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October 12, 2017



A world without water

Programming on almost all our television news channels and content in our newspapers essentially tend to either focus on the political dramas that regularly unfold in our country, taking one twist after the other, or headlines which concentrate on the same issues. Of course, the fate of our democracy is of significance to all of us and to the future of our nation. But there is more that is possibly even more significant.

Pakistan – a water-abundant country during the 1960s – has seen a sharp change in its profile. Today, it is already a water-scarce country as per international estimates. This is largely a result of the misuse and poisoning of resources as well as the rapid growth in a population that has now reached 220 million.

Just a few years ago, the country was under water stress – the level which precedes scarcity – according to international estimates. By 2025, it is believed that there will be an absolute water scarcity and a strong likelihood of mass droughts. Wars will inevitably stem from these problems. We have already seen smaller battles being played out on the streets of Karachi for a variety of reasons. The impact of a drought has been visible on a smaller scale in the death of over 100 children this year alone in Tharparkar as a consequence of water scarcity and the malnutrition that stems from it.

Imagine a situation where people are ready to kill for water and political parties campaign on the issue of who they can provide it to. The possibility of desalinating seawater for industrial and domestic use, which has been adopted in the UAE, is still a concept that is only discussed at tiny forums within our country. If it is to serve any purpose, the resources, machinery and expertise required for this need to be immediately established.

We also need to at least begin discussing the question of water and emphasise that it is, in so many ways, more important than corruption or the dominance of one party over another. Money, after all, can neither be eaten nor drank. Through schools, mosques, the media and other forums, we need to drive this point home.

It is difficult to say if we can save ourselves from calamity in the future. But we can certainly try. To do so, we need to save what still remains of our water resources and use them with care. Pakistan has the world’s third highest rate of water use and its water-intensity rate – the amount of water used per unit of the GDP – is also the world’s highest. These are frightening figures. They should be creating panic among all of us, given that 2025 lies just around the corner. Eight years from now, we could be looking at national events from a completely different perspective as we are reminded of just where years of mismanagement have led us.

It could, in fact, serve a useful political and social purpose to divert public attention towards the issue right away. It is true that this will be harder to achieve than whipping up hatred in a country that has been dominated by political squabbles, institutional clashes, religious or ethnic friction and other similar issues for decades. But water could unite people and bring them together in a common battle to save our collective future if this notion is adopted by major political players and other groups that are able to influence people.

There is, of course, no green party in Pakistan and there is little evidence that such forums would succeed in a situation where a majority of the population remains unaware about environmental issues or what the abuse of resources could mean for all of us. The tendency to attribute disasters to the will of God and step aside from doing anything about them at the human level drives much thinking within the country. This needs to change. As humans, we can still help ourselves. But this would only be possible if the powerful and influential forces in our country turn the effort to conserve water into a national struggle.

There are also other dire considerations. Regional experts have repeatedly predicted a water war between India and Pakistan that will begin within the next decade or even sooner. The two nations have been urged to cooperate in order to ward this off. Water and its use has, of course, remained a point of contention between the two deeply-interconnected countries, with India retaining control over a major portion of water supply to Pakistan. The Indus makes its way into Pakistan through Indian-held Kashmir – one of the issues which led to the territory becoming a major battlefield in the past.

Under the Indus Water Treaty of 1960, the flow of water into two tributaries of the Indus has already been blocked off for use by India and its own vast population. The construction of new dams along the Indus in that country adds to the crisis and Pakistan has taken the matter to the World Bank, the UN and other forums. There has so far been a failure to bring about any resolution that would help Pakistan gain access to more water.

However, this is not the primary problem. The water we had, we wasted. Our inability to control industrial effluence and sewage from draining into our rivers and streams means that water is no longer safe to drink. Around 60 percent of child deaths in the country take place due to water-borne diseases. Repeated surveys have found that most groundwater in the country is laced with industrial waste, arsenic leeching in from fertilisers amongs other sources and sewage water containing human waste.

Around 80 percent of people in the country already drink contaminated water. The images of children leaning over to drink from the same water pond as their animals are not unusual. Although a new agreement with India over water resources is essential, there is also a pressing requirement that we learn to manage our water better and place a greater value on it than we do at this stage. 

Far greater awareness and significance needs to be given to the problem. We no longer need to watch science-fiction films to visualise a future in which the most precious resources available to man – including water – are held in the hands of a few while the rest of the population clamber at their doors, beg for a small portion or break through the barriers to obtain it. Picture this on a mass scale, with 220 million people involved in the battle and each individual and household seeking a few litres of water to stay alive. Now ask why more is not being done to tackle this issue before it, quite literally, kills us.

The day, after all, is not far away when this will happen and we have, so far, made no real effort to stave off that moment and salvage a viable future for ourselves, our children and the generations that will come after them. Visualising Pakistan, which still holds large green spaces, as a desert is not easy. But the process has already started and stopping it must now become a central pillar of policy.      

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]