Groundwater depletion is causing scarcity of drinking water. Will the ongoing legislation in Punjab Assembly help the situation?
The demand for water per capita is increasing by the day in Pakistan, putting extraordinary pressure on the aquifer that supplies most of the drinking water available to the common man. The situation in Lahore is no less alarming, as underground water reserves are depleting fast due to its excessive extraction and use in agriculture, industry etc and human consumption.
This also leads to increase in concentration of harmful substances like arsenic in underground water. The reason for this phenomenon is that arsenic is present in the underground rock structure of the city. As the volume of water decreases with excessive water extraction, the presence of arsenic content per unit of water increases and reaches harmful limits.
Another major objection by conservationists is that a large volume of water is wasted due to mismanagement and can be saved when measures are taken and habits are changed. For example, quite commonly, the people leave the taps open in the washrooms, while shaving or brushing their teeth etc. Similarly, the farmers extract water for irrigation purposes without considering that they can achieve the desired results by consuming much less water and through innovative irrigation methods.
One major reason cited for these habits is that water is under-priced for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use, due to which the consumers are not bothered about the volumes they use. If water was reasonably priced, and there was 100 percent metering, it is believed the consumption habits would change overnight.
Having said that, it is the duty of the provincial government to ensure the supply of safe drinking water to each and every individual inhabiting the province. Over the past few decades, different experiments have been made but the objective has not been achieved. Initially, it was the Punjab Housing, Urban Development, and Public Health Engineering Department that took upon themselves the task of setting up filtration plants in the province. After that, the former Punjab Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif founded Punjab Saaf Pani Company as a corporate model, but the project could not take off despite Sharif completing two consecutive tenures in office.
Lately, the Punjab Assembly has approved a bill about forming Punjab Aab-e-Pak Authority (PAPA), with Punjab Governor Chaudhry Muhammad Sarwar as its patron-in-chief. The mandate of the authority is to ensure a sustainable supply of clean drinking water to each and every individual. For this purpose it can seek the assistance of international donors, multinationals involved in CSR activities, NGOs, chambers of commerce and industry, and trade associations etc.
A point of concern here is whether it is okay to wind up the ongoing projects and go for a new one. Also, what is the role of the governor in this arrangement. The PML-N Punjab spokesperson Malik Muhammad Ahmed Khan rejects the idea of making Punjab Governor the patron-in-chief of the authority. He says, "[The Governor] is a representative of the federal government and must not get into the territory of the provincial government."
The proposed bill, he says, was approved in haste and in the absence of the opposition members who had boycotted the assembly proceedings.
Hammad Naqi, DG, WWF Pakistan, expresses his reservations about the current situation, and calls for an immediate action to keep things in check. He shares the WWF findings which talk of the depletion of groundwater in Lahore as reaching critical levels at the rate of about 2.5-3 feet per year. "The water table in the city centre has receded below 130 feet," he adds. "It is likely to recede further below 230 feet by the year 2025, that is, if the groundwater is not conserved and its over-extraction continues."
The provincial head of an NGO says that the proposed authority can benefit from their experience, "The government must support the NGOs.
"The [Punjab] Governor is being criticised for trying to head the proposed authority and engage his organisation [Sarwar Foundation] in the project of installing filtration plants all over the province. There is no harm in it if he can deliver."
Ahmed Rafay Alam, a lawyer and environmentalist, tells TNS that no doubt the proposed authority shall ensure the provision of safe drinking water to the masses but to make things effective there is a need to have a policy on ground water extraction. "Most of the surface water is used for irrigation, whereas the supply of drinking water depends on underground water reservoirs," he says.
According to Alam, to date there is no law on how much water one can extract from the ground; also, the rates applied are quite low. Anybody can dig a hole in ground and pull water without any limit. The solution, he says, lies in formulating a body that can control groundwater extraction as well as ask the relevant departments/authorities to provide water to citizens as per the specifications required.
A development in this context is that the Water Act 2019 has been drafted and is awaiting approval of the Punjab cabinet. As the Minister For Irrigation, Mohsin Leghari, says the law will make policies about groundwater extraction and also monitor the use of water. "The need of the hour is to stop installing tube-wells without any planning, to introduce cropping zones and promote efficient usage of water."
Alam says that the farmers must not grow crops such as sugarcane that are water-intensive. Firstly, we exhaust our water resources by growing these crops, and later on we seek subsidy to export them. This way we export water also.
The minister adds that the groundwater has depleted so fast that the Water and Sanitation Agency (Wasa), Lahore, has had to request the Punjab Irrigation Department to supply 100 cusecs canal water from BRB. "Wasa will treat this water, and make it worth drinking. Putting a reasonable price tag on the use of water for drinking and agricultural and industrial purposes is not an easy task, but we shall have to take this step to stop its wastage and non-judicious use," he adds.
Dr Fauzia Waqar, a health sector specialist, demands immediate measures to provide safe drinking water to the common people who are susceptible to serious health risks because they are forced to drink unsafe water. She says that according to the figures provided by the Health Ministry and UNICEF, more than 50,000 children below the age of 10 die every year from waterborne diseases like cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis, and typhoid. Arsenic ingestion, she says, increases the risk of lungs and kidney cancer therefore its concentration in water must be kept to acceptable levels.
Similarly, Dr Waqar says, fluorosis caused by the ingestion of excess fluoride, most common in drinking water, affects teeth and bones. Long-term ingestion of large amounts can lead to severe skeletal problems including deformed limbs. Besides, fluoride in drinking water lowers intelligence levels of consumers, she says.