Early this year, the New York Times ominously warned in a report that “energy-starved Pakistanis, their economy battered by chronic fuel and electricity shortages, may soon have to contend with a new resource crisis: major water shortages.”
Quoting Khawaja Asif, the report said: “A combination of global climate change, waste and mismanagement have led to an alarmingly rapid depletion of Pakistan’s water supply under the present situation, in the next six to seven years, Pakistan can be a water-starved country.”
There is no doubt that Pakistan faces an existential threat after becoming one of the most water stressed countries in the world. It has been reported that Pakistan was on the verge of being classified as a “water scarce” country by the Asian Development Bank. A report issued by the bank stated: “Pakistan is one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, not far from being classified as ‘water scarce,’ with less than 1,000 cubic meters per person per year.”
But much before this report came out, the UN’s World Water Development Report had already warned: “The total actual renewable water resources in Pakistan decreased from 2,961 cubic meters per capita in 2000 to 1,420 cubic meters in 2005.”
Now, according to the ADB, it has fallen to 1,000 cubic meters per capita. As compared to Pakistan, the per capita water availability in the US is 6,000 cubic metres, Australia 5,500 cubic metres and China 2,200 cubic metres.
The ADB report further stated: “At present, Pakistan’s storage capacity is limited to a 30-day supply, well below the recommended 1,000 days for countries with a similar climate.”
About the agriculture sector, the ADB added: “Achieving the major challenge of boosting agricultural productivity and strengthening food security requires improving the management, storage, and pricing of water for irrigation. Improved water management is critical to deliver sufficient water to the 80% of farmland in the country that is irrigated. Anecdotal evidence suggests that agricultural productivity could be doubled with appropriate reform.”
All such reports are highly alarming. According to the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR), Pakistan has an estimated population of 187 million with an annual growth rate of 1.57 percent. By the year 2050, the population is expected to double and would become 63.7% urban as compared to only 36 percent in 2010. This will put tremendous pressure on water supply for households, industry and agriculture.
Meanwhile, out of the 140 million acre feet (MAF) of water annually available in Pakistan in a normal year, only about 40 MAF reaches the Indus delta.
The other 100 MAF of water is consumed over an area of 40 million acres. According to international standards, storage capacity is ideally recommended to be around 1,000 days given the climate in the country. However, in Pakistan it stands at unbelievably low 30-day supply.
Thus, there is a grave danger Pakistan could become a water scarce country, which would be a disaster for a country that survives mostly on agriculture.Moreover, there is a growing deficit of water downstream as the scarcity grows, making it imperative to build reservoirs.
Experts point out that in India about one-third of water supply is stored in reservoirs as compared to just nine percent in Pakistan. They say that while India has built 4,000 dams, with another 150 in the pipeline, Pakistan built its last dam more than four decades ago.
Management of water resources has also become problematic as there have been massive failures at the governance levels over the last four decades, allowing the water issue to become heavily politicised.
Experts have again and again pointed out that the country’s water storage capacity be increased significantly so as to manage periods of low snowmelt and low rainfall. They have also called for improving the distribution system for agriculture to reduce the mounting water losses.
Some measures that will help control the problem include: Developing a comprehensive water strategy; building major reservoirs to save water; setting up an authority for saving groundwater; building off-channel water reservoirs to preserve flood water; application of techniques of efficient use of water; efficient methods for treatment of sewage; comprehensive awareness drive to educate people; focusing on emerging challenges such as climate change and desertification. Do we have the political will to tackle perhaps the gravest danger to our existence at a quicker pace?