We are aware that humans need water to survive, as do all the systems we rely on: sanitation, healthcare, education, business and industry. Moreover, water is also the primary medium through which we will feel the effects of climate change. Higher and extreme temperatures, less predictable weather conditions are projected to affect the availability and distribution of rainfall, snowmelt, river flows and groundwater.
While many governments and the general public are starting to acknowledge climate change, they don’t necessarily recognise it to be a pressing issue. Denial of climate change is dangerous as the signs of this change are slow-acting - also known as climate delay. Every country in the world must work more quickly, keeping in mind the extreme weather events are making water scarcer, more unpredictable, more polluted or all three. According to a recent report published by International Monetary Fund, Pakistan is among the world’s 36 most water-stressed countries, with its agricultural, domestic, and industry sectors scoring high on the World Resource Institute’s water stress index. Its per capita annual water availability is 1,017 cubic metres - perilously close to the scarcity threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Also, news reports have been circulating since the past two years which claim that ‘Pakistan may run dry by the year 2025’.
World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about focusing attention on the importance of water. This year’s theme, ‘Water and Climate Change’, explores how these two are inextricably linked, and the action plans that must be made in order to tackle the looming crisis.
Before we look at the current scenario in Pakistan, we should know what does water scarcity actually mean. A country whose per capita water resources are less than 1700 cubic metre is said to be a water-stressed country. When per capita water availability falls below 1000 cubic metre, the country is water scarce, and when it falls below 500 cubic metre/person, the country experiences an absolute-water scarcity. By this standard, a research in 2016 (Managing Water Scarcity in Pakistan: Moving Beyond Rhetoric) claims that Pakistan crossed the water scarcity line during 2005 and, if the situation continues, the country will touch the absolute water scarcity line by 2025.
But will we really run out of water by then? While the climate change has a significant impact on the availability of water, is it really the sole culprit here? According to a report published by Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) last year, Pakistan is dependent on a single source of Indus River and its tributaries where about 84 per cent of the total inflow is received in three monsoonal months and the rest 16 per cent during the remaining nine months. With the increased climate variability, the wet years/seasons are becoming more wet and dry years/seasons drier. The report also states that the capacity of the existing reservoirs is depleting at a rate of about 0.2 MAF/year. Only in Tarbela reservoir, 500,000 tons of sediment is being deposited every day. Therefore, new reservoirs would also be needed to replenish the depleting capacity and to transfer water from the wet seasons to the dry seasons and from the wet years to the dry years. Due to inadequate storage, Pakistan has lost more than 90 MAF (million-acre foot) of water during the floods of 2010, 2012 and 2014, besides their devastating effects on infrastructure, crops, livestock and human.
So, while there is a climatic change looming in the country, already a large portion of Pakistan’s population does not have access to safe drinking water and sanitation services. This is due to the fact that irrigation and drinking water systems are mired with inequities, access and entitlement issues. Significant disparities exist between the rich and the poor. Water entitlements are yet to be established and land rights are still considered a proxy to water rights.
For instance, most of the urban water is supplied from groundwater except for cities like Karachi, Hyderabad, and parts of Islamabad, which mainly use surface water, as per a research by Hisaar Foundation in 2012 - a foundation for water, food and livelihood security. System or line losses are a major issue in water supply of urban areas. In Karachi, losses are approximately 40 per cent of the total bulk water supply to the city. The quality of water supplied at the consumer point is poor as a result of contamination in the old and rusty distribution networks. Tests carried out by PCRWR, as part of a national water quality monitoring programme, revealed that water in many cities of Pakistan was unsafe for human consumption due to bacterial and chemical contamination. Almost 50 per cent of the samples in 17 cities were found to be unfit for human consumption. According to the study the overall deterioration in ground water can be associated with indiscriminate and improper disposal of sewage and industrial effluents including persistent toxic synthetic organic chemicals, heavy metals, pesticides products, municipal waste, and untreated sewage water into freshwater bodies. This study paints a grim picture of the existing water issues, let alone the one we anticipate as a result of global warming.
On another note, an expert in hydrology and water resources, Dr Hassan Abbas believes we are neither water deficient nor water scarce, but in fact our problem lies in the pattern of consumption. According to Abbas, 104 MAF goes into irrigation, out of which 54 MAF is preventable wastage, if we work on efficient irrigation practices. The urban and industrial sectors remain poorly served despite manageable requirements of 27 MAF or thereabouts. In most cities, domestic and industrial needs can be met by investments in proper aquifer management, prevention of pollution in aquifers and streams, correct handling of storm water run-off, and appropriate disposal of sewerage effluents.
Endorsing this argument, Environmental lawyer and Activist, Rafay Alam further elaborates, “There is a lot of scaremongering that we are running out of water, which is not entirely true. I’ve spoken to experts here in Pakistan and abroad, and they all assure me that we are not running out of water. Is it going to stop raining? Are the glaciers going to disappear or the ground water by 2025? What’s really happening is that we are misusing and misallocating this resource. People not having access is different to running out of it. We are literally just taking it and blowing it off on fatty sweets and other indulgences. For example, there are people in Karachi who might have access to safe drinking water, but if you go up 200km up in Sindh, there are farmlands that produce millions of tonnes of sugar cane - a very water intensive crop. An average Pakistani is consuming 26 kg of sugar per year and all of the water used to irrigate these crops is going to turn into sugar and ethanol.”
Quoting another example, Rafay also touches up on the topic of sustainability, “It takes about 8k to10k litres of water to make a single lawn suit. Cotton is again a water intensive crop. So, people in Bhakkar, South Punjab, might not have water for irrigation or drinking, but people in cities like in Lahore and Karachi would have ample new clothes. 15k litres of water is used just to produce one kilo of meat that would make a fast food burger. Sustainability in everything is important; things that take a lot of water to produce need to be kept in check. We are constantly using it for purposes that shouldn’t be on priority. We will only run out of water if we continue to misuse it.”
Water remains highly undervalued when used commercially. The management of water is Pakistan’s biggest development and governance challenge. Pakistan needs to develop action plans that help us brace for the unpredictable impact of climate change and integrate it across different sectors. So far, the current government has merely supported the CJP-formed dam fund in 2018 and collecting the amount needed to build dams - which was a disappointment. Moreover, Pakistan has National Water Policy 2018 but it fails to recognise the impact women and children will have due to water crisis. On this Rafay Alam critiques, “The policy suffers due to lack of inclusion and discrimination. While everyone knows women interact with water as much as men (whether in irrigation or in other domestic activities), the policy is absolutely silent as to the role of women in the water sector. Pakistan’s policy space and practice areas in water are entirely male dominated. The fields comprise mostly hydrologists, engineers and retired diplomats and soldiers. There is no female representation in this space, and neither is there an adequate female presence in any of the public sector institutions that oversee water governance in Pakistan. And so, for the National Water Policy to be absolutely blind to this is an oversight that undermines its credibility.”
To combat this issue, we need targeted polices that are implemented in every sector and they must have one thing in common: safe and sustainable water management across the board. Apart from this, whether or not you’re facing water shortage, it is crucial to conserve water for a sustainable living. While water is a determinant for climate change, it can also help alleviate its effects, so there is not a drop to waste!
It may not be visible, but millions of gallons of virtual water go into making the consumer goods we buy, use and throw away. Manufacturing everyday materials like paper, plastic, metal and fabric takes water - a lot of it. Knowing how much water it takes to make the raw materials and products we all use and consume is an important first step towards water conservation and using water more productively.
Cotton bedsheet: It takes about 2,839 gallons of water to produce a single bedsheet.
A pair of jeans: It takes 2,000 gallons (7,600 litres) of water to make your favourite pair of jeans.
Shoes: It takes about 2,257 gallons of water to make one pair of shoes. To make a pound of synthetic rubber, used for shoe soles, 55 gallons of water are needed. And for leather shoes, the number goes to 3,626 gallons.
Toilet paper roll: A single roll of toilet paper requires 37 gallons of water, 1.3 kilowatt/hours (KWh) of electricity and some 1.5 pounds of wood.
Bottled water: The bottle of water you’re drinking - it takes 1.85 gallons of water just to make the bottle! To produce a single litre of bottled water, it takes 1.39 litres of water.
Burgers: A 1/3-pound burger requires 660 gallons of water.
Cars: To make the average passenger car, around 39,090 gallons of water are required. To make a single tire, an average of 518 gallons of water are used.
Smart phone: A single phone will utilise 3,190 gallons, so think about it when you are buying a new phone just for the sake of it rather than necessity.