A large plethora of the local media find it hard to forego their infatuation with political rallies, CPEC, Trump’s Afghan and Pakistan policies, and of course the ever-green, acrimonious Pak-India relations. And such an attitude can be forgiven considering it is the election year after all which promises significant implications for the country. Nonetheless as these topics continue to steal the limelight, a graver issue of water crisis lurks in the shadows demanding our immediate attention. Perhaps the surprising part about the water crisis in Pakistan is that until a few years ago, the country had been doing a good job in providing the citizens with access to a clean water supply and adequate sanitation. It is estimated that ‘from 1990 to 2015, the percentage of the country’s population with access to clean water increased from 86 percent to 91 per cent.’ Strangely enough though, most of this improvement was in the rural areas rather than the urban ones where the clean water access actually fell down from 97 to 94 per cent over this time frame.
Only a handful of the countries in the world have experienced similar reversal of fortunes with regards to the clean water provision such as the war-ridden states like Syria or Palestine. Nonetheless, the reasons behind water crisis of Pakistan are far more complex than they may seem. The rate of urbanization in the country exceeds three per cent annually which is the highest among all South Asian nations. Owing to this rapid demographic changes, the cities of the country have a hard time in providing basic services to the populace. The severity of the issue can be gauged by the fact that at the time of its independence in 1947, Pakistan was a water affluent country with five thousand cubic meters per citizen of clean water. Today, there is less than 1 thousand cubic meters of clean water per citizen, which is equivalent to that of the water scarce country Ethiopia. This reflects the gravity of the situation and is proof of the fact that water scarcity and its contamination is nothing short of a socio-economic bomb that is ticking to blast off soon. It is quite sad that the country has none but itself to blame for its parochial vision and defected policies.
A grim picture of things to come was drawn by the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) when it fired a warning shot that the country will run dry by the year 2025 if the government remains inactive. This means that the national policy makers have approximately seven years to tighten the noose on the leakage of a resource which is not only the sustainer of life, but also a source of income for many in the country. Being an agro-based economy, the GDP of Pakistan is directly and indirectly dependent on the availability of water. It is estimated that about 90 per cent of the water in the country is used for farming and rearing crops. Given that 60 per cent of the population is involved in the agriculture sector (including livestock) and about 80 per cent of the exports stem out of agriculture-based textiles, it is not hard to connect the dots and conclude that there is little light at the end of the tunnel.
The severity of the issue can be gauged by the fact that at the time of its independence in 1947, Pakistan was a water affluent country with five thousand cubic meters per citizen of clean water. Today, there is less than 1 thousand cubic meters of clean water per citizen, which is equivalent to that of the water scarce country Ethiopia.
In addition to this, one can conceptualize a scenario where the shortage of water may escalate tensions on the global stage as well. Many an expert has warned against a possible war in the future fought over the invaluable water resource. In the case of South Asia, the Indus Water Treaty which decides the ratio of the Himalayan water shared between Pakistan and India has had its fair share of controversy. In 2016, the Indian Premier Narendra Modi remarked, “Water that belongs to India cannot be allowed to go to Pakistan.” In reply, the Foreign Affairs Advisor of the time Mr. Sartaj Aziz, replied that revocation of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) by India “can be taken as an act of war.” One may cast such war of words as mere political sparring but wars have been fought over far less. Being the lower riparian, Pakistan sees itself at a disadvantage in this case.
To make matters worse, about 80 per cent of the rural agriculture-related crimes in the country are committed on issues related to the distribution of water. Such conditions reflect a poor system of irrigation and the metal of the local feudal lords who have a knack for diverting water to their own advantage. Moreover, crops like sugarcane gulp a lot of water but it is harvested in bulk in order to feed the sugar mills owned by wealthy politicians of the country. Meanwhile in the urban areas, the contamination of water is the principal concern. In the metro cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi, 70 per cent of water is considered unsafe for consumption. According to “The Water Gap — the State of the World’s Water 2018” report published by WaterAid on the eve of World Water Day celebrated on March 22, about 21 million Pakistanis do not have access to clean drinking water. In addition to this, the report also ranks Pakistan to be ninth in the list of ten countries with the least access to clean drinking water. Concomitantly, Pakistan has the highest incidence of Hepatitis C in the world. And if the political parties do not include the water scarcity issue in their political agenda for the upcoming 2018 general elections, the newly elected government may find the county’s wells running dry by the time their term comes to an end.
Unfortunately, water scarcity in Pakistan is a time bomb that is on the verge of being triggered with disastrous consequences.
Unfortunately, water scarcity in Pakistan is a time bomb that is on the verge of being triggered with disastrous consequences. In addition to the issues relating to water quality, changes in the climate play a role in the water problem too. It is no secret that climate change is a serious issue that threatens mother earth’s very existence. It has been estimated that Pakistan is the seventh most vulnerable country in the world due to climate change. Changes in temperature, melting of glaciers and other climate induced changes keep piling on the problems like the fact that 26 out of the 43 lakes have dried up significantly over the past few years.
On the other hand, the issue threatens to draw up numerous political issues in a country where the people already compete for scarce resources. Three out of the four provinces already blame Punjab for infringing upon their water resources. Meanwhile some observers opine that rookie management and faulty policies in tandem with the water crisis threaten to exacerbate existing insurgencies and make a military coup more likely. Moreover, a Chinese diplomat reportedly complained that Pakistan’s chronic water shortages were hampering Chinese investment as part of the China—Pakistan Economic Corridor.
The policymakers in Pakistan need to wage war on the water crisis that threatens to sap the nation dry over the next decade. Long, medium and short term strategies need to be formulated in order to preserve water. In the short run, we may look to employ water treatment strategies and educate the stakeholders in order to achieve an optimal level of available water consumption for household, industrial and sanitary use. Meanwhile, strategies for the medium-term may include a complete review of the water treaties and building water reservoirs so that water is distributed in an equitable and a sustainable manner.
The policymakers in Pakistan need to wage war on the water crisis that threatens to sap the nation dry over the next decade.
In the long run, Pakistan can consider setting up desalination plants to make better use of river and sea water. Various countries have taken up this project to tackle water issues. In South Asia, the largest desalination plant is the Minjur Desalination Plant near Chennai in India followed by another one at Nemmeli. These plants have the capacity to produce an output of 200 million litres of water per day. Compared to Chennai, Karachi receives far less rainfall per year: 6.7 inches compared to Chennai’s 55 inches of average per year rainfall. Yet India has invested in a desalination plant as a substitute for groundwater. Indeed the cost of establishing such plants in the coastal areas of Pakistan would depend highly on the type of fuel that is used. However, the benefits of this initiative would far outweigh the costs. And with the plans of establishing coal power plants under the CPEC, it would seem natural to start planning for setting up desalination plants rather than preparing ourselves for a dry future.