.
In this regard, the authorities have to work on the implementation of national environmental quality standards.
Moreover, the government should give incentives in the form of subsidies and tax relaxation to the industrial sector against the installation of wastewater treatment plants. Similarly, it can discourage water pollution by imposing fines.
Creating General Awareness in the Public
Last but not least, ordinary masses must be made aware of the severity of the issue. In this regard, the media can play a very positive role by playing awareness campaigns through their programs.
The entire nation can only fight the crisis when everyone would play their part in saving water drop by drop.
In a nutshell, the burgeoning water crisis is a threat to the security of Pakistan. It has become as important an issue as securing the borders. With the water scarcity issue getting out of control, Pakistan’s survival is at stake. So, Pakistan should deal with this on a priority basis. In this regard, the government must take certain pragmatic steps as discussed in the article.
“If the earth is a mother then rivers are her veins.” ― Amit Kalantri