As water resources continue to deplete, the world is turning to the sea for solutions. Desalination of water, through the process of reverse osmosis, has helped countries escape periods of severe dry spells, and transformed drought stricken areas into cultivable lands.
Various regions of Pakistan, including Balochistan, are also currently experiencing drought like conditions and unavailability of water has forced people residing in these regions, into using water that is unfit for consumption. Even the developed cities like Quetta face water scarcity and despite being the hub of CPEC, Gwadar does not even have access to basic facilities like clean drinking water. Many women and children walk as far as eleven kilometres on average every day to get only a bucket of water. Deprived of food and water, many are even forced into migration.
Water pollution is also a serious problem in the province where both surface and groundwater sources of drinking water are contaminated with toxic metals, pesticides, and coliforms, leading to numerous deaths in the province. Sometimes the only source of obtaining clean water is through rain, which is scanty in the region. Due to limited storing options, people collect rain water in open catchments that lead to further sanitation problems as animals drink from the same areas. The drinking water quality parameters set forth by the World Health Organization are frequently violated as improper disposal of industrial and municipal effluents seep into the fresh water streams due to careless human activities.
Currently, approximately 6000 tube wells have been placed in various parts of the province that are lifting groundwater, but there are no long term storage options for them. Unsustainable and excessive means of obtaining water has resulted in Balochistan being severely groundwater stressed. Sea level has dropped by more than 2000 feet and groundwater has no means of getting recharged because of limited rainfall and recurrent droughts. Since the majority of the Baloch people rely on agriculture for their livelihood, which depends on the quality and quantity of groundwater, they are suffering as agricultural land is damaged. Residents of Gwadar and Quetta, and most remote areas, have no water for drinking and rely heavily on tankers, which are expensive.
Currently providing 4000 household in Gwadar with 254,000 gallons of clean drinking water, the desalination plant is seen as a long term solution for Balochistan’s water shortage problem.
Earlier this year, a desalination plant was installed in the port of Gwadar by a Chinese company under the CPEC project. Currently providing 4000 household in Gwadar with 254,000 gallons of clean drinking water, the desalination plant is seen as a long term solution for Balochistan’s water shortage problem.
The Government should be cautious about using desalination plants as a backup plan and nothing more. Even though the mechanism is seen as drought proof, it is an electrify hog, and has the potential to disrupt sea life. Balochistan is already facing serious electricity outage, where only recently the whole of Makran division observed a shutter down strike, including Gwadar. The continuous power cuts were prompting further water shortage for the local people and the provincial and federal authorities failed to address their concerns.
A proper planning and monitoring mechanism is a prerequisite for the sustainability of desalination plants. It is crucial that these plants keep getting the finances and resources needed to run its processes, and timely maintenance checks. Earlier this year, around 650 desalination plants were shut down in various parts of Sindh because of the very reasons.
Previously, the government abandoned four desalination plants in the district of Gwadar, the responsibility for which was assigned to the Balochistan Development Authority in 2008. One of the plants was a Rupees one billion project installed in the Gwadar’s industrial area of Karwat, and the other plants were installed in Jewani, Singhar, and Pasni, costing Rupees 200 million each. According to the BDA, work had begun on all of the plants, but none of them got completed despite purchasing all the required machinery and contracts.
In 2014, when Gwadar and other regions in Balochistan were severely hit with a water crisis, work on the desalination plant in Karwat started again on emergency basis. The plant never got to function at its full capacity of providing two million gallons of clean water daily, and in 2007 it was officially shut down. According to the Public Health and Engineering Department the plant was not filtering the salt water as per the required quality of total dissolved solids.
The Water Management Department in Balochistan has been accused of corruption on several accounts. In March, several protesters accused the Department of handing out contracts worth Rupees 240 million that were not given on merit. The trend of continuous delays in development projects is also seen as a result of corruption, as currently 20 small dams in the region remain unfinished and development of more than 80 other keeps getting delayed. When the desalination plants remained non-functional despite millions worth of investment, NAB launched an investigation but to no avail.
If the problem of water scarcity is to be tackled, the government should work with full transparency and focus on regenerating the development projects that were abandoned.
Had the sewage treatment plant near Sabzal road, in Quetta, been given enough attention, the plant would have had purified thousands of gallons of water for its residents to use for irrigation. However, for the past three years the plant has also been non-operational. Mismanagement and missing yearly budget for the plants’ operation, of approximately Rupees 30 million, are the main causes for inactivity. If the problem of water scarcity is to be tackled, the government should work with full transparency and focus on regenerating the development projects that were abandoned.
With another desalination plant being installed in Killi Batto, the government needs to make sure that the newly installed desalination plant does not face the same fate, and the relief that this plant promises to provide for the people is not short lived. Precautionary improvements to desalination plants should include the laying down of bury pipes so that sea life is not sucked in the desalination process, and the use of wind and solar energy should be considered for electrical needs.
Desalination should not be seen as a final solution to water problems, and should definitely not be used as an infinite water source since its coming from the sea. Given Pakistan’s history of profligate use of water, desalination should not be used as an excuse to enhance development, rather what the country needs the most is a sense of responsibility and the change in attitude towards saving and efficiently reusing water.
is a Development Economist with an MPhil in Development Studies from the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad. She is passionate about working towards a developed, inclusive, and greener environment and is currently working as a Research Associate at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.