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December 3, 2018

The quest for water security

Opinion

December 3, 2018

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar’s appeal for donations and participation in fund-raising events in the UK to build dams and increase the country’s water-storage capacity has revitalised the debate about the need, justification, feasibility and implications of constructing large water reservoirs in the country.

In this article, I will discuss the challenge of water scarcity in Pakistan, the factors responsible for it, and the policy measures that the country can take to overcome acute water scarcity. I am also going to discuss the global trends regarding construction of larger dams, and whether Pakistan can accumulate sufficient finances through donations to successfully fund the construction of proposed water reservoirs.

In May 2018, the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) came up with a somewhat startling revelation that Pakistan is faced with a severe water crisis and it is estimated that there will be very little or no clean water available by 2025 if tangible short-term as well as comprehensive long-term measures are not taken.

Similarly, the IMF has warned that Pakistan is ranked third among countries facing water scarcity. It is a precarious situation as the per capita water availability in the 1950s was approximately 5,000 cubic metres per year, which has now declined to below 1,000 cubic metres per year. This is an internationally recognised threshold of water shortage.

Climate change coupled with unabated deforestation, threats to the country’s glacial reserves, drying lakes and rivers and poor water supply will severely affect agriculture, ecology and local biodiversity. It must be noted that the previous government identified food, energy and water security among the seven key pillars in its key long-term policy document ‘Vision 2025’. Similarly, access to clean water and sanitation is also one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed upon by all UN member states under the 2030 Agenda. It must be emphasised that Pakistan was the first country that adopted the UN 2030 Agenda through a unanimous parliamentary resolution in February 2016. To achieve water security and accomplish SDG 6, the country must come up with short- and long-term plans and initiatives to address the challenge of water security.

However, due to our unsustainable and unregulated usage of water, where it is largely considered a free-of-cost commodity, Pakistan has the fourth highest rate of water consumption across the world. Comparing our GDP per capita and the consumption of water per unit of GDP, Pakistan is considered to be among the most water-intensive economies in the world, as per an IMF report. There are various factors responsible for this.

The country is an outdated agricultural economy, with an efficiency rate of a just over 50 percent. For instance, out of the country’s fresh water resources, a colossal over 90 percent is consumed by the agricultural sector. According to some estimates, about half of this precious water is wasted even before it reaches the fields due to massive leakages in the feeble water-transportation infrastructure.

For example, about 100 million acre-feet of water (maf) enters the canal system where 40 million acre-feet (maf) doesn’t reach the farm gate. The water volume wasted approximately amounts to the storage capacity of five Kalabagh dams. While there will always be demands for dams, which are, of course, necessary in its own place, there is a greater need to minimise the leakages and wastage of water caused by dilapidated water-supply infrastructure as well as its unregulated free-of-cost extravagant usage. And as for the remaining 50 percent of water that actually reaches fields, much of it is virtually wasted by outdated practices in agriculture, such as flood irrigation.

The result is that Pakistan’s productivity per unit of water is 0.39 kilogrammes per cubic meters, which is one-sixth of China’s and one-third of India’s. We need to think about how to improve our water transportation system and usage efficiency. One solution could be a major overhaul in the country’s water and agricultural infrastructure if we want to surmount the issue of severe water scarcity. Both federal and provincial governments need to invest in initiatives that could minimise the current leakages and wastages in water-transportation structures.

Apart from enormous wastage in the agricultural sector, a huge amount of water is wasted in our unrestrained daily routine. For example, some estimates suggest that an average of 400 gallons of fresh water is used to wash a car, over 10 gallons is wasted during a shower, and about four gallons while we brush our teeth. While brushing their teeth, most people rarely turn off the tap. As a result, a considerable amount of water is wasted.

All these are substantial statistics for a country of over 210 million people with relatively meagre natural resources, including water. The situation looks all the more grave as we are aware that most of the water consumed at household levels is primarily groundwater, which is considered to be a last resort if the country runs out of water. Loosely regulated and ineffective water governance coupled with our resistance to adopt latest technology, techniques and practices are some of the principal factors responsible for the current situation.

A recent research study titled ‘Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century’, authored by professors at the Michigan State University, has come up with some startling findings regarding the role of hydropower and mega dams as sustainable and viable options of cheaper energy in the modern era.

The study states that hydropower remained one of the leading sources of renewable energy around the globe, “accounting for up to 71 percent of this supply as of 2016”. Most of this capacity was developed in Europe and the US in the 20th century when thousands of hydropower projects were successfully executed. But unlike the trend in numerous developing countries across the globe, including Pakistan, there is a completely contrary propensity in developed countries concerning the construction of larger dams.

Various factors are responsible for this trend. These include the fact that there are no more suitable sites available for dams and there are increasing environmental and social concerns about the construction of larger dams. Nowadays, more dams are being removed in North America and Europe than those that are being built, the study reveals. It further elaborates that dam removal rather than construction has become the norm in North America and Europe because many of the reservoirs built before 1950 are at the end of their useful lives.

The study argues that it would be too costly to repair these old dams as many no longer serve their initial purpose, and their social and environmental negative externalities have become unacceptable. However, unlike the US, some European countries with favourable topography and rain patterns – such as France and Switzerland – continue to have hydropower as an important part of their energy mix through technological innovations at existing dams.

In contrast, 3,450 dams have been removed to date in Sweden, Spain, Portugal and the UK. Similarly, hundreds of dams have been demolished successfully in the US (a total of 546 from 2006 to 2014). On average, over 60 dams are being removed in the US annually – a trend that started in 2006. It is because the cost of repairing and renovating a small dam could be up to three times the cost of removing it.

However, because of diverse and acute need for cheaper energy, this situation stands in stark contrast with what is happening in developing countries. For example, a total of over 3,700 dams that produce more than 1 MW are either planned or under-construction primarily in developing countries. The principal reason behind this line of thinking is that despite rising trends of using alternative energy sources in developed countries, hydropower still represents the largest renewable source of electricity (70 percent of the global production of renewable energy).

In addition, it is believed that less than 25 percent of the global hydro potential has been exploited to date, and there is enormous potential in many developing countries. It is one of the key tenets of the 2030 Agenda, as agreed upon by all UN member states in 2015 at the 70th UN General Assembly (UNGA), to substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

It goes without saying that access to clean and affordable energy is among one of the 17 SDGs because one in seven people still lack access to electricity and a majority of such people live in rural areas in developing countries.

To be continued

The writer holds a PhDfrom Massey University, New Zealand. He teaches at the

University of Malakand.

Email: [email protected]

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