Pakistan is at the verge of drought, according to the Global Land Outlooks report issued recently by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD). It is among the 23 countries of the world that are suffering from harsh and prolonged drought conditions, and, alarmingly, could become one of the first five water-scarce countries. The crucial fallout of the situation would be a severe food crisis threatening the national economic security and could propel political unrest.
In fact, Pakistan has been facing drought emergencies over the past two years due to many factors that have contributed to the situation. These include slower melting of glaciers and 26 percent less snowfall in 2021, completely dry spell in March and April this year, recurring heatwaves, minimal water level in the large water reservoirs like Tarbela Dam and Mangla Dam, and depreciated groundwater resources. On May 30, the Pakistan Meteorological Department had issued a warning of severe drought in some districts of Balochistan, whereas mild drought conditions already prevailed in most of Sindh, south Punjab, and south Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Its report for June 21-27 says that in spite of intermittent rains, mild to moderate as well as moderate to severe drought situation will continue to prevail in already drought-affected areas. Indus River System Authority (IRSA) has also shown serious concerns about the present water situation in the wake of a total of 56 percent less water coming to the rivers. Unfortunately, all the past and present governments, federal as well as provincial, have remained insensitive and indifferent to the crucial water crisis, having failed to effectively and timely address the serious issue, which has many dimensions. Today, per capita water availability is at dangerous level of 908 cubic meter (cum) per annum, compared to 5,060cum recorded in 1951.
It has become a matter of survival today, and the future scenario is bleak as Pakistan has not shown any physical preparedness to face the calamity. Pakistan has adopted, in 2016, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the UN Sustainable Development Framework 2018-2022, Pakistan must develop medium-term strategic planning to achieve the targets. Addressing water issue is one of the major components of framework, however, the government reports current status (2021) as “the degree of integrated water resources management has improved from 50 percent (2017 baseline) to 56 percent”, without any details, meaning that there is no progress. Ironically, the government claims “improved source of drinking water is available to 94 percent of the country’s population”. But the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) admits that at present only 39 percent population has access to clean water, whereas international experts believe that Pakistanis have access to safe water in the range of 20 percent-36 percent.
Indus River and its tributaries receive an average annual influx of, and thus provide surface water, to the level of 154 million acre-feet (MAF). About 72 percent of surface water is diverted into the irrigation system comprising barrages and canals, whereas most of the remaining 28 percent is either wasted or lost to sea due to inadequate water storage reservoirs. Also, Pakistan uses more than 90 percent of its water resources in agriculture, compared to global average of 70 percent, thus highly impacting its surface water resources. Seemingly, Pakistan remains averse to adopting technology-driven modern irrigation systems like gravity-fed drip, subsurface drip, and sprinkler water systems that are highly efficient methods of irrigating crops and plants.
Large water storage reservoirs are essentially required to be constructed. Construction of one mega dam after every decade was planned in the seventies, but, sadly, not a single dam could be constructed in five decades. It was only during the past government that construction of Mohmand Dam and Diamer Basha Dam, with cumulative storage capacity of over 9 MAF, was initiated. Given the present status of slow progress on these projects, however, it is not likely that these dams would be completed on timelines of December 2025 and August 2029, respectively. Here, one is grossly reminded of criminal negligence on the part of successive governments for shelving the most feasible Kalabagh Dam project.
On the other hand, Pakistan has one of the world’s largest aquifers. The Indus River and its tributaries provide groundwater to the extent of optimally 147 million acre-feet (MAF) annually but ranked as the second most overstressed aquifer globally. Unfortunately, Pakistan ranks fourth in terms of annual groundwater extraction to meet 70 percent supplies of domestic freshwater. In recent years, the use of groundwater has increased manifold, and currently, as high as 50 MAF of water is extracted annually from underground aquifers. Consequently, these aquifers are depleting fast, as practically there is no regulatory framework for water conservation and recharging of the aquifers, besides the issues of waterlogging and contamination. Climate change is resulting in extreme events of floods and droughts, presenting more challenges. On the initiative of past government, 1.5 billion trees have been planted against programme of total 10 billion trees, which may help to improve situation in the long-term.
According to the World Bank, “Groundwater has the potential to be the most reliable water resource for Pakistan, providing a buffer against the unpredictability of climate change and the failure of infrastructure designed to deliver surface water. The Indus Basin groundwater aquifer in Pakistan holds in storage at least eight times the volume of freshwater held in the country’s three biggest dams.” Groundwater or subsurface water, in Pakistan’s context, therefore, plays a life sustaining role. But too little and too late has been done by the government so far in this direction.
To improve governance in the water sector, the National Water Policy 2018 was announced with a lot of fanfare, but it has not been effectively implemented even after a lapse of five years. The policy lays emphasis on regulating groundwater withdrawals, measures for artificial recharging aquifers, and promoting investment in groundwater recharge schemes, but it failed to transform these provisions into actions. The underlining principle for sustainability is to maintain balance between extraction and recharge of groundwater. However, the main recharge of the subsurface aquifer is associated with rain-fed streams that do not help significantly.
There are various methods and techniques to conserve water by creating subsurface storage reservoirs through augmentation of groundwater aquifer. These include construction of subsurface dams and check dams, and installation of recharge pits and shafts and recharge wells. PCRWR has been working on rainwater harvesting and aquifer-recharging projects for some time, but on a limited scale and primarily in Balochistan (outside Indus Basin system). It has successfully introduced simple recharging technique of collecting rainwater and injecting it into the groundwater through a filtration system. A nation-wide programme for developing sustainability of groundwater resources is the proverbial need of the hour. Recently, the Capital Development Authority has adopted the PCRWR artificial groundwater recharge technique having initiated a pilot project on seven potential sites, whereas a total of 100 sites will be developed for installing recharge wells in Islamabad.
While Pakistan observed the World Desertification and Drought Day on June 16, the government simply issued a statement reiterating the need to work on improving drought preparedness and building drought resilience, without taking any concrete steps to achieve the goals. In the face of growing water challenges, it is imperative that the government—and the society—implement, on priority, action plans to rehabilitate, conserve, and manage all the land and water resources judiciously. Time is of essence.
The writer is retired chairman of the State Engineering Corporation