Water worries

Editorial Board
March 24, 2023

The theme for this year’s World Water Day which falls on March 22 every year was ‘Accelerating change’ – meant to highlight the lack of progress across the world in achieving...

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The theme for this year’s World Water Day which falls on March 22 every year was ‘Accelerating change’ – meant to highlight the lack of progress across the world in achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6: achieving “safely managed water and sanitation” for all by 2030. According to the UN, progress on this goal is about four times slower than it needs to be to meet the 2030 deadline, an indictment of national and global water policies. Furthermore, this prognosis is a global average, in Pakistan, progress has likely been much slower. In fact, it is even conceivable that we have not made any progress and are sliding further towards water scarcity. Just last year, water-sector experts went on record to claim that Pakistan will face absolute water scarcity by 2025 and, according to a report by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), 80 per cent of the population faces severe water scarcity for at least one month every year. Our per-capita water availability has declined from 5650 cubic metres per annum in 1951 to 908 cubic metres per annum by 2022.

Given these facts, and the daily water problems that our people face, it will come as a surprise that Pakistan used to be a water-abundant country and has become water scarce through decades of mismanagement. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis, along with 90 per cent of our agricultural production, rely on ground and surface water from the Indus River Basin as their primary or only source of water. This overreliance on a single water source is a big part of the scarcity problem, with the Indus River Basin ranking as the second-most over-stressed underground water reserve in the world, while Pakistan overall ranks 160th in terms of the ratio of water withdrawal to water resources. Agriculture is by far the biggest consumer of water in the country and our inability to modernize irrigation methods is costing us dearly. To make matters worse, the Indus River originates from outside our borders, with 78 per cent of our water coming from outside Pakistan. This is a fact that India, and its hardline government, are now looking to exploit, with PM Narendra Modi threatening to cut off our supply and the development of new Indian dams along the Chenab and Jhelum rivers prompting Pakistan into invoking the Indus Water Treaty’s dispute resolution provision three times thus far. Doing so has not produced any results and as India’s geopolitical influence continues to grow our only source of water is under more threat than ever before, to say nothing of using water as a geopolitical weapon.

Pakistan mainly needs to improve its water storage capabilities. It is not at all clear, however, that mega dams are the answer to this problem. As it is, the increased incidence of droughts that will be caused by global climate change require us to go beyond constructing more dams. While some hydroelectric projects are necessary, Pakistan’s main focus should be on conservation and efficient use. There is also a need to artificially recharge the depleting groundwater resources. This the government can do by employing low-cost solutions. As weather-related phenomena like floods and droughts become more frequent and extreme, we need to be better equipped to deal with these crises.

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