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Urban water governance

Opinion

January 16, 2021

With the sixth largest population in the world and already over stretched water resources, sustainable water provision and access is becoming a huge challenge in Pakistan.

This is not as much about water availability as about lacking effective urban water governance and failure to check uncontrolled water extraction.

The country is rapidly urbanising, and by 2030 half of Pakistan’s population will be living in cities. Though 72 percent of the urban population has access to improved sanitation, 19 million are still without access to improved sanitation.

Water sustainability in a broader sense goes beyond just quantitative adequacy as it has other environmental dimensions such as a depleting groundwater table, drainage problem, and pollution of surface water bodies.

The residents of Quetta city, the provincial headquarters of Balochistan, are suffering from acute water shortages. The city, located at an elevation of 1,680 m, is experiencing rapid population growth due to in-migration. Low rainfall in recent years is adding to the crisis.

Approximately three million people residing in Quetta require some 170 MLD of water per day whereas the supply is just 106 MLD. Groundwater is the only source to meet this demand; this has receded down to 300m, mainly due to over extraction of water. The civic authority just meets 50 percent of the water demand. The residents have to rely heavily on private tankers. This leads to further overexploitation of the groundwater through some 2,000 tubewells.

One of the simplest measures to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 is by washing hands. However, this would require water availability and accessibility. The government of Pakistan, having realised this, is implementing several initiatives with partners from the civil society and in collaboration with the provincial departments responsible for water, sanitation and health as well as Provincial Disaster Management Authorities (PDMAs) to assess the situation and support them in improving access to WASH, especially handwashing facilities, in hospitals, quarantine centres and public places. This includes radio campaigns, FM radio, local cable networks, SMS service and installation of temporary facilities in different cities and hospitals.

The reality of water-related challenges has led to calls to adapt urban water governance to integrated, inclusive, climate change resilient and adaptive approaches that facilitate learning and innovation for sustainable and resilient cities. However, the challenge remains on how to create such conditions to overcome the barriers entrenched in existing urban water governance regimes. Pakistan needs place-based contextualised urban water governance models that can be scaled up.

Some of the common barriers to effective urban water governance in developing countries’ context are water institutions' non-responsiveness, coordination/interaction issues, lack of collaboration, limited information access and communication between various levels of formal institutions and absence of capacity building and challenges to ensure fairness in distribution.

Urban water governance structures across the urban centres in most of the South Asian countries are dominated by a group of vested interests, better called mafia. Ground water abstraction policies exist in municipal by-laws in many cases, however they are seldom followed in Quetta (Pakistan), Kabul (Afghanistan) and Haldwani (India).

Strengthening links between scientists, policymakers and citizens: behavioural change through awareness programmes, knowledge empowerment and citizen/stakeholder engagement in data collection and inclusiveness in decision-making is necessary to build robust and equitable policies around water management in urban centres.

For sustainable urban water governance and to meet the targets of SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation, the government of Pakistan should take a lead in the provision of sustainable WASH services for the poor and marginalised in informal urban settlements and small-to-medium size cities to emerge as replicable models for adaptation at scale.

Today, people have access to better tools to connect, and the translated information may result not only in the sharing of information but also experiencing citizens' knowledge. Networking of citizens may create an active role for them to take part in science and decision-making.

The internet has opened up space for citizens to seek scientific empowerment through the web. Substantial amounts of technical data exist within institutions; however, it is rarely translated to a wider audience. Using apps and the internet is a conceivable way to disseminate information to achieve smart water management practices, and smart citizens.

The writer is a development practitioner based in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]

The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of his institutional affiliation.