The Bleak State of Water Conservation in Pakistan

For Pakistan, an essential aspect of climate change is mounting water scarcity and an increasing need for the conservation of water. Water is a key element of national security as every aspect of a state’s economy, from energy to agriculture, depends upon the availability of water. With water reserves dropping to 1000 meter3 per capita, it is quite evident that Pakistan will fail to provide water access to the growing population in the coming years.

Water availability has become a critical problem in Pakistan. The country has been ranked at third position among the most water-scarce countries, according to International Monetary Fund (IMF). Pakistan’s per capita water availability is dangerously close to reaching 1000 meters3, which is the scarcity threshold. But what does it mean to be a water-scarce or stressed country? When a country’s water resources fall to 1700 meter3 per capita annually, it is called a water-stressed country. However, if it falls to 1000 and 500 meter3, a country has reached water scarcity and absolute-water scarcity levels, respectively. In the case of Pakistan, it has been consistently reported that the country will run dry by 2025, which means that by 2025 Pakistan will become an absolute water-scarce country.

Pakistan’s only water source Indus River Basin is highly dependent on glacial water and precipitation which has been affected by climate change. Besides, due to climate change and extreme weather conditions, wet seasons are becoming more wet and dry months dryer, causing water depletion in the existing reservoirs. For instance, this year, Tarbela Dam has reached a dead level since February due to low water flow in the Indus River. Similarly, the water level at Mangla Dam has dropped to 0.130MAF, which is the lowest number recorded in 10 years.

Inefficient water distribution and mismanagement have caused much damage to water conservation. It is estimated that Pakistan’s urban population will increase by more than 50% by 2050; however, 97%  of freshwater of the Indus River is used by the agriculture sector, which is currently contributing only 18% of the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Additionally, 80% of water resources are used by water-intensive crops (such as rice, wheat, sugarcane, and cotton), only contributing 5% of total GDP, which reflects Pakistan’s inconsiderate and thoughtless cropping choices.

Also, due to limited storage capacity, Pakistan can only save up to 10 % of its yearly river water flows, while the world’s average storage capacity has reached 40%.

Despite being an agricultural country, Pakistan has an extremely fragile water infrastructure causing intensive water loss. Approximately 60% of water gets wasted through canals, watercourses and in the agricultural fields. Also, due to limited storage capacity, Pakistan can only save up to 10 % of its yearly river water flows, while the world’s average storage capacity has reached 40%. The unavailability of water has made people resort to using underground water. But, the indiscriminate over-pumping without any regulatory bodies across cities has also caused groundwater depletion.

Moreover, ineffective water sharing mechanisms and water shortage have also escalated the interprovincial water disputes, especially between Sindh and Punjab in the last decade due to increased droughts and augmented sedimentation in Tarbela and Mangla dams. Similarly, the Indus River System Authority (IRSA), responsible for implementing the 1991 Water Accord, has failed to resolve water disputes due to the latter’s ambiguous clauses and varied interpretations by each province.

However, underscoring the mounting need for water conservation, this decade has been declared a “decade of dams” by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). Five dams (including Diamer Bhasha Dam and Mohmand Dam, which are already under construction), three hydropower projects and one canal and water supply project are planned to be constructed under WAPDA’s ten projects from 2023 to 2029. After completion, these projects can increase water storage to approximately more than 24 MAF. Nevertheless, concerned institutions need to rethink and establish other methods to conserve water than building dams, as the old ones are also silting up and getting sedimented, reducing their water storage capacity. Besides, the National Water Policy 2018 needs to be re-evaluated. It might have been an important step in the right direction, yet it has been heavily criticised due to its lack of scientific basis and neglect of addressing water quality issues and setting clear quantitative targets in light of the SDG agenda.

The above-mentioned issues, coupled with growing water pollution, paint a bleak picture of Pakistan’s water security. The worst part is that water security is still not getting enough attention from our politicians, policymakers and media. The media can and should play a vital role by putting water conservation and security on the mainstream agenda by creating mass awareness campaigns on Pakistan’s water crisis and possible solutions. Lack of knowledge and understanding in the general public regarding the water crisis is the biggest problem of all and one of the reasons that, so far, our institutions have failed to take key steps that should have been taken decades ago. Policymakers need to revise existing water policies and install and revamp existing infrastructure with modern and effective technologies that restore water, such as riparian zone management systems. By employing Water Sensitive Urban Design (WSUD), mechanisms like rainwater tanks, swales, rain gardens, sediment ponds etc., in urban cities can absorb floodwater and recharge aquifers. Recycling wastewater should be a key priority for our policymakers as many countries have realised water security by utilising wastewater. Private sectors around the world have played an important role in achieving water conservation targets. Pakistan also needs to engage with the private sector with a possible solution for the recycling of wastewater. Farmers need to be trained with precision watering. Drip irrigation can be used to save water. As the Kabul river is a significant contributor to the Indus river, Pakistan needs to reach an agreement with Afghanistan to regularise water sharing of the Kabul river to avoid any further regional water disputes.

Neha Nisar

Neha Nisar is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies, National Defence University, Islamabad. She serves as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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